Chicago Fire, Freedomland USA, Bronx, New York, New York, 1961

Chicago Fire attraction at Freedomland theme park

Due to Popular Demand — A Final Tour Date Has Been Added – MAY 7, 2006!

This week the theme of theme parks continues. This is America’s lost theme park!

The city is on fire. Chicago is burning! A warm-weathered crowd of onlookers have paid to see it. Employees costumed as firemen rush to put the flames. The big blaze happens every twenty minutes. Then the gift shop has a “fire sale”.

The legendary Chicago Fire of 1871 was one of the star attractions at Freedomland USA. The short-lived early American history theme park was located just thirty minutes from the heart of New York City in the Bronx. It opened in 1960 and closed in 1964.

The park was laid out in the shape of the United States and was four times the cost and size of Disneyland, its obvious inspiration and model for success. Several attractions bore a sticking resemblance to those found 3000 miles away at the Magic Kingdom. What a coincidence!

Freedomland USA was created by one of Walt Disney’s top execs that oversaw the construction and opening of Disneyland, after, according to the legend, they had a major falling out.

From the beginning Freedomland USA was plagued with problems. And there was too much doomsday in the mix. In Old San Francisco-”land” there was an earthquake ride and, ironically, a twister ride in New Orleans-”land”

After the 1964 New York World’s Fair opened Freedomland USA closed and was soon demolished to make way for enormous high rise apartment buildings.

Here’s to FREEDOMLAND USA and you!

View more great vintage slides of Americana!

26 Responses to “Chicago Fire, Freedomland USA, Bronx, New York, New York, 1961”

  1. Mike Virgintino says:

    To comment on the last post by Billy, I was part of the movement against that Disney park in Virginia. The reason for the outcry was they were going to build it on land that played a role in the Civil War battle of Manassas, or Bull Run. Later, a developer got control of the property and actually started digging to put in a pipe line before a court order stopped it. President Regan signed the paper for the Feds to purchase the land and make it part of the adjacent National Park Service battle land.

    As for Freedomland, we now have a Facebook page. Please join us and post your memories as we want to build the site with pictures, videos and memories: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Freedomland-USA-The-Worlds-Largest-Entertainment-Center/246939775358072

  2. Billy says:

    One last Fact for everyone , Why in 1990 did the Disney Company want to Build Disney America in Virginia which if you look at the plans for that theme park it would have been a carbon copy or twin of Freedomland , the only reason the park was canceled in 1994 was because the community was against the park, again it shows everyone that if Disney was going to Build a park like Freedomland then they thought highly of Freedomland, One fact about the Disney Company they will not invest funds into something that there is a risk of a loss ,thats why Disney is a Great Company and again it shows the facts of Freedomland Pressure to build CO-OP City forced Freedomland to Close.

  3. Billy says:

    Sadly what Mike writes about Freedomland is the truth,the main reason Freedomland closed was because of pressure to build Co-op city. The first fout seasons Freedomland made money the last season 1964 lost money mainly because of the Worlds Fair which I will say lost money from day one and was the last Worlds Fair in New York.Freedomland had over Forty major companies involved in its operation so the funds were always there to keep the park open, True 1965&1966 Freedomland was to expand its operation and in 1964 a rollercoaster was bought at the cost of a million dollars from Italy,that shows everyone the owners wanted to keep the park opened,Today Freedomland would never be allowed to close our Elected Officals would make sure of it , Freedomland would be a Major Employer and all the companies needed to support the park plus the Tourist Dollars would rival Disney World in fact Freedomland would have been a better park in a better Location . I have been to Freedomland & Disney World& Disney land Freedomland was the Best.

  4. susan says:

    just to correct the website that mike mentioned above no longer works..here is the link to rob’s new site..it was taken down last year

    http://freedomlandusa.webng.com/

  5. NatetheGrate says:

    Wow! I remember Freedomland even though I was only a very young boy when it opened. Mostly, I remember the looonnnng walk from the car and the seemingly longer walk back after we left!

  6. Mike Virgintino says:

    Would love to see the tape. If you can upload to YouTube, let us know so we and many others can enjoy.

    Mike

  7. Dennis Gallagher says:

    I know I’m late but wanted to add my 2 cents. I grew up across the river in West orange,NJ. My Dad took me to Freedomland USA the first year it was open, I think i was about ten. We weren’t able to go to the Jersey Shore that year for vacation because my Mom had just had my brother so this was the “instead of”
    I had a great time. the thing I remember most was the Fire. i think I saw it burn 3 times.
    My Dad made some home movies of Freedomland and my brother put it on tape. Not sure I can find it but will look if anyone is interested. leave me a mesage here if you are.
    My beast to all who were able to share in a great time past

  8. Mike Virgintino says:

    Doing more research on Freedomland, I again came across this site and wanted to provide a bit more information.

    I visited the area a couple of months ago. The park was located on the area of what is now Co-Op City where the shopping center now stands. A small area remains undeveloped, at the angle where the Hutchison River Parkway and New England Thruway intersect. A sign there says the remaining land is available for an office building.

    I walked this ground and found a lot of construction debris among the high weeds. Hopefully looking for something from Freedomland poking through the dirt, but no luck.

    Been told that the Teamsters Union has owned this land for many years and this was part of the original plan to build the housing project and shopping center. It was politics, real estate and money.

    Many misconceptions are relayed as fact about the park, how it operated, how rides operated and the plans to build the housing project. If anyone has any questions, please post them here. I will check frequently. While I am not the ultra expert, there is a person much more knowledgeable than me who I can ask and then reply.

  9. Richard Parker says:

    I was a visitor who manned the fire pump at the Freedomland Chicago fire exhibit. I remember I was just old enough,ten. The handles were metal, but I believe they were sandwhiched between two pieces of wood, so one could get a better grip. When the handles were up they were over my head, at neutral, eye level. I remember the fireman did not direct the water into the windows with the fake fire in them. He purposely aimed above, below or to the sides. The fake fire would slowly die down after they yelled at you to pump harder. If you stayed to watch it twice, you could see the same thing happened each time.
    Until I someone reminded me, here, I did not remember the Civil War battlefield ride. “Surreal” is right. They put you in a covered wagon and drove you through a battle and I think a town. Mostly, I can remember you went through water, at stream or river recreation, and the wagons really swayed side to side, in mud, just like in the movies. I believe this area bordered another area that was a meadow which was unfinished. It looked like there was more to come.
    I believe there was also a Ford Model T ride. They had cars that actually functioned. There were concrete guard rails, and the roads were lowered into the ground, so if someone went out of control you would only hit the side about 2 1/2 feet away on either side.
    We have a picture of my brother and myself, leaning up against a cannon. I believe we purchased a black cowboy hat, a toy derringer, a bullwhip (bad mistake because this was in the days when you could hit or spank kids for discipline, and my father doubled it up and used it on me a couple of times), some fox pelts, and I think a sheepskin, that I used on my bed.
    We also got some posters, made on a real period printing press, by a guy dressed the part, with those sleeve bands and a visor. One poster was a Civil war recruitment poster that said “Sprague” on top. Sprague, Connecticut? I have always wondered what that means? The other one was cool. It was a western “wanted” poster with mine and my brothers name on it as the desperados. We could add something “mean” before our names so they sounded cool. I can’t remember what we added.
    I have often wondered what items or equipment were props and what may have been real. Remember, Freedomland opened less than 100 years before the end of the Civil War. Were the cannons or wagons or printing press real? I think the Model T Fords were fake but at that time, they would have been only around 30 years old. I collect old nautical and war items, and at that time, you could purchase a midievil suit of armor through A&S department store for $300. Try to find that now, $50,000 plus. If the fire pump was real, it should be in some museum, now, but back then old stuff was sometimes thrown away. Does anyone know where it is or if it was real?
    Anyway, I always thought Freedomland would be there, forever, like Disneyland. That’s probably why we only went once. Though we lived in Brooklyn, we also had a house and boat on Long Island and after I became 12, boats and fishing took my attention away from amusement parks. The only other one I went to was Coney Island, best old roller coaster, but Freedomland….kids these days really missed out!

  10. Scott Mercer says:

    Freedomland was demolished just prior to my birth. My grandparents lived in Co-Op City, and nearly every time we drove over to visit them, my Dad would mention Freedomland. This was in the early 1970′s.

    These stories did me no good, since I couldn’t visit the place, and I got kind of ticked off that they had knocked it down. I couldn’t see what it looked like either, and my Dad had scant few details of what the rides were. Thank Jobs for the internet, I’ve seen plenty of pictures of it now.

    Reading this now I’m shocked that Freedomland was built and only operated for five short years. But then, the back story that Mike Virgintino provides tells us why. Whether this story is true or some kind of conspiracy theory, it’s still sad.

    Charles, in tribute to your generally sunny outlook, this one time I am going to choose to avoid being cynical, and just think that the park did not succeed financially, rather than the idea that it was never meant to last more than 5 years anyway, and was just a scam for a greedy land developer to get his nose under the tent and build Co-Op City 15 years earlier than he would have otherwise.

  11. Rich says:

    I remember Freedomland quite fondly. The day we were there it was amazingly hot but it was way cool. The Chicago Fire itself was scary, as when the pumper got going at full speed somebody was injured as the pump lever struck them in the head or shoulder. This was and is a common concern in the past and present use of pumpers like this. In any case I still think of Freedomland and smile………..Rich

  12. Mike Virgintino says:

    I grow up within walking distance of Freedomland and miss it very much. I will talk about it with whomever has an interest and I collect memorabilia. Here are some things to note:

    One of the two Mississippi Riverboats, actually a floating barge that ran on a track, is docked behind some buildings in downtown Portchester in Westchester County. The smokestacks, bridge and stairs clearly recognizeable. This is the American. The Canadian no longer exists.

    The Iron Ore bucket house, I believe, was the last building to remain, demolished in the mid to late 1970s. It was used as storage during the apartment building construction and then was removed as the shopping mall expanded. I regret never taking a piece of siding from that building when I had the chance!

    Some of the figures from the Civil War ride ended up scattered around the town of Gettysburg. But they have since been removed to an unknown destination.

    I was speaking with a gentleman who visited the park often and narrates a couple of videos about the park available through the magazine Back in the Bronx, and he is an expert on the park, who said that the crazy faucet in the Casa Loca house (the crooked house) was designed by TV science celeb The Amazing Randy.

    During the Chicago fire, a life size figure of a woman was seen at one of the bottom windows trying to get out. I never was able to man the pump, always being pushed away because I was too young and small.

    A year ago, a meeting at a local Bronx library drew over 100 people to a talk by a historian. Among the people was an older gentleman who was on the maintenance crew and whose father drove the steamtrain among other things. He said he has a lot of Freedomland memorabilia, including the uniform worn by Digger O’Toole, the undertaker of Fort Calvary.

    I saw blueprints of the park. Plans called for a hotel and a movie or animation studio. The real deal, though, was that a major NYC real estate developer wanted to put up those 30+ story buildings from the start. However, testing the swamping land would require a waiting period of 20 years. By putting up buildings that were 3-4 stories high, your typical amusement park size buildings, and that lasted five years, he would get a variance. And, surprise, five years later the park closed and constuction began.

    I could go on and on and never get back to the rest of my life, but here is a website you should visit to see the park — http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/robfriedman/

  13. tom burke says:

    freedomland was held up, it is said that it was the only robbery committed in new york city
    where the robbers cscaped by boat

  14. Jim Kruger says:

    We lived in Queens when this place opened, they opened it before it was totally finished. My sister & I had the thrill of sneaking around the Civil War exhibit on our own. Now its “Co-op City”

  15. Jody says:

    My grandmother lived in Co-op City, the Mitchell-Lama high-rise development that came in a few years after Freedomland was demolished. (From what I can gather, the Freedomland site itself is now the Bay Plaza shopping center, while Co-op City was built on the reclaimed marshland around it.) It’s an eerily remote part of New York City — since it’s so close to Westchester, it looks and feels a bit rural, even with all the high-rises. And Pelham Bay Park is the largest public park in NYC (bigger than Central Park). And since the Bronx is the only part of NYC on the US mainland (except for a small sliver of far-northern Manhattan that was never reclassified as “the Bronx”), it was an ideal location to celebrate Our Nation’s History.

    Here’s a little more on Freedomland:
    http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/robfriedman/

  16. Becky says:

    My dad took me to Freedomland USA several times when I was a kid. I always loved American History, so it was my absolute favorite place in the world. My favorite attractions were the Chicago Fire, the SF Earthquake, Old NY, and the Civil War wagon ride. I remember those “bombs” going off, “Elsie” the cow, the boat rides. I can see it all as if it were yesterday! Today’s theme parks have NOTHING on Freedomland! My kids will never know what they’ve missed, although I’ve told them about it a gazillion times! Thanks for you guys who have these websites so we can relive a small, well-loved piece of our childhoods in the “good old days!”

  17. Tony Valentine says:

    My 3 cousins and several of their friends worked at Freedomland selling balloons.

    The balloons were unique.. They had a mouse head balloon inside a translucent outer balloon.

  18. ROBERT F. COSENTINO says:

    Growing up in the bronx on 219 street.I think we went to freedomland every other weekend.I always got picked to help with the firemen.Iknew the park like the back of my hand.We would go on my balcony on friday nights to watch the fireworks from the park.Those were the best summers !!!!!

  19. Charlie Robles says:

    I grew up on LI and my parents took us to Freedomland often. I remember the Chicago Fire and watching the bigger kids help pump the old fire truck to get water to the fire. I also remember Elsie the cow. Somewhere I think I still have a picture of Donald O’Conner preforming on stage.

  20. Diane E. says:

    I grew up in Westchester County, NY, and it was a great day when my firefighter father took us to Freedomland. I especially remember the Chicago fire and asking my dad if he would have been able to put it out faster than the Chicago Fire Dept. did.

  21. Laura Ann says:

    Slides like this just remind me how much Vegas is geared towards children of the 60′s. I wouldn’t be surprised if they built a Chicago casino that had a REAL Chicago fire and maybe even a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. People would STILL pay to see it.

  22. Laura says:

    This slide brought back memories of another short lived theme park, but in So Cal– Japanese Village and Deer Park. It was in Buena Park near Knott’s Berry Farm. The pearl divers were endlessly facinating, that and the fear of the deer eating my clothes while I tried to feed them. Scary stuff for a 6 year old!

  23. Miss Sharon says:

    Fireman Charles!

    First of all, I’m in awe of the jaunty hats that punctuate this slide! Wow! A red beret? Isn’t he fashionable?

    The backs of all these heads drove me right over to my _Better Homes & Gardens Photography for Your Family_ (1964) to see just how well our intrepid photographer did with capturing this vacation shot. Let’s turn to Chapter 6:

    “Knowledgeable photographers do something else when they take travel pictures. They place a lot of emphasis on people since people can be as interesting as the setting. [I pause here to redirect our attention to that beret, that peppy straw hat, and that, uh, well white hard hat with grommets, maybe? No matter, excellent inclusion of people.] But avoid the pitfall that snares many tourists, to the later discomfort of those who have to look at their pictures. Don’t put yourself and your family in all your pictures. [Again, our peppy photog is following all the rules! If the family is here, they are smack in the middle of being captured enjoying the hot fire action. We have a professional in our midst, I believe!] In short, while there is no need to cut yourself out of all the pictures, be sure to give a few other people a break. Welcome a chance to include an interesting local resident in a shot. Most will pose willingly. [Hmmm. Well, there might be some locals in the crowd. What about Mr. Look at Me, I'm French In The Hat of My People? He might be a colorful local!]“.

    Now manners are my speciality, but I know my way around a guidebook, period. And in my estimation — ding ding ding! — we have ourselves a winner slide — full of action, a tree, and colorful locals. Better Homes & Gardens would be mighty proud of this skilled snapper!

    xoxo!
    Miss Sharon

  24. Kristen says:

    Can you imagine being the kid that worked as fireman, having to put out a rigged fire every hour? Sure, exciting in the beginning, but after the first 100 times, you’re over it! Loved seeing these photos at the slideshow last week. Another job well done!

  25. Erik Wilson says:

    Wow. Being a born-and-raised Californian, I’d never even heard of Freedomland USA until now. What a piece of theater that fire must have been! That’s even stranger than the train robbery that coincidentally happened every time the train ran at Knott’s Berry Farm. It also brings to mind the settlers’ cabin on the back side of Tom Sawyer’s Island that was always under attack by Indians and burning in the early years of Disneyland. Now, bowing to political correctness, the fire no longer threatens to consume that log cabin, but those of us who are of a certain age still remember.

  26. Larry Moody says:

    I was about seven years old and living in Newark, NJ when Freedomland opened. We visited the park several times and as a kid I remember how great we thought it was. I especially recall riding through a civil war battlefield in horse drawn carriages. Kind of a strange and surreal experience as I look back on it now. The Chicago fire, which occured every hour or so was also a highlight. I think that they even had Mrs. O’Leary and her cow there somewhere. To us it was basically like Disneyland only a lttle less polished.

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