Abandoned Rose Island Amusement Park: Indiana’s Ghost of Good Times
For fifteen years, Rose Island Amusement Park welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors every season—until a natural disaster drowned it in a watery grave.
Few of the Midwest’s abandoned locales are as interesting and as accessible as Rose Island, located in southern Indiana’s Charlestown State Park. Whether you enjoy examining the skeletons of history or witnessing nature’s ability to reclaim everything, a trip here is well worth a tank of gas.
To prevent unauthorized access to the remnants of the former park, Charlestown State Park decided not to restrict the curious but establish the Rose Island Trail. From a public park perspective, it’s a move that borders on genius (my hat’s off to whomever came up with that idea).
Today, you can stroll through and examine the park’s artifacts on a wide, well-marked trail, and even glean its history on an informational kiosk. That might bore some urban explorers, but history is still history, even when conveniently packaged. Instead of relying on that kiosk, here’s a preview of the Rose Island Abandoned Amusement Park, from inception to involuntary demolition.
Rose Island was popular long before it was actually “Rose Island.” A century earlier, the area already earned regional fame for its fascinating geology: a long rock formation created by Fourteen Mile Creek emptying into the Ohio River, nicknamed the “Devil’s Backbone.” A popular Indiana legend mentions Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer from the 1100s, who built a fortress on this formation as a defense against Indiana’s native population. A fascinating story that sadly has no supporting evidence.
This picturesque land overlooking the Ohio River soon became a popular recreational location for family and church events, and originally sported the name Fern Grove or Fern Island, for its abundance of…ferns. It remained popular but undeveloped for decades. Increased ferry traffic on the Ohio and a Midwest population yearning for more exciting recreational venues soon attracted the attention of entrepreneur David Rose.
David Rose well knew the growing popularity of amusement parks across the United States and especially in Indiana. Indianapolis itself had three massive amusement parks operating within the city limits. The people of southern Indiana and Louisville wanted the same thing. The Fern Grove site had two major advantages over those in Indy: no competition and a river.
Rose purchased the strip of land then invested a quarter million dollars into developing Rose Island Amusement Park (modestly named after himself), which would be almost $4 million today. The 120-acre park featured a lodge and dozens of satellite cabins, a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, a swimming pool, a small zoo, a dance hall, and a restaurant. There were also plenty of attractions and activities on Fourteen Mile Creek and the Ohio River.
This combination of recreation and relaxation made it a popular spot with the young and old alike, and especially with families. Even entering the park was a kind of ceremony (an idea that Walt Disney himself would emulate decades later). Visitors could come on a narrow, swinging footbridge OR, for only fifty cents, take a luxurious ferry ride to the park entrance, a landscaped path flanked by the Rose Island welcome sign on stone pillars greeted guests. Those stone pillars remain today.