Decades before today’s water-themed amusement parks, Zapp’s Park was the place to be on the 4th of July. Fireworks lit up the north Fresno sky. The Fresno Portuguese community used the holiday to put on their annual feed. Kids would stand in line for a block for free refreshments.
The park was a summertime oasis for Fresnans and was called the best amusement park between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Everyone wants to take advantage of the cool evenings at this popular park, and after the heat of the day, a trip to the amusement place is most profitable,” the Fresno Republican reported in July 1908.
“There on the cool waters of the lagoon, gliding along in a comfortable boat, one forgets that it was just a hundred and then ‘some’ in the shade just a few hours ago.”
The lagoon — and the park itself — were monuments to chance and John Zapp’s vivid imagination.
It all started around 1904, when John Zapp began mining sand for builders and brickmakers along Dry Creek canal on his father-in-law’s ranch on the north side of Fresno.
The sand pits he excavated filled with canal water, forming shallow lakes. Before long, families with children were attracted to the cool waters, seeking relief from the scorching Valley heat.
Zapp, himself an orphan, saw an opportunity to do something for Fresno’s children, he later told the Fresno Republican.
He dug a long circular channel along Dry Creek, creating an island connected to the “mainland” by arching bridges. Before long, Zapp and his wife, Leota Burnside Zapp, had transformed acres of alfalfa fields, with Balm of Gilead trees along the banks of the waterways.
The 17-acres complex was bounded by today’s Blackstone on the east, Olive Street to the north, Glenn Avenue on the west and, then, Patterson on the south.
Attractions included a large swimming pool with diving platforms, a Ferris wheel, a gentle roller coaster called the “Scenic Railway,” a dance pavilion, picnic areas, a skating rink, shooting gallery, merry-go-round, bowling alley, billiards parlor, pony rides, fishing ponds and a baseball field. A tree-lined boating lagoon became a magnet for sweethearts, especially on moonlit evenings.
The zoo was one of the biggest draws. One of the best in the state, it was home to lions, monkeys, elk, a camel, a bear, alligators, kangaroos, peacocks and an aviary. Leota Zapp, an accomplished equestrienne and local celebrity, drew crowds to performances with her trained horses.
There were no entrance fees, but small charges were collected for some attractions. Alcohol was prohibited.
The Zapps’ dreams began to fade around 1916. There were rumors of financial and domestic problems, and John fell ill after reportedly being bitten by one of the park’s monkeys. Duties of running the park fell to Leota. John asked the city to take over the park, but no action was taken, and it closed in early 1917. After contracting influenza, he died of pneumonia Dec. 4, 1918, at age 53. Leota Zapp died at age 50, six months later in May of 1919 of stomach cancer.
The park’s attractions were taken down, animals sold, and the pool and lagoons filled in. The Zapps were childless, so Leota’s three brothers inherited the property. In 1920, Zapp’s Park was subdivided. So in demand were the lots that prospective buyers formed a “squatters camp.” At $600 to $850 an acre, the lots sold out in a few hours.
The land now is occupied by homes, commercial buildings, and Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. The only remnant of the park is the thing that gave it birth: Dry Creek canal, which still courses through the neighborhood.
For a video on Zapp’s Park on fresnobee.com’s PictureThis click here.