Closed 24 years ago, a Silicon Valley amusement park now exists only in cyberspace.
By Carlos Castillo | Online Only | Aug. 18, 2002
Californian Elliott Fong still remembers the day, as a four-year-old, that he entered his favorite amusement park, Frontier Village, and raced his brother across the bridge to the miniature train station.
Now, 25 years later, the San Jose, Calif., amusement park is history, a victim of spiraling land prices, encroaching neighborhoods, and the conversion of Santa Clara Valley into Silicon Valley. The only remnants of Fong's boyhood scene are a dip in the landscape where water once flowed under the bridge and two palm trees that once towered over the train station.
For the last few years, Fong and a group of three other locals have worked to preserve the memory of Frontier Village through a "Remembering Frontier Village" Web site, located at www.frontiervillage.net. In July 2002, the group hosted a picnic in the city's Edenvale Garden Park, the spot where Frontier Village once stood, and 250 people gathered at what has become an annual event.
A few days after the picnic, Fong, 29, a mechanical engineer, and Web master Mat Lindstedt, 36, a small-business owner, reconvened at the former site of Frontier Village. "When I come here on a Saturday morning by myself, I can hear the stunt shows; I can hear the kids laughing, the western music," Lindstedt said.
The park looks parched, like an old garden that's been left to fend for itself. No plaques or signs identify the place as the site of an amusement park that celebrated the Old West. Still, Frontier Village enthusiasts have pieced together clues—from photographs, maps, and memory—to see the park as it once was. Fong and Lindstedt pointed out two giant eucalyptus trees in the distance that identified the park's entrance, where a fort once stood. "That was the first sensory overload you'd have, the smell of eucalyptus," Fong said.
As Fong and Lindstedt traced the former train route, they pointed out where various rides, such as the Merry-Go-Round, the Tarantula, and the Apache Whirlwind roller coaster once operated. Nearby, they reminisced, Indian Jim's Canoe ride had no underwater tracks, making for a more authentic excursion. They paused at a small mound of rocks, the last remnant of the Rainbow Falls Fishing attraction, a lake stocked with trout. If you managed to hook a fish, Fong recalled, park attendants would clean and store it in a freezer until the trip home.
Frontier Village's history has been passed down from those who once worked at the park, like Allen Weitzel, who serves as a historian for the "Remembering Frontier Village" site. Weitzel draws from historical documents donated to him by the park's founder, Joe Zukin, now in his 80s, who lives in California's Central Valley.
Zukin, who made a living running service stations and car washes, conceived of Frontier Village after he attended the opening of Disneyland in 1955. Three years later, Zukin raised capital by hiring a team of salesmen to peddle Frontier Village stock. (Lindstedt recently sold some of the original stock certificates online. At $20 each, Lindstedt raised $500, which he used to maintain the "Remembering Frontier Village" site.)
Zukin raised about $500,000, Lindstedt estimates, and construction started soon after, under the supervision of Laurie Hollings, a set designer for several Hollywood studios, including Walt Disney Co. "They wouldn't put a sign up without his approval," says Lindstedt. Frontier Village opened for business in 1961.
The park was sold in 1973 to Rio Grande Industries, which owned Arrow Development, a manufacturer of amusement park rides. "It was Rio Grande's plan to make Frontier Village the showcase for Arrow's rides," Fong said.
When Frontier Village first opened, only orchards flowered in and around San Jose, but a decade later, homes had popped up around the 10-acre amusement park. Rio Grande tried to expand the park by 60 acres, but residents banded together to oppose noise, traffic, and crime. In 1976, a competing amusement park, Marriott's Great America, opened 20 miles away in 1976. Finally, after the increasing value of the land made amusement-park revenues seem paltry, Rio Grande decided to pull the plug, and the park closed on Sept. 28, 1980.
The company sold the land to a Los Angeles developer, which built condominiums on the 60 acres intended for the park's expansion. More homes were built on what was Frontier Village's five-acre parking lot and main entrance gate. As the "Remembering Frontier Village" site laments, "The new housing development was insultingly named 'Frontier Village.'"
Although many of the park's fixtures were auctioned off that year, other elements of the park, such as the fort and train station, were left standing for another decade. "A lot of the structures were still here, rotting away," Lindstedt says. Around 1990, Edenvale Garden Park came into existence, and they were dismantled.
Four years ago, Fong wondered whatever happened to the amusement park he had cherished as a youth. While researching at the library, he came across an article that detailed the final days of Frontier Village in 1980. Realizing that the 20th anniversary of the park's closing was approaching, Fong advertised the milestone in a newsletter for rollercoaster enthusiasts and invited other fans of Frontier Village to meet at the park's former site. Eight people showed up, including Kim Pedersen.
Pedersen and his wife had meticulously documented Frontier Village before its closing, snapping pictures until the park's last day. From his photographs and other memorabilia, Pedersen eventually created the "Remembering Frontier Village" site. Lindstedt, who now runs the site, says it receives an average of 100,000 visitors a month.
As Fong and Lindstedt continued their tour of the former park, they spotted the Hayes Mansion Conference Center nearby. Frontier Village was built on land that was originally part of the Hayes family estate, which included the mansion, built in 1905.
In the days when Frontier Village was frothing with activity, the Hayes Mansion was empty and in disrepair. Fong recalled riding the train with his brother and seeing the decrepit mansion, replete with crows and ravens. "This was the real haunted mansion for us." Yet Hayes Mansion has been renovated, become a national monument, and now hosts conventions and weddings. In fact, Lindstedt got married there after his bride-to-be refused his request to stage the ceremony in the barren expanse of what used to be Frontier Village.
Even though it's not much to look at anymore, both Lindstedt and Fong make regular pilgrimages to the place. "The ghosts are still here," Fong said. "The developers tried to get rid of them, but they're still here."
Carlos Castillo is a writer and filmmaker based in Aptos, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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