A view of Dixieland Park from the St. Johns River in 1907. (State Archives of Florida
Dixieland Park opened during a period of creativity following the fire, said Howard Kelley, who has long been involved in the amusement and theme park industry.
“It was part of the post fire renaissance, the Phoenix period when Jacksonville was rising out of the ashes,” said Kelley. “Jacksonville came out of the fire with entrepreneurial ideas. Dixieland Park was one of them. It had all of the elements of great parks.”
Kelley is a retired president of the Sally Corporation, a Jacksonville company which designs and manufactures attractions for theme parks and museums. Kelley said a novelty of Dixieland Park was illumination. Electricity to augment amusement parks became technically viable around 1907.
“The ferry dock at the foot of Main Street has been thronged with people every evening watching the magnificent display of electric lights across the water,” the Times-Union wrote on March 9, 1907. “Nothing ever so beautiful has been seen in Jacksonville.”
The park’s novelty started to wear off, and Dixieland Park gradually faded away. For all practical purposes Dixieland Park was gone when the United States entered World War I in 1917. A hail storm caused major damage to the park shortly after it opened. There were fires in the park which hurt its attractions and contributed to attendance declines. Movie production companies were unpopular to some segments of the Jacksonville community and left for political and economic reasons. Theatre activity in Dixieland Park virtually ended in 1909 due to competition from theatres across the river.
Ostrich racing at Dixieland Park around 1917. (State Archives of Florida
The advent of World War I saw that Dixieland Park area property was more valuable for other uses. Development in south Jacksonville quickened due to the expansion of shipyards and the need for housing for workers.
Kelley believes the expansion and improvements to passenger train service into south Florida during the early 1900s hindered the potential tourist market for Dixieland Park and hurt any plans for recovery. The development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s is a reason Kelley says Jacksonville never had another amusement park or attracted a theme park. The major parks in central Florida are close to major roadways, and Jacksonville is too near the Orlando area to compete with their attractions, Kelley says. Kelley notes that Marineland in southern St. Johns County has struggled partially because it isn’t immediately accessible to I-95.
Treaty Oak at Dixieland Park. (State Archives of Florida
Now, all that’s left of the venue which called itself “The Coney Island of the South” is the Treaty Oak on the Southbank. The majestic tree was once part of Dixieland Park.
Article by Mike Goldman