Tuesday’s front page of the Paducah Sun spotlighted some of the plans for the new health-themed park to be constructed in the Fountain Avenue Neighborhood. The design includes a 4000-foot play area (with a rock wall), a spray pad, walking trail, open playing field, outdoor performance area, fitness equipment, and a community garden.
What many don’t know was that there was once another park on North 13th Street, one of Paducah’s first public parks, in fact. Local history buffs may have heard of some of our other bygone parks: Wallace Park, Barkley Park, and Hooks Field. But few may have heard of Ramona Park.
For us in the Local and Family History Department, Ramona Park remains a bit of mystery. Some of the details are vague, particularly why it was called Ramona Park.
But we do know that Ramona Park was established in the late 1800’s at the end of the People’s Street Railway Company’s line on North 13th close to what is now HC Mathis Drive (see the accompanying map of the area). This section of town was locally known as Rowlandtown, named after Reuben Rowland who constructed many of the properties in the neighborhood and helped build the streetcar line.
In those days, streetcar companies often established trolley parks, or suburban resorts, at the end of their lines. The parks were a clever strategy to get people to ride streetcars more often, particularly on weekends, and these parks featured theaters, amusement houses, dance pavilions, and sports fields, as well as traveling entertainers and fireworks displays.
A description of Ramona Park from an 1897 edition of the Street Railway Journal reads: “At this park the company has recently completed a theatre which will be called the Casino. Here will be given theatrical entertainments of a varied character, and during the summer, dramas and operas will be presented…The stage is about 35 ft. x 25 ft. The rest of the park is attractively laid out with a large number of lawns with trees and flowers. At night the park is illuminated by electric lights of all colors in glass lanterns, hung from trees.”
Ramona Park also featured Paducah’s first baseball field built for league play, a predecessor to the Kitty League field at Wallace Park. Home to Paducah’s Central League team, the Little Colonels, the field at Ramona Park was completed in April of 1897 and featured a 2500-seat grandstand.
Just three months after the completion of the ballfield, however, tragedy struck Ramona Park in the form of a massive fire, a “Disastrous Conflagration” as the newspaper headline stated. The blaze occurred on July 22, 1897 during a performance of a play called “The Streets of New York.”
***Ironically, the play had been promoted in the paper promising a “Grand Fire and Snow Scene.”
As the centerpiece of the fire scene in the final act, a large frame had been soaked with gasoline to render the effect more “lurid and realistic.” The flames from the frame rose too high and caught the tar paper roof of the theater on fire. Though no one died, the fire injured about a hundred folks, mostly with burns from dripping tar.
Though the dates aren’t specifically known, it appears as if the Casino Theater had been in operation for less than a year before becoming ash. Without a theater, the popularity of Ramona Park was soon eclipsed by another trolley park established by a competing streetcar company…Wallace Park in Paducah’s West End. Wallace Park featured all the amenities that Ramona Park once had, plus a lake and a zoo.
By 1899, Ramona Park had also dropped its name. In the subsequent years, the grounds went under the names Rowlandtown Park, Eureka Park, and Forest Park. But while the theater was long gone, the lawns and ballfield continued to be an important gathering place for Paducah’s citizenry by playing host to many Eighth of August celebrations and several sporting events, including Paducah’s first organized African American baseball games.
So, there you have it….a brief history of one of our town’s nearly forgotten parks. Though the site of the new health park isn’t super close to the site of the old Ramona Park, it does feel like Paducah has come full circle by once again building a park on North 13th Street.
If anyone out there has more information about Ramona Park…particularly why it was called Ramona Park…please let us know.
And for more about disastrous conflagrations, visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. Make sure to also “like” our Facebook page!