ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI)– It sat along Oakland Avenue, on 14 acres of land that today is home to Forest Park Community College. But for 67 years, it was where the community came for fun, whether it was to ride a scary roller coaster called The Comet or a pokey train known as Little Toot. There were pools, and a dance hall. Picnic areas, and games of skill and luck.
But 50 years ago Friday, the Forest Park Highland`s luck ran out on July 19, 1963.
Disc jockey Johnny Rabitt, whose real name is Ron Elz was on the air when the station`s newscaster came racing to the microphone.
“Steven B. Stevens came in and said Johnny there is a great conflagration at the highlands,” Elz said.
Bill Winham was 17 in the summer of 1963. And when he heard the sirens, he hopped on his bike and peddled his way to Forest Park.
“By the time I got there it seemed to be totally engulfed and half gone,” Winham said.
“Even from that distance I could feel the heat and the flames just all consuming. I think a kid at that age, you see a fire and get all excited but this was really shocking because that was such a part of my growing up.”
Chesterfield police chief Ray Johnson was a rookie St. Louis firefighter in July 1963, and had been on the force only a few weeks when he and 260 other firefighters got the call.
“The fire department was drafting water out of the pools because they couldn`t get to all the hydrants,” Johnson said. “Firefighters were actually jumping in to the pools to escape the heat, it was that unbearable.”
It was so hot traffic had to be stopped on Highway 40 because the pavement was buckling. By the end of the day almost a mile of fire hose had been destroyed. Nine firefighters were treated for minor injuries.
While the fire destroyed 80 percent of the Highlands, some of the rides survived. Today, the Highland’s hand carved carousel is now in Faust Park, restored to its original splendor.
There is no historic marker at the site itself, just a building complex called the Highlands, with a wavy roof designed as a subtle homage to the terrifying roller coasters that gave so many, so many thrills.
“It was the way you grew up in St. Louis,” Elz said. “People were shocked, people were sad, people cried. It was a lifetime gone up in flames. My God it was horrible.”
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