Most visitors and even many residents who have lived their entire lives in Wichita, Kansas, are unaware that there once was an island in the middle of the Arkansas River. It was home to an all-but-forgotten amusement park that was considered Wichita’s Coney Island and was one of the city’s earliest tourist attractions.
“It is hard for people today to visualize an island there,” said filmmaker Sara Joy Harmon, who in 2021 is working on turning her short film “For Your Amusement: The Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island” into a full-length documentary. “If you stop and realize that the Arkansas River was about four or five times wider than what it is today, that helps you visualize the island that was once there, though most people don’t realize the island was big enough to have an amusement park, a baseball stadium, pavilions for performing artists, a bowling alley and much more.”
Facing north over the Arkansas River with Douglas Ave. in the foreground. The River Vista apartments (pictured on the west bank) are approximately where the southern edge of the island was located.
In the late 1800s, a sandbar started to form as the water level of the Arkansas River dropped. The “island” became known as Ackerman Island, named after businessman Joseph Ackerman who owned the land until 1905.
The Great Thriller roller coaster on Ackerman Island in Wichita - Photo: Wichita Public Library
In 1906, Wonderland Park opened on the island – just north of the Douglas Street bridge, about where Exploration Place stands today. It featured the longest roller coaster in the country, “The Great Thriller,” and also had a baseball field, pool, theater, dance pavilion, coliseum that sat 2,500 people, carousel, billiard hall, Irish café, carnival, penny arcade, fun factory and more.
More than 200,000 visitors came during opening year to pay the quarter admission fee and enjoy the attractions. Harmon said as many as 215,000 visitors were recorded in a single year, a large number considering Wichita’s population in 1910 was about 50,000.
The bandstand brought in various shows and performances, including acrobats, opera singers, animal acts and more. Wonderland Park attracted big-name performers of the day, Harmon said, such as the Marx Brothers and John Philip Sousa and the Island Park Stadium hosted baseball, football and rodeo among other competitions. The National Balloon Race was held at Island Park baseball field in 1915, shining a national spotlight on Ackerman Island.
Baseball field on Ackerman Island, facing east - Photo: WSU Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives
Wonderland Park closed in 1918 after a number of factors led to its demise: the hard times of World War I, “blue laws” preventing shows and theater sales on Sundays and automobiles becoming more accessible to the masses.
The baseball field survived for a while after the closing of the amusement park. By the 1930s, flooding had become a problem along the river, causing the Works Progress Administration to recommend getting rid of the sandbar to widen the river. As workers fixed the issue, Ackerman Island became part of the west bank of the river.
The trailer for Wichita filmmaker Sara Joy Harmon’s short film “For Your Amusement: The Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island.” She hopes to expand the documentary to a full-length film. Find out more about her project on Facebook.
There are few remnants of Ackerman Island left today. If you attend Wichita’s annual Riverfest, you might notice an area on the east bank of the Arkansas River within A. Price Woodard Park that is called “Ackerman’s Backyard” during the annual celebration. It’s a nod to the history of the river area and offers a fun family friendly spot with good shade opportunities.
Riverfront Stadium and the city skyline, facing northeast
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium replaced Island Park and stood on the west bank south of Douglas from 1934 to 2018. It was demolished and Riverfront Stadium replaced it, opening in April 2021. The ballpark is home to the Double-A Wichita Wind Surge baseball team. Along with affiliated baseball returning to Wichita, the area around the new stadium is expected to flourish in the coming years with Riverfront Village, a 7-acre mixed-use development that could include residential, office space, a flagship hotel, retail and restaurants and public plazas.
The River Vista Complex, Wichita Library, and Exploration Place on the west bank of the Arkansas River (approximate location of Ackerman Island), facing northwest over the Drury Broadview - Photo: Drone-tography
The west bank is already home to an exciting array of recent development, including a great way to access the Arkansas River as well as our cutting-edge main branch of the Wichita Public Library. The Advanced Learning Library is more than just a public library, it offers a children’s pavilion, a space just for teenagers, a coffee shop and access to technology, from a studio dedicated to audiovisual recording and editing to early literacy stations to research-only computers in the Burns Historical Research Pavilion. The library also has technology classes, storytimes and special events.
Wichita State University Rowing Team on the Arkansas River, facing northeast - Photo: Boats & Bikes
At River Vista apartment complex you’ll find trails that tie in to the river corridor and a 240-foot public boat dock. Concessionaire Boats & Bikes operates from the dock area May through October, offering men and women’s locker rooms and rental of kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, pedal boats and rowing shells as well as bicycles, trikkes and scooters. Wichita State University’s Shocker Rowing team runs the rental business.
Just to the west of the river is one of Wichita’s oldest areas. The Historic Delano District is full of thriving shops, eateries, bars, places to get coffee and other businesses, including the new extended-stay Home2Suites by Hilton Wichita Downtown Delano.
Learn more about Wichita’s history here and make plans to visit Old Cowtown Museum, an outdoor, living history museum that will take you back to 1865 Wichita. If you’d like to see Harmon’s documentary, keep an eye on the film’s Facebook page to find a public screening.