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Riverside Gardens & Lake Dreamland: A History Dr. Jordan Lynch, UofL Superfund Research Center Community Engagement Core

Like many landfills across the country, the story of the Lee’s Lane Landfill can be understood as an outcome of Louisville, Kentucky’s history of residential and industrial development. In the summers of the early 1900s, the banks of the Ohio River were the city’s top tourist destination. Just southwest of the city boundaries of Louisville, KY, city residents used the land along the river as a place to escape pollution and enjoy cooler temperatures while taking advantage of several unique amenities. The area featured a handful of amusement parks—White City (1907-1912) and Fontaine Ferry Park (1905-1969) on the Kentucky side and Rose Island (1923-1937) just across the river in Indiana (9). The parks were segregated for whites only until 1964 when Fontaine Ferry Park was integrated only to be closed and sold in 1969 (9).

Fontaine Ferry Park (top left), Rose Island (top right), and White City (bottom) amusement parks offered riverside entertainment for white, affluent citizens of Louisville. Photos from University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

In 1926, the residential resort community of Riverside Gardens was developed. The Greater City Realty Corp. sold residential lots and homes (1) and built a beachfront clubhouse along the river on the estate once known as Hayfield and owned by David Meriwether, a Kentucky statesman and frontiersman (31). Advertisements in the Louisville Courier-Journal described Riverside Gardens as “Louisville’s newest and best river development (1).” Employees of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, whose headquarters were located nearby, wrote in the company magazine about purchasing lots in Riverside Gardens (13, 14), and residents of the community were given priority for membership at the country club.

For the next decade, the resort area continued to be segregated and was a prime location for parties and events for Louisville’s white social circles and clubs (12, 26), as well as local businesses (11, 20, 21) and University of Louisville fraternities (2, 3, 27). The resort clubhouse (see photo, left) was home to the Riverside Gardens baseball team (19, 24) and special events such as horseshoe tournaments (25) and an annual swim meet and regatta (18, 19) in addition to the everyday offerings of swimming, fishing, and boating. Free rides to the resort were available on the weekends, and music and entertainment, including dances on Saturday nights, were held to attract customers (1).

Dance at Riverside Gardens Clubhouse ca. 1926. Photo from University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

Additional recreational development occurred in the 1930s. In 1931, Ed Hartlage, who owned 65 acres of farmland along the Ohio River, dammed the small Bramer’s Run creek that crossed his property to form a lake (30, 32). Called Lake Dreamland, the lake and the surrounding area became yet another summer resort location, with cabins and planned activities to attract affluent white vacationers from Louisville throughout the 1930s and 1940s (32). Like Riverside Gardens, Lake Dreamland had its own baseball team (4) and played host to Louisville social organizations’ and club events, everything from holiday dances and wedding receptions to stag parties and card nights (5, 6, 10, 16, 28).

Canoeing and bathing at Lake Dreamland. Photo from University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

The Great Flood of 1937 swamped Riverside Gardens, Lake Dreamland, and nearby communities located within the Ohio River’s floodplain. However, this did not completely end vacations to these resort areas. Riverside Gardens hosted a dance and a buffet on its reopening night in May 1937 (33), and wealthy Louisvillians soon returned to their activities at Lake Dreamland (7, 15).

More change occurred in the area when the U.S. entered WWII. With the rising fear of disrupted supply lines, the federal government brought manufacturing into the area to produce synthetic rubber (22). These factories quickly overtook the many farms along the river. The area just north of Riverside Gardens and Lake Dreamland, once named Beantown, became Rubbertown (8). The factory-related influx of workers created a need for housing, and Hartlage began to transition Lake Dreamland’s cabins to year-round housing in order to lease to Rubbertown employees (30).

Many problems plagued these homes. A number of the cottages were in poor repair due to flood damage, and as they had been built to serve as summertime cottages, the rentals were not insulated for winter weather (30, 32). Furthermore, because Lake Dreamland was private property, Jefferson County was not required to provide basic public works to each cottage on the property. Therefore, most of the cottages did not have utilities such as water or sewage services, and roads into the community were not maintained by Hartlage or the county (30, 32). Furthermore, because those living in Hartlage’s cottages were renters, they could not get assistance from the county to update the utilities themselves (32). Around this same time, the nearby Riverside Gardens clubhouse closed due to waning popularity; the land was converted into a sand and gravel quarry before being transitioned to a landfill in 1948 (23).

Lee's Lane Landfill ca. 1967. Photo by Al Allen, THE COURIER-JOURNAL Jul 12, 1967.
Club El Rancho. Photo from University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

The influx of industry as well as damage from flooding and the lack of public works caused both Riverside Gardens and Lake Dreamland to lose their appeal as vacation destinations. Hartlage made a final attempt to maintain his resort’s status by converting an old dairy barn into Club El Rancho, a tavern and dance club that claimed to be the first spot to bring rock ‘n roll to Louisville. However, a fire destroyed the club in 1967, ending Hartlage’s enterprise (30, 32). Over time, various leaks and spills of gases and chemicals from the manufacturing plants caused further issues; leaks would kill crops making the remaining farmland in the area unsuitable for agriculture, and a chlorine leak in 1961 forced the temporary evacuation of Lake Dreamland (8). In 1975, flash fires were reported in Riverside Gardens homes, and these fires were linked back to gases released from the nearby landfill operation at Lee’s Lane (23).

Club El Rancho Advertisement. Photo from University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

Residents’ attempts to address contamination and disinvestment in these neighborhoods over the years were often hindered by lack of funding, increasing crime, and on-going disrepair of homes and structures (8, 30). Lake Dreamland’s lake is now filled with trash and unknown chemicals (8). Landfill operations in the Lee’s Lane Landfill ended in late 1975, and although site access is currently prohibited because of the potential for toxic exposures, residents still use the land for recreational activities (23). Riverside Gardens and Lake Dreamland residents continue to report a variety of smells and ashes coming from nearby factories when the wind blows their way, and there is on-going concern that exposure to these unknown chemicals could have a negative impact on their health (8, 17, 29).

Riverside Gardens and Lake Dreamland were once popular summer vacation spots for many well-to-do white Louisvillians, but the presence of Rubbertown and inattention from the city led to the decline of these neighborhoods. Current and former residents remember the extensive history of the area and want a say in plans for further clean-up of the Lee’s Lane Landfill and any future re-development of the area.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Advertisement for Riverside Gardens (1926). The Courier-Journal.
  2. Dance. (1934, 10-15-1934). The Cardinal.
  3. Dances. (1935, 01-04-1935). The Cardinal.
  4. Dreamland Scores. (1936, 09-30-1936). The Courier-Journal.
  5. Entertainments. (1933, 04-30-1933). The Courier-Journal.
  6. Entertainments. (1934, 01-14-1934). The Courier-Journal.
  7. Entertainments. (1938, 02-20-1938). The Courier-Journal.
  8. Hartlage, E. J. (2006) U-0113 Interview with Earl J. Hartlage, 2006/Interviewer: D. Cline. Southern Oral History Program Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
  9. Ketterman, C. C. (2019). Lost Amusement Parks of Kentukiana. Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
  10. Lecher-Nicholas. (1936, 06-14-1936). The Courier-Journal.
  11. Liberty Club Outing. (1927, 08-17-1927). The Courier-Journal.
  12. Louisville Society. (1926, 08-29-1926). The Courier-Journal.
  13. Markolf, W. S. (1926, 07-1926). Office of Auditor of Freight Accounts. Louisville & Nashville Employes’ Magazine.
  14. Markolf, W. S. (1927, 05-1927). Office of Auditor of Freight Accounts. Louisville & Nashville Employes’ Magazine.
  15. Optimists Give Benefit Picnic. (1938, 06-08-1938). The Courier-Journal.
  16. The Personal Side. (1932, 06-02-1932). The Courier-Journal.
  17. Peterson, E. (2013). Riverside Gardens: A Former Resort Community Beseiged by Pollution. Retrieved from https://wfpl.org/riverside-gardens-former-resort-community-besieged-pollution/
  18. Riverside Swim and Regatta Carded. (1927, 06-21927). The Courier-Journal.
  19. Riverside Swimming Meet Set for Today. (1927, 07-03-1927). The Courier-Journal.
  20. Royal Photo Co. (1941a). Lou. Linen Supply Co. Photo of company picnic at Riverside Gardens. In University of Louisville Photographic Archives.
  21. Royal Photo Co. (1941b). Schoppenhorst Laundry & Dry Cleaning Co. Photos of company picnic at Riverside Gardens. In University of Louisville Photographic Archives.
  22. Rubbertown Community Advisory Council. Rubbertown’s Early Years. Retrieved from http://rubbertowncac.org/history.htm
  23. Seadler, D., Zimmerman-Ward, J., & Webster, K. (2018). Sixth Five Year-Review Report for Lee's Lane Landfill Superfund Site Jefferson County, Kentucky. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  24. Seeks Games. (1928, 05-31-1928). The Courier-Journal.
  25. Shoe Tourney Sunday. (1927, 06-24-1927). The Courier-Journal.
  26. Social Activities in Louisville. (1928, 01-15-1928). The Courier-Journal.
  27. Spring Formals. (1936, 06/05/1936). The Cardinal.
  28. Stag Party Billed. (1935, 06-12-1935). The Courier-Journal.
  29. Stevens, A. (2016). Banded by Fear: Filmmaker Sheds Light on Toxic Neighborhood in ‘Rubbertown’. Retrieved from https://wfpl.org/banded-fear-filmmaker-sheds-light-toxic-neighborhood-rubbertown/
  30. The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Co. (1989). Lake Dreamland. In A Place in Time: The Story of Louisville's Neighborhoods (pp. 160). Louisville, KY: Courier-Journal and Louisville Times Co.
  31. Voskuhl, J. (1987). Land filled with history. The Courier-Journal.
  32. Weiter, T. (2018). Lake Dreamland: Saving the Dream. Retrieved from https://www.whas11.com/article/news/local/lake-dreamland-saving-the-dream/417-615752028
  33. Where to Go. (1937, 05-08-1937). The Courier-Journal.