Film documents memories of Rose Island,
legendary amusement park

Former site is near Clarksville
on the Ohio River

Debra Maylum
Staff Writer

CLARKSVILLE, Ind. (January 2005) – Like many who grew up in the Louisville area, professional videographer and amateur historian Tom Chapman often heard from others about the wonderful place that used to be Rose Island. Many area residents used the resort style amusement park as a day, week or even summer getaway through the 1920s and 30s until the 1937 flood destroyed it with up to 10 feet of water.

Rose Island

Photo provided

This 1930s photo shows the steamboat entrance to Rose Island, located on the Ohio River in southern Indiana.

“I always wondered what it was like, and my curiosity got the best of me, so I went out and got a camera and found people who were there,” Chapman said. “Rose Island on a Summer Day” was the result of his curiosity.
The film documents memories of people who recall visiting Rose Island as a child more than 70 years ago. Nearly 200 people attended a Dec. 14 showing of the film at the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center in Clarksville.
Although complete with historical photos, maps and images of the earlier Fern Grove Picnic Area and Rose Island, “it is not a definitive history of the park, but rather a collection of remembrances of people,” Chapman said. “I don’t know about anybody else, but I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday. Imagine asking people what they did 70, 80, 90 years ago, and for details. Well, that’s what I did.”
Purchased in 1886 by the Louisville and Jerffersonville Ferry Co., the 118 acres of land was primarily used by church groups for picnics and outing's. Guests could stay overnight at the Fern Cliff Hotel.
Louisville businessman David B.G. Rose in 1923 purchased the park, originally named Fern Grove. He renamed the already popular picnic location Rose Island, and as it grew into a major attraction during the 1920s, more than 135,000 visitors made their way to Rose Island.
The popular tourist attraction, which officials say was actually more of a peninsula than an island, was located along the Indiana banks of the Ohio River just 14 miles north of Louisville.

Bob Gallman, Tom Chapman

Photo by Debra Maylum

Bob Gallman (left)
from Clark's Grant Historical Society,
and Tom Chapman (right).

The primary mode of travel to the park was by steamboat. Visitors traveled on the Idlewild (now the Belle of Louisville) to Rose Island on the 1 1/2 hour trip from Louisville on a daily basis. One could catch a boat ride from Madison, Ind., to Rose Island for 50 cents round trip. The “America,” the “Liberty” and the “Sunshine” all provided shuttle services from the Falls Cities and the Kentucky side of the river. A ticket on the America cost 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.
Those traveling by car could enter the park on the Indiana side of the river. Visitors traveled along a steep and winding road from Hwy. 62 across the west side of Fourteen Mile Creek. They parked outside of the resort area and “had to walk across the rocking bridge into the park,” recalled many individuals in Chapman’s film, referring to the 400-foot swinging bridge that led across Fourteen Mile Creek.
Those he interviewed speak of the fun they had as children at the resort that was known as a playground for adults and children alike. The resort included a luxurious hotel and cabins, a dining room, dance hall, swimming pool, orchestra, merry-go-round, baseball fields, zoo, miniature golf course, shooting gallery, bird shows and rowboat rentals. There were picnic tables for 1,600 people, hiking trails that included a set of wooden steps up to “lovers lane” on the Devil’s Backbone and a pony track complete with 15 Shetland ponies.
Many families lived in the cabins on Rose Island through the entire summer and many made several trips to the resort each year. Rose Island may have disappeared decades ago, but it lives on in the hearts and memories of those who visited the park repeatedly or even just once.
“I think that most of the guests either had memories or their parents who had memories had told them about it, and they were curious,” said Bett Etenohan, Interpretive Naturalist at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.
In the first two weeks of the film’s showing at the park, more than 300 copies of the video were sold.
The park will live on in more ways than one it seems, as the Clark’s Grant Historical Society was recently instrumental in securing a $330,000 grant through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources for archeological work at Rose Island.
“We are pleased we have been able to preserve this piece of history, especially to get such acreage,” said Bob Gallman, President of the Clark’s Grant Historical Society. The grant was approved a year ago, however, there is no time set yet for when work will begin.
“Hopefully, sooner than later,” said Gallman. “Things turn pretty slowly on these kinds of issues though.”
With the grant, officials plan to hire an archeologist and exhibit designer to survey the land and develop an interpretive walking trail and display for Rose Island. They will make use of the few remains and artifacts left behind from the flood and incorporate new signage.
Another grant is being sought to save a local, historic iron tress bridge and have it re-assembled over Fourteen Mile Creek, most likely in a location near where the “rocking bridge” originally sat. The historic bridge is not related in any way to Rose Island, however, the two historic sites will group together nicely.

• All proceeds from Chapman’s video, “Rose Island on a Summer Day,” support the Clark’s County Grant Historical Society in Charlestown, Ind. The video can be purchased for $12 (VHS) or $15 (DVD) online at: www.roseislandvideo.com.

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