A bridge to memories
By now, you should know I’m a local history buff. Love everything about it. So many stories, so little time.
But I despise when we rush to judgment on some of our historical structures. A few get a way and end up meeting a wrecking ball.
In this case, though, it’s time.
I’m talking about the Island Park or Helena Street Bridge, depending on what side of town you’re from.
It holds a lot of memories for this Five Oaks neighborhood kid, but it’s time—time to replace—maybe even past due.
Can only imagine when this version was unveiled back in 1925 what the reaction was…
Some 91 years ago, the shiny new bridge (bet it had that “new bridge smell,” too), welcomed Daytonians to Island Park, what was then the recreation mecca of the city proper.
Island MetroPark was formally known as White City Amusement Park in the late 19th century. Sort of a smaller version of Kings Island with rides, games, a refreshment stand, boating, and canoeing. Heck, folks even waded in the river and lagoon during the summer months.
By 1907, the park had become rundown. The great flood of 1913 took care of the rest, even knocking down the bridge. City officials were in a bit of a pickle. With it being on the flood plain, they asked, “Should we rebuild?”
By July of that year, the Dayton Canoe Club, yep, they’ve been around that long, held its first regatta. After a few more successful events, the decision was made to rebuild.
On June 20, 1914, the park was formally renamed Island Park. Residents came back in droves, enjoying the past amenities, plus ice-skating, water carnivals, and evening band concerts.
Next is quite amusing: at the former amusement park, in the ’20s, Dayton leaders were keeping a watchful eye on what was called “The Den of Decadence” at the newly constructed dance pavilion. Per a newspaper report from the era, residents and officials heard stories of “slow, sensuous character of the music” and “suggestive movements” of the dancers.
The headline for the article read “Shimmy Music at Island Park; Conditions Bad.”
Sounds like the world was ending, huh?
By 1940, and thanks to President Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Progress Administration)—check your history books, kids—a band shell was erected. It was a huge hit. By one account, attendance totaled 80,000 concertgoers.
And how about this for you folks familiar with the history of early comedy teams? Bud Abbott and Lou Costello filled the park in 1942 during WWII. They appeared on behalf of the war effort, raising funds through war bonds and stamps. Some 20,000 people showed to watch the boys clown around.
Now, we fast forward to the late 1960s. Heck, how old am I? My friends would hop on our bicycles and head over the bridge to Island Park on a warm summer day.
Back then, the playground consisted of an old fire engine and life-size fighter jet airplane.
You could climb on board and pretend for hours. I’m sure now for safety reasons this would be a no-no in modern times. How did we ever survive?
Also, if you were old enough, you could rent a canoe for a leisurely afternoon, paddling up and down the river (while being extra cautious of the warning buoys from the low damn lurking nearby).
Many a birthday we’d celebrate there, under one of the shelters, with burgers and dogs fired up on the provided grill.
Most weekends some sort of entertainment would grace the band shell stage. You could enjoy the music from most areas of the park or sit on the very uncomfortable wooden bleachers. Anyone remember those?
On a recent visit to grab some pictures of the soon-to-be-demolished bridge, I came across Benny, a Vietnam War veteran who also has fond memories of “crossing the bridge” as a kid.
“Man, we would spend hours and hours here,” he said, pointing to one of the nearby bridge supports. “And right there, we’d fish and pull in the biggest catfish you’ve ever seen. Didn’t eat them—was afraid to, with who-knows-what was in the river at the time, but they’d put up a hell of a fight.”
But like life, the circle continues.
“Sad it will be replaced, but like me it’s showing its age. It’s time for our shiny new bridge for the next generation,” Benny says.
But think he’ll agree, we have wonderful memories.
Who would have thought a bridge would do that?