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Hidden Places: Indiana's Abandoned Amusement Park

Imagine the year is 1925. It's a hot summer day and one of the most popular places to go for entertainment in Southern Indiana is Rose Island.

You can go to Rose Island today, but you'll have to hike a bit through Charlestown State Park first. It isn't actually an island at all. It's a small peninsula on the Indiana side of the Ohio River just across from Kentucky.

It gets its name from David Rose, who bought the property in 1923 and turned the existing small park into an amusement park with a wooden roller coaster and merry-go-round.

Explore Rose Island: Interactive Map

Click through the interactive map to see what the park is like today compared to what it was like when it was open.

Visitors to Rose Island back in the 20s and 30s would have come in on foot on a bridge over a creek, or by steam boat on the Ohio River, passing through the main gate to the park.

Visitors sometimes came for a day, but you could also rent cabins for a night, a week or even for the whole summer.

"And that was really kind of what initially started this park, was that ‘Get out of the city, away from all that coal and soot, out into nature, breathe the fresh air and cleanse yourself,'" says Jeremy Beavin, Interpretive Naturalist at Charlestown State Park. He gives tours to groups that want to explore the site.

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 2.28.32 PMThe park had a lot of attractions, but no matter what you'd have to walk down the main pathway connecting both ends.

The path used to have archways with light bulbs strung up between them and roses growing up the columns. The state park has recreated a few of the columns, now standing where the originals stood.

"All the stone, the big limestone that you see along the edges, that is the original stones that lined this walkway," Beavin says. "So we are walking in the same footsteps of everyone who visited this park during its heyday."

Some of the ruins are even older than the amusement park, dating back to when the Fern Grove picnic area opened during the 1880s.

What's left of an old fountain stands in one portion of the park; it's just a pile of stones now. But it's tied to one of the great urban legends of the park: alligators in the fountain.

Park rangers always thought the alligators were just a myth, until they met a nephew of the amusement park's founder.

"And he remembered coming here as a child and they would actually have a couple small alligators that would swim around in this, almost like a moat around it," Beavin says.

Troubling Times: The Great Depression

The park was hit hard by the great depression of the 1930s, but one particular attraction kept the park running: a pool with cutting-edge cleaning technology.

A surface skimmer pulled oils and dirt from the surface of the water into pipes that would take it to a filtration system.

"So in a time when swimming pools were not common, this was a large, clean swimming pool," Beavin says. "So certainly it was quite an attraction."

Visitors could rent a bathing suit from the park and play on a large metal toy in middle of the pool. The park moved it to storage when they drained the pool and filled it with gravel last year, but they hope it will be restored eventually.

The pool was the first Olympic-sized pool in Indiana, which goes to show just how innovative David Rose was.

Rose Island was basically self-sufficient. Staff lived on-site throughout the year, and Rose even had a farm across the river in Kentucky with chickens, cows and a garden.

"They had their own power plant, their own water source, their own farm food source, so it really was a self-sustaining, self-sufficient operation," Beavin says.

The 1937 Flood

A devastating flood hit the area in January, 1937.

"Certainly the most devastating flood that we've seen in our history here," Beavin says. "Really wiped out this site, as well as many places throughout the river. You know, much of Louisville was underwater at the time."

"It is that very unique combination of historic man-made features surrounded and really being reclaimed by the natural world."

Although many records were lost in the flood, historians think Rose kept the park open during the great depression using a lot of his own money. When the flood hit, he couldn't afford to rebuild.

Rose walked away from the park, leaving everything behind.

The army bought the property in 1940 and built an ammunitions plant to support the World War II effort. They sealed off the area, but left the park as-is.

It was closed off to the public for decades. Some people snuck in over the years; park officials think someone stole the Rose Island sign and other materials left behind.

But for the most part, the surrounding forest was left to retake the land, growing around the ruins left behind.

"You're walking through lots of tall tulips and sycamores and other trees, and then around the corner you stumble on a swimming pool," Beavin says. "So it is that very unique combination of historic man-made features surrounded and really being really reclaimed by the natural world."

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