By: Elise O’Neil
The sense of nostalgia across DCHS’s social media platforms was intense following the release of our recent blog post about the ups and downs of Peony Park. Most of the comments we received involved personal memories of time spent at the pool, in the ballroom, or on the rides. In following with that theme of Omaha amusement parks gone by, we thought we’d revisit a similar site of recreation—Krug Park—although there are surely far fewer people alive today who remember it in all its glory.
Krug Park, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)
Let’s set the scene: Decades before the dawn of Peony Park, in the 1880s a man named Charles Tietz began building what he dubbed “Tietz Park” on a strip of land that is now Gallagher Park in Benson. Originally encompassing 20 acres extending from Bedford Avenue to Maple Street and from 52nd Street to 54th Street, the endeavor blossomed quickly. Tietz built a beer garden and dance hall, added rides like a Ferris wheel and carousel, and established what his grandson would later claim was the first bowling alley in Omaha.
Beer Parlor and Dance Hall, c. 1900s (DCHS Photograph Collection)
The land had been mortgaged to Omaha brewing magnate Alfred Krug, who upon Tietz’s death in 1903 repossessed the park and renamed it Krug Park—the name by which most would come to recognize it. From there, Krug expanded the business into a full-blown amusement park with thrilling rides, dazzling performances, and top-notch concessions.
Krug Park, c. 1900s (DCHS Photograph Collection)
For the first decade after Krug took over, the park was billed as Omaha’s “Polite Resort.” Postcards featured images of well-dressed guests patronizing a tidy, well-kept park with arched gates, wide pathways, and floral displays. But by the mid 1910s the amenities were rapidly expanding and so was the clientele.
The list of rides that appeared at Krug Park between the 1900s and the 1920s would have impressed at any amusement park worth its salt during that period. A Benson Times notice from 1926 listed a “Chair-o-Plane” ride, Skooter, Whip, Merry-Go-Round, and a troublingly-named tunnel-of-love-esque ride called the “Swanee River.” Other notably popular rides over this period were the Caterpillar and the roller coaster, that could be seen towering over the rest of the park, called the Big Dipper.
Children at Krug Park, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)
If a guest wished to indulge in an activity that wasn’t quite as stomach-turning as some of these early 20th century rides could be, there were plenty of other amusements of which to take advanta0eg. In one area was the House of 1001 Troubles, a fun house that promised to thrill any who walked through it. The dance hall was always bustling with modern music and theme nights. At various times over the years there were exotic animals on display like the 18 monkeys reportedly shipped in from India in the summer of 1923. And if one truly wished to be awed, there were stunts galore regularly performed throughout each summer. In the early years these involved trapeze artists, balloonists, and human cannonballs. Later on, in the 1910s and 1920s, the park became known for hosting “Dr. Carver’s High Diving Horse” show, in which the horse (or horses) in question would dive from a high tower into a tank of water while mounted by a “girl in red.” One of these “girl(s) in red,” a local secretary named Vivian Keller (nee Karls) claimed years later that she “never felt any fear at all” during her numerous dives atop her horse, though she eventually quit the act at the insistence of her mother.
Swings and Carousel with Diving Platform and Tank in the Background (DCHS Photograph Collection)
In addition to the cutting-edge rides and entertainments on display at Krug Park, management also invested in new technologies that would make their establishment stand out. For example, in 1924 a newly-patented system costing more than $10,000 was installed which would make “it possible to serve an endless stream of people with drinks of a uniform temperature of coldness and uniformly carbonated.” This was an enormous feat at a time when personal refrigerators were only just making their way into the mainstream and was surely a balm for guests wearing modest 1920s clothing on hot Nebraska days.
Another example of park management’s commitment to utilizing technology to entice visitors was the system used to purify the pool. The pool itself was immense, offering a sand beach and serviced by a sumptuous bath house. By the mid-1920s it was equipped with a water carousel, its impressiveness further enhanced by thousands of electric bulbs strung above it to accommodate its late closing time at 11 PM. The icing on top was the pool’s acclaimed cleanliness, achieved through the use of “special machinery” operated by an “expert chemist” that promised to destroy “every bacteria.”
Krug Park Swimming Pool and Bath House, n.d. (DCHS Photograph Collection)
For many years, Krug Park was the sole place Omahans, South Omahans, and Bensonites could go to experience high-flying rides the likes of which could only be found at places like Coney Island in New York. And though there is plenty of nostalgic mythology surrounding Krug Park, most of it has been overshadowed by an incident in July of 1930 that made Benson the site of perhaps the deadliest roller coaster accident in United States history.
The acclaimed Big Dipper coaster was the culprit. Affectionately dubbed the “rolly coaster” by dedicated riders, the apparatus had recently been deemed safe by a city inspector. On the other hand, one park worker predicted there would be a “terrible accident” on the coaster due to a perceived lack of regular maintenance. But whether one trusted in the safety of the rollercoaster or not, no one could have predicted the scope of the disaster that would take place that day.
View of the Big Dipper with Benson High School Visible in the Background (DCHS Photograph Collection)
July 24th 1930 was like any summer’s day at Krug Park—guests picnicked, rode the rides, and spent their hard-earned pennies on whimsey and fun. At approximately 7:40 PM, 23 people boarded four cars on the Big Dipper roller coaster and prepared themselves to be amused. But halfway up the 75-foot incline a brake shoe fell off the front car and settled on the track. This caused the car to tilt off the track and careen through the wooden guardrail, pulling the other three cars behind it.
Because the cars hadn’t been moving at a steady clip as they were scaling the incline, the 35-foot fall was not instantaneous. Passengers had time to realize what was happening as their cars began to fall. 16-year-old Mary Polityka remembered that she had the thought to jump when she saw the first car tilt off the track but “there was no way.” Her companion that day, 16-year-old Antis Uzdawinis, stated that “as the first car went over, people in the other three screamed and muttered short prayers while tugging desperately at their safety belts.” Some conjectured that perhaps the only reason Bill Butkus, 20, survived the ordeal was because he hadn’t fastened his seatbelt in the first place, resulting in him being thrown from the coaster instead of finding himself crushed beneath his car.
Aftermath of the Accident, 1930 (DCHS Photograph Collection)
Four people would ultimately die as a result of the crash—C.H. Stout, 34; Mrs. Gladys Lundgren, 29; Ruth Farrell, 15; and 22-year-old Tony Polityka, brother of the aforementioned Mary. Many others were gravely injured. Mary herself didn’t regain consciousness until 10 days after the accident and remained in the hospital for 5 weeks, having been scalped and having sustained a skull fracture and crushed chest.
Many of the injured successfully sued Krug Park for damages but their reward was measly. The park’s (at the time 3) owners and insurance company were only able to provide $35,000 to be divided amongst the plaintiffs, meaning that the injured received just a fraction of the sums initially awarded them by the court. 14-year-old Helen Czaji who had lost an eye in the crash received the largest payout, amounting to only $7,000. The $4,800 Mary Polityka had received was entirely lost in a bank failure during the Depression.
Everything sort of went downhill from there. The Great Depression wasn’t the easiest time to keep an amusement park afloat, and Krug Park seemed to be plagued for the entire 1930s by financial troubles and intermittent bouts of horrible luck. After the accident, the Big Dipper was torn down and an ordinance was put into effect by the City Council banning roller coasters within Omaha. The owners of Krug Park attempted to get this ban lifted so that they could rebuild what had been one of their most successful attractions but were denied in District Court in 1938.
The park came under new ownership in 1932 and in an ill-fated attempt to stir up interest a 4,000-seat stadium was built on the grounds which held boxing and wrestling matches. However, the City Council soon banned these spectacles in response to complaints from neighbors of the park objecting to the noise and the idea of their neighborhood housing a commercial sports center.
Also in 1932, a fire gutted the bath house adjacent to the swimming pool and insurance covered only 25% of the damages. And the following year, two armed men robbed manager Louis Slusky at gunpoint of an entire weekend’s profits. After obtaining the money, the robbers locked Slusky in the office vault where he presumably would have suffocated had his brother not arrived a few minutes later to take him home.
Burned-Out Bath House, c. 1940s (DCHS Photograph Collection)
As the Depression meandered on, the park continued to lose money, facing threats of both bankruptcy and foreclosure at various points. It finally closed for good after the 1939 season, although the dance hall continued to operate as a converted skating rink until July of 1944 when it burned down in a massive conflagration which was reportedly visible to most of the city due to its elevated location.
The park remained in a degenerative stasis over the next decade. While fights raged on in the community over whether the land would become a residential area or a city park, weeds were allowed to grow 6 to 8 feet high, the swimming pool filled up with dark water, and the old burned-out bath house reportedly gained the appearance of a war ruin. It was said that neighbors feared walking by the park at night and Police Commissioner Henry Knudsen declared the park “the worst mess in Omaha.”
Eventually the city purchased the land, and in 1954 the old structures were removed so that the area could be seeded. The park was rechristened Gallagher Park after Rachel K. Gallagher, an Omaha philanthropist who led the decade-long campaign to turn Krug Park into a city park. Today it boasts a playground, swimming pool, and 3 unlit ball fields. For over half a century it’s been a staple in Benson as a peaceful, green oasis in the midst of an otherwise increasingly urban landscape. It’s hard to picture now what it must have been like when a wooden roller coaster peaked out from behind Benson High School and people from so many walks of life converged on this spot every summer for various park-related thrills.
“Study on Krug Park.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 13 April 1959.
“Rachel K. Gallagher Park: Formerly Home to Beer Garden, Amusement Rides.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 July 1985.
Ivey, James. “Krug Park as it Was During its Ups and Downs.” Omaha World-Herald. 7 December 1977.
The People of Washington County. “Washington County History 1980.” Washington County Historical Association.
“Thrill At Krug Park: Chair-o-Plane Ride, Coney Island Hit, Now at Krug Park Joy Grounds.” Benson Times. 18 June 1926.
“Krug Park Installs $10,000 Drink Cooling System.” Benson Times. 18 July 1924.
McMorris, Robert. “Secretary Spent Summers Riding High-Diving Horses.” Omaha World-Herald. 6 September 1965.
Prohaska, Joe. “Krug Park Closing Ended Colorful Era.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 25 August 1957.
“’King Tut’ Night at Krug Park.” Benson Times. 24 August 1923.
“Krug Park Swimming Pool Opens.” Benson Times. 30 May 1924.
“Big Balloon At Krug Park: Monster Will Be Sent Up This Afternoon for Second Time in History.” Omaha Daily Bee. 9 September 1906.
“Eighteen Monkeys Help to Entertain Krug Park Visitors.” Benson Times. 1 June 1923.
“Krug Park Roller Coaster Kills 4.” DCHS Archives Center Vertical Files. 11 July 1974.
“Krug Park Opens Saturday, May 16th.” Benson Times. 8 May 1925.
“Krug Park Attracts Many People.” Benson Times. 17 June 1927.
“Krug Park Opens Saturday, May 15th.” Benson Times. 14 May 1926.
“Diving Girls and Horses at Krug Park.” Benson Times. 5 August 1923.
“Krug Disaster Not Forgotten.” Omaha World-Herald. 24 July 1994.
“Krug Park Gradually Lost Glitter After ’30 Roller Coaster Tragedy.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 August 1962.