long forgotten Palo Alto, CA, fun park
Traveling under the Embarcadero Road underpass toward Stanford
University in the fab fifties, as you made your way back up
and looked to the right, there was a lot of color, activity,
fun and happy children. A Standard Oil gas station would first
catch the eye, but further observation revealed that it was
part of a really cool amusement park. Surrounded by a red wooden
fence, Playtown occupied the east end of Palo Alto's Town &
Country Village shopping center. The above image is as close
as I can remember from a child of 3-5-years-old.
Playtown was the handy-work of Arrow Development, of Mountain
View, California. Arrow was formed in 1946 by Bill Hardiman,
Angus Anderson, Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon, who worked together
at Hendy Iron Works. Hardiman and Anderson later sold their
interest in the company. In its early days, Arrow made crop
duster and ride equipment for amusement parks. As the crop dusting
market began to decline, they bid for a contract from Walt Disney.
In 1953, Arrow was contracted to make 6 rides for the new Disneyland
"theme park". Uncle Walt apparently was quite a fixture
in Mountain View in those days, as he made frequent trips to
the Moffett Boulevard shop. Disney, Morgan and Bacon were often
be seen at local eateries for lunch. They later made: It's
A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Adventures
Through Inner Space, and The Haunted Mansion for
the Anaheim park as well as Florida.
The company’s innovative Arrowflite Freeway Auto
Ride, an electric car system for children, constrained
the vehicle to the roadway while giving a sense of steering
control. An early problem with Disneyland’s Autopea was
that the mini-cars often strayed off the road. Arrow’s
new system solved this, and by the late fifties, Arrowflites
were delivered to Ward’s Coney Island, New York; Woodland
Park, Seattle; Peppermint Parks, Houston; Disneyland, (Autopea)
Anaheim; Suker’s Kiddieland (Firestone Freeway), Los Angeles,
Elitch’s Gardens, Denver; Shanahan’s, Anchorage,
Alaska; Gold Coast Shows (ride operator for Valley Fair, San
Jose; Bay Fair, in San Leandro and Emporiums, in San Francisco)
and Palo Alto, according to a February 1957 “The Billboard”,
a weekly publication catering to amusement parks.
An authentic looking miniature Standard gas station stood at
the foot of the Playtown's Arrowflite ride, complete with gasoline
pumps labeling the Standard Oil brands. From what I recall,
the Standard sign and and pumps were around ½ scale and
station around a third. But what got your attention was how
detailed this miniature was. It’s not clear of what involvement
Standard Oil had with the attraction.
It took some time for design and development of Playtown, but
“drew record crowds during the pre-Christmas (1956) season”,
according to a January 5th, 1957 Billboard. It was a way to
test new ride systems and displays, “and make money”.
The 54 store merchants were very pleased with Playtown, as it
brought people to their shops while the kids hung out at the
“The park (included) a new tracked auto ride, electrically
controlled sports cars crossing a pool in one place and running
through a tunnel in another; boat ride in an oblong pool, a
Diesel-type miniature train around the perimeter of the park,
a Fontaine Fox-type of street car, a 32-foot Merry-Go-Round
with horses for adults and children, and five other rides.”
according to the article. It went on to say that there were
plans to restore a San Francisco cable car for the park, but
it’s not clear if they did. “A ‘birthday play-land’
(was) featured. This is a package deal that (included) ice cream
and cake with the rides.”
On August 21, 1960, a terrible tragedy occurred at Playtown.
According to the Palo Alto History Project:
“(It) involved the son of Frank Freidel. A Harvard professor
known for an extensive biography of Franklin Roosevelt, Frank
was a fellow at Stanford for the summer. As the new school
year approached, Professor Freidel was in the process of driving
cross-country back to Harvard with his oldest son, David.
On August 21st, his wife Madeleine and her three youngest
boys were scheduled to fly back to meet him at their Belmont,
Massachusetts home. Before the flight at 11 AM, Madeleine
took the boys to Playtown at Town & Country.
As she was standing in line to buy tickets for a miniature
train ride, Phillip, who was just three and a half, wandered
off and sat down on the tracks. Moments later, Playtown’s
miniature train came around a curve in the track, driven by
17 year old Harold Huthmacher --- grandson of Playtown's manager.
Harold had just turned around to see if his other small passengers
were sitting down, when he turned back to see that ten feet
in front of him, Phillip was sitting on the track. He slammed
on the brakes so hard the train derailed. He attempted to
jump from the train to reach the boy, but Phillip was struck
head-on. He suffered massive head and leg injuries and was
pronounced dead on arrival at the Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital.”
The park closed soon after. It’s sad that such a wonderful
and happy place had such a tragic ending.