David Rose’s purpose in creating Rose Island wasn’t entirely profit-oriented. He started the Standard Printing Company with a $75 and had built it into a million-dollar behemoth by the 1920s. Following the example of Rockefeller and Carnegie, he hoped to use his vast wealth for the public good (which also happens to be equally good public relations). Before Rose Island, David Rose had created a printing school, several public parks, and had even gifted 25 acres of electric lights to Louisville, a VERY big deal in the early 20th century.
He hoped Rose Island would offer the public a place for rest and amusement at very affordable prices. For several years it did just that. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked to his park every year, even in the winter, when the lodge, restaurant and an ice rink were available for visitors’ use. With Prohibition in effect for much of the park’s life, Rose Island advertised its bubbling cold water fountains and even had its own ice plant. Although taken for granted today, free and plentiful ice for drinks in the 1920s and 30s was a very big deal.
Unheard of even in modern business, Rose Island made a profit from the very first. The amusing escape the island offered, as well as its firm rules against “unbecoming conduct” made it an ideal place working class families, church groups, and even business retreats. Although the island offered a wealth of activities, vices like gambling and drinking were prohibited by David Rose himself. This was not as much a ethics judgment on his part as a desire to maintain a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. And it worked.
Even after the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929, when recreational areas all around the Midwest and United States closed their doors permanently, Rose Island stayed open. It took two years for the Great Depression to hurt the park; in 1931 Rose Island Amusement Park had its first and only operating loss. That year, David Rose covered the park costs and salaries out of his own pocket to keep it afloat and even invested more money into it, installing the park’s popular swimming pool, which still remains today.
Sadly, David Rose’s business acumen and wealth could not save Rose Island from the Ohio River Flood of 1937. In early January, 1937, record rainfall emptied into the Ohio River, causing its level to steadily rise. By mid-January, the river flowed into the streets of the many towns and cities along its banks. Almost 400 people perished and a million were left homeless by the disaster. For a country already suffering from the economic wounds of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, aid was slow to come to those in the Ohio River’s floodplain.
Given its proximity to the river, Rose Island Amusement Park didn’t stand a chance. The flood covered the entire park in almost 10-15 feet of water, completely submerging it for almost two weeks*. By the time the waters finally receded in early February, David Rose examined his mortally-wounded park and washed his hands of it, abandoning it forever. *Those touring the island’s trail today will notice blue rings looped high up several posts around the park, marking the height of the 1937 flood.
The land remained empty and unused until 1940, when the US Army purchased it to establish an ammunition plant in anticipation of World War II. They built the place near the park, but the land and decaying buildings of the park remained untouched, slowly dissolved by nature and time.
Orangebeanindiana.com will soon publish an article on the adjacent Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, also located in Charlestown State Park. Although access to this area is limited (wink, wink), industrious explorers can tour portions of what was once the world’s largest smokeless gunpowder plant. Combine an exploration of the plant with a stroll down Rose Island Trail, and you’ve got one heck of a historic weekend. More to come!
Want to Know More?
Travel back in time and check out this original, 32-page advertising brochure for Rose Island Amusement Park from the 1930s, made available by the Clark County Collections.
Download the trail map of Charlestown State Park HERE (pdf format). It includes other can’t-miss sites around the picturesque state park.
Consider visiting these other nearby public park areas and turn your day trip into a long weekend: Falls of the Ohio State Park, Clark State Forest, and Deam Lake State Recreation Area.