Al Fresco Park: Then and Again

A local geocacher and history buff does some amateur sleuthing. 

by Lee Katz, Mid-Illini Geocachers
A historic postcard of Al Fresco Park
Al Fresco Park opened on May 30, 1905 and was a popular Midwest attraction for the first half of the 20th century. Peoria Historical Society Collection, Bradley University Library

Once upon a time, there was a marvelous amusement park just outside of Peoria, Illinois. It was called Al Fresco Park and from 1905 to 1944, it was the equivalent of the present-day Six Flags. It had a 65-foot-high Ferris wheel and a figure-8 roller coaster, along with various little attractions on the promenade, including a fortune teller and a stage for visiting performers. It even had a dedicated trolley line that ran from downtown Peoria to Peoria Heights and other areas around town. 

Back in 2017, I was talking with a coworker and amateur history buff who told me about “an amusement park that used to be on the Illinois riverbank,” but he was not sure where exactly it was located. Well, this started me thinking and doing a bit of research, mostly to satisfy his curiosity. The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became on the subject of historical places that no longer have a shred of identification in the surrounding area. 

Visiting Hidden History
I am a geocacher and cofounder of the Mid-Illini Geocachers (MIG) group, which is primarily based here in Peoria. I’ve lived here all my life and have been geocaching since 2010. I have created 91 geocaches in the Peoria area—including 35 in my “Hidden History Series.” Al Fresco Park is one of them.

Through the use of GIS software and other clues, I was able to uncover what I believed to be the former location of this amusement park of long ago. I considered myself a modern-day Sherlock Holmes at this point! After a while, I was even speculating on how this large amusement park managed to disappear off the landscape—massive flooding and erosion which may have caused pieces of it to fall into the Illinois River.

Later, after I reported the fate of Al Fresco Park to my coworker, I decided I had found a niche for my “Hidden History Series.” This geocache, “Al Fresco Park Remembered – Hidden History Series,” was published on March 12, 2018 and would become my opus in the series.

It is my opinion that Al Fresco Park may have been part of a famous day in Peoria history. In September 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt took his historic ride in the Glide automobile and went down Grandview Drive—what he called “the world’s most beautiful drive.” While this is not documented anywhere, I wonder if he quite possibly paid a visit to Al Fresco Park as well. It was the height of the “Gilded Age of amusement parks”—how could he not feel the need to visit such a spectacle while in the area?

Geocaching at Al Fresco
While geocaching, Lee Katz located what he believes to be part of the original Al Fresco Park. At left, pieces of the main promenade on the shoreline, and right, what appears to be part of the original front gate/wall.

Reimagining Al Fresco
But I digress. Let’s jump forward to September 18, 2019, when the Peoria Journal Star published an article entitled “Heights developer Kim Blickenstaff reimagines Al Fresco Park.” It explained that the developer had leased the property from the Village of Peoria Heights—not intending to recreate the original park, but to transform it into a natural preserve with recreational opportunities such as fishing, boating and scuba diving—a very interesting development!

Not long ago, because it was nice for a winter day here in central Illinois, I went to the site of Al Fresco Park to get some photos of the few remnants I knew were still there. After I got the picture I came for—a post and part of a wooden bench from back in the Al Fresco days—I looked around more intently. Because the leaves were off the trees and the river had receded, I was able to move farther into the brush. 

The next thing I knew, I was on a sandbar of sorts, looking over a small pool of the Illinois River. Lo and behold, I discovered what I consider the “holy grail” of the old Al Fresco Park! It was the main promenade, still visible along the shoreline. It lay in multiple pieces, but with a bit of imagination, you can see how it all fit together. The whole slab had apparently fallen and busted on impact. Looking at the landscape, you can see that the wall, still upright, shows how high the platform had been, approximately four to five feet above the ground.

In another area near the sandbar was what appeared to be a piece of the original front gate/wall from the amusement park. Al Fresco Park came to its demise in 1943—in part due to a terrible flood that pretty well decimated the landscape around the amusement park. I believe this piece of wall is further evidence of the power of floodwaters, and I wonder how much more of it lies strewn about beneath the waves of the Illinois River. Of course, some of it may have been removed when the area was turned into a boat harbor/trailer court in the late 1940s/early ‘50s.

While the new, “re-imagined” version of Al Fresco Park won’t have a rollercoaster or a Ferris wheel, I believe this revitalization is exactly what we need for an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern society—a medium for getting out of our houses and returning to nature, and the simpler things in life. PM

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