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Highlands Fire Cleared Path for STLCC-Forest Park Campus

July 19, 2013

Highlands site  
Fire destroyed the Forest Park Highlands 50 years ago today. The site now is the home of STLCC's Forest Park campus.

On a hot afternoon July 19, 1963, the Forest Park Highlands amusement park was destroyed by a blaze so huge that it took 260 firefighters and 46 trucks eight hours to battle the wind-fueled flames.

The local landmark’s rubble was leveled and cleared a few years later, and the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College opened for classes on the site, at 5600 Oakland Avenue, in 1967.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the massive fire, people are remembering this major piece of the city’s history, once referred to as “The Big Place on the Hill.”

Black smoke coming from the basement of a restaurant was first noticed by a friend of a snow cone stand employee.  David Mitchell was at the park with his family when he stopped by the stand to see his best friend Don Lewis Jr., 13, whose dad, Don Lewis Sr., had worked there since 1940, and his grandfather Harry had worked there since 1924.

The Lewis men went into action, and maintenance workers unsuccessfully fought the fire. A small explosion intensified the flames, and at 2:30 p.m., the city’s fire crews were called in to extinguish flames that at one point reached 150 feet.

The temperature that day reached 97 degrees, and firefighters used water from the outdoor 400,000-gallon pool to cool themselves and also for the pumps.

Comet ride  
The Comet rollercoaster was one of the Highlands' signature
rides.

Carnival rides ignited – the Scrambler, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the flying cages, the carousel, the merry-go-round and others. The Comet rollercoaster remained standing (it was cleared away in 1966). All that was left of the Rotunda entrance was its terrazzo floor.

The fire’s origin remains unknown, although the assistant fire chief at the time suspected it was electrical.
The inferno was so intense that police closed then-Highway 40 (now I-64). People gathered across the way at the St. Louis Zoo to watch. Campus Police Chief Richard Banahan recalled that as young boy, he rode his bike up to see what was going on and watched flames engulf the park’s attractions.

The park opened in 1896 on 14 acres. A dance hall, picnic pavilion, beer garden and the pool were big draws in addition to the Midway. After the 1904 World’s Fair, a Japanese temple gateway recreation that had been used as a band shell was moved over to be the gateway of the Midway, but that had been moved during World War II.

When the fire occurred, the park was owned by the St. Louis Arena Corporation, which also owned the adjacent entertainment venue, The Arena.

The Junior College District was approved in 1962, and campuses at Florissant Valley, Meramec and Forest Park were planned.

Nowadays, the restored carousel, with its hand-carved wooden horses, has a new home at Faust Park in Chesterfield. The dragon’s head from a Pagoda bandstand has been displayed at the Missouri History Museum.

Historic photos will be featured in the renovated Highlander Lounge at STLCC-Forest Park; work on the Student Center is expected to be completed later this year.

Images of the fire can be seen at the following link:

http://www.ksdk.com/news/photo-gallery.aspx?storyid=388773