Richard Warner, D.D.S. Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner)
Anyone who spent time in Council Bluffs in the 1950s or first half of the 1960s will certainly remember Playland Park; it would be impossible to miss a roller coaster three blocks long that passed over two city streets adjacent to the city’s busiest thoroughfare.
Playland began as the inspiration of two brothers from St. Joseph, Missouri; Abe and Louis Slusky. The Slusky brothers had experience in the amusement business, including for a time operating the concessions at Krug Park in Omaha and having their own amusement park— also called Playland Park— in Houston, Texas. Under the proposed plan Louis would remain in Houston to operate that park, with Abe in charge of the new park in Council Bluffs in partnership with Harry Cohen, owner of Iowa Clothes Shop.
The firm bought 14 acres north of the Iowa approach to the Ak-Sar-Ben bridge from the Omaha and Council Bluffs Railway and Bridge company and leased additional land, a portion of Dodge Park, from the Frontier Association. The park was owned by the city but under lease to the Frontier Association for one dollar a year; Playland planned to pay the group $8,000 for the sublease. Included in the lease was a grand stand and race track.
The park was to open Decoration Day, 1948, but not all approved. Concern was raised that footings on land so near the river wouldn’t be sound enough to support such a large roller coaster; some neighbors were concerned about noise. Objection was raised over the “Playland” name, noting the land deed stipulated the park carry the name of Susanna Dodge, wife of Nathan P. Dodge. After a brief delay, and addition of Susanna’s name to the neon sign, the park opened with much fanfare.
The park prospered and grew. Rides and attractions were modified over the years, "The Bullet” allegedly a favorite of park employees because they got to keep whatever change flew out of the riders’ pockets onto the ground during the ride.
In addition to the amusement rides the owners developed the Dodge Park race track. In 1949 it was converted from a dirt dog track to a paved midget auto track; in 1952 the track was adapted for modified stock cars.
Racing fans adopted the park as a favorite for its track, crediting owner Abe Slusky for constantly keeping up with innovations that kept the racing up-to-date and fresh; they remember the stands being packed most of the time.
A news report in 1963 quotes Abe Slusky as saying he was aware of the proposed new interstate bridge to replace the Ak-Sar-Ben but hoped that if it cut off any Playland land they could double up their amusements on the remaining property and continued business as usual; “we have no plans to relocate.”
Just a few months later it was confirmed it was more than “a little” land the bridge and access ramps to it would claim; the project would take two thirds of the land on which Playland operated, including the item most associated as synonymous with the park— the big roller coaster. Playland appealed the condemnation but lost. The famed roller coaster came down in 1964.
While the new bridge was a setback, it wasn’t the end; though the park went from 60 acres to 20 it reopened with 12 rides on the remaining land. A new but smaller roller coaster— the Wild Mouse (with painted nose and round ears on the front of each coaster car)— was added.
Loss of the prominent old roller coaster congestion from construction of the new bridge and ramps made many think the park had closed. Business fell off and the rack track was idled for two years. The track reopened in 1966 featuring races with modified coupes and recaptured many of its fans.
Abe Slusky died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in August of 1970. It was decided after that to concentrate just on the track, and all of the remaining rides were taken out and shipped to “Frontier City” in Oklahoma City, a park the Slusky brothers had purchased in 1969. Playland reopened in 1971 but just for race fans; for the first time there were no amusement rides. As one of the few asphalt tracks of its kind in the region Playland continued to attract racers and race fans until the track was closed in 1977. The site is enjoying renewed popularity today as Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park.
In addition to rides, Playland Park offered the traditional attractions of the day, including a ghost house and shooting gallery.
Two unidentified girls may possibly be questioning their decision to try the Tilt a Whirl in 1949.
The Wild Mouse roller coaster debuted in May, 1964 as a replacement for the wooden roller coaster that was removed to make way for the new downtown bridge.
Bumper cars were a popular attraction at Playland Park.
Sand bags saved Playland’s race track during the 1952 flood. The track was located approximately where the entrance to the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge is today.