Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: My parents told me about an old amusement park in East Memphis that had cable cars. One day, the ride somehow got stuck, and many of the riders were stranded overnight. True story?
— G.T., Memphis
Dear G.T.: That old park was called Lakeland, and I was halfway tempted to put your query off for exactly one year, because June 2011 would mark the 50th anniversary of its opening. However, my team of highly paid veterinarians say I have picked up a severe case of kennel cough. They offer little hope of a full recovery, though they've given me shots and dog biscuits and a warm blanket and told me to "hope for the best," so I'd better not wait any longer.
I'm sure your parents meant well, but most of the tales about Lakeland are always just a bit off. First of all, it wasn't located in East Memphis; it was several miles to the northeast, around the intersection of I-40 and Canada Road. It was definitely an unusual place, developed in the early 1960s by an enterprising fellow named Louis Garner, who visited Ruby Falls near Chattanooga and came back to Memphis convinced that he could build "The Disneyland of the Mid-South."
So Garner bought 1,200 acres along Canada Road, built a massive dam, dug artesian wells, and soon had the largest lake in Shelby County, which he named Garner Lake, in his modest way. I admire that. He then proceeded to piece together what he would describe as "The World's Largest Playground."
A mile-long skyride (above) scavenged from the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair carried visitors through the woods and high across the wide lake (more about that later). Down below, folks enjoyed a full-scale amusement park, trampoline pits, the largest swimming pool in Shelby County, and an outdoor dance pavilion. A paddlewheeler called the Roberta E. Lee ferried passengers around the lake.
A major attraction was the Huff-n-Puff Railroad, an old-timey steam locomotive that circled the lake. A racetrack called the Lakeland Speed Bowl opened on Canada Road, and an even larger facility, complete with dragstrip and road course, opened a few miles to the south, called the Shelby County International Raceway.
Still to come, Garner promised, would be a 300-foot-tall observation tower with a Coletta's restaurant perched at the top, a horse-racing track, gardens "as outstanding as the ones at Bellingrath," a 10,000-seat amphitheatre, hundreds of rental cottages, an animated jungle ride, glass-bottom boats, a lighted 18-hole golf course — why, even submarine rides.
Lakeland opened on June 2, 1961, but the place he built was a far cry from his original plans. Disneyland offered visitors gleaming monorails, soaring castles, and even a replica of the Matterhorn. Lakeland was decidedly more humble, with its slides and swings and dunking tanks and a rickety fishing pier.
"We had the ideas Disney had for Disneyland," Garner told reporters, "but we didn't have the resources to put it together."
The skyride was definitely a unique attraction, and a newspaper reporter who climbed aboard when Lakeland opened said, "The sensation is one of floating in complete silence, like movement in space." Riders a few years later had an entirely different experience. The four-passenger cars dangled from a half-inch cable riding through grooved pulleys mounted on a series of 90-foot pylons. On the afternoon of May 27, 1968, a mighty gust of wind caused the cable to jump its track, jamming it and stranding 55 passengers high over the lake. The 20-minute ride became a nine-hour ordeal.
They weren't there overnight, but it surely seemed that way to the unfortunate passengers — most of them children. The ride broke down at 4 p.m., and rescue crews struggled for hours to end what newspapers called "a chilling adventure." In addition to fire departments from Memphis, Raleigh, Bartlett, and Germantown, the effort involved Memphis Light, Gas and Water crews and even something called the Marine Rescue Squad. No one had anticipated such an event, and there was simply no way to position a rocking boat under some of the gondolas and extend a ladder almost 100 feet during a windstorm. Fire department ladder trucks initially couldn't get close enough because they got mired in the soft soil, but everybody was finally pulled from the cars.
After swaying in the wind for that long, many passengers were so dizzy they were unable to walk once they got down, and they were taken to hospitals for observation. Newspapers reported, "As the skyriders were rescued, the Red Cross was on hand to dispense food and warm blankets, while some of the children were walked around in a roped-off area until circulation was restored. They received arm and leg massages."
Garner and his crews used loudspeakers to keep everyone apprised of the rescue efforts: "They knew what we were doing all the time and remained calm. The parents showed more apprehension on the ground than the children in the gondolas."
As far as I know, everyone recovered, though I bet none of them ever ventured aboard that thing again.
Lakeland officials quickly announced they would install special rescue baskets, similar to those used at ski resorts, just in case such a freak accident happened again (it didn't). And Garner took pains to point out that more than five million passengers — that number seems impossibly high, if you ask me — had ridden the skyride since it opened six years before, "and this was the first mishap." Despite the inconvenience, he said, "There was never any danger of the gondolas falling, because each tower has a safety mechanism."
It's hard to imagine that much-smaller Libertyland could put anybody out of business, but when it opened in 1976, Lakeland couldn't compete. The new park was a lot closer for most Memphians. "We tried everything in the book — and a lot that's not in the book — to stay alive," Garner admitted to reporters.
The park finally closed in 1978, though the racetrack stayed busy for several more years. The skyride was dismantled and sold, but I can't remember who bought it. For years, one of the gondolas gathered dust in a barn off Canada Road, and the ruins of the dragstrip have survived in the woods south of I-40. The "Disneyland of the Mid-South" gradually evolved into the town of Lakeland, a nice town of some 8,000. I wonder how many of them drive past "Huff-n-Puff Road" and think about how it got such an unusual name?
Descent of the Blues
Dear Vance: Whatever happened to that weird music-related sculpture that was erected in the park next to the Morgan Keegan Tower? — C.D., Memphis
Dear C.D.: The Ascent of the Blues, as it was called, made a sudden and unexpected descent to the ground on May 30, 1990. The $250,000 sculpture was an odd-looking and, in my humble opinion, decidedly top-heavy assemblage of bronze castings of musical instruments — horns, guitars, keyboards, and more. It had been created by a French artist named Arman — yes, just Arman —and erected in the open space originally set aside for a second Morgan Keegan Tower.
When those plans fell through, the land was sold to make way for the Sleep Inn, and the 30-foot structure had to be moved. An engineering professor from Christian Brothers University had already warned that the heavy sculpture was dangerous. "It had no spine, no backbone, nothing to carry the load," Dr. Tom Morrison told reporters shortly after Ascent was unveiled in 1987.
Apparently he was right. Just three years later, crews from the National Ornamental Metal Museum began to carefully dismantle the piece, one instrument at a time, when it snapped in half, tumbling to the ground and slightly injuring one of the workers. They were lucky no one was killed. All the pieces were eventually scooped up and stored in a warehouse somewhere, but Metal Museum experts said it would cost almost $100,000 to repair it, so Ascent of the Blues just gathered dust.
I asked Carissa Hussong, museum director, if she knew where the piece was today.
"If I did, the piece would already have been repaired and installed somewhere in Memphis," she said. "I tried to find it when I was the director of the UrbanArt Commission. My guess is that the piece was scrapped by someone who had no idea what it was or why it was in storage. So perhaps your article will trigger someone's memory and it will finally come out of hiding."