With community support and the additional funding provided by the 1994 levy, on January 1, 1995, through agreements with the City of Dayton and Miami Conservancy District, the Park District (MetroParks) added Island Park, along with Van Cleve Park, Deeds Point, Wesleyan Nature Center, Sunrise Park, Wegerzyn Horticultural Center and the river corridor areas to its facilities to provide daily management, programming and security. MetroParks started the rehabilitation of the park to protect the character set forth by Patterson & the Olmsted’s.
When the district took over maintenance, Island Park began its restoration, including new shelters, new restrooms, playgrounds and increased monitoring and law enforcement. They removed the decaying rows of benches that for more than 50 years gave listeners a place to sit for performances at the band shell. They protected the outstanding specimen trees of floodplain forests such as sycamore, cottonwood, burr, oak, American elm and their surroundings as a habitat for the many migratory birds and animals such as Beavers and soft-shell turtles.
The park now offers amenities needed for today’s active and healthy lifestyles as well. A partnership with the Greater Dayton Rowing Association offers rowing opportunism in the southern portion of the park, carrying on a 100 year old tradition of regattas on the river. The Great Miami River Bikeway runs through the park, connecting to a network of more than 300 miles of paved bike trails in the region. A portion of the National North Country Trail and Statewide Buckeye Trail, also traverse the park, offering thru hiker an urban oasis. People from all over the area gather for community events, picnics and family fun in the water play area. Nature lovers seek the beauty and peace of this oasis in the city.
Before it was a MetroPark
Island MetroPark was formerly known as the White City Amusement Park in the late 19th century. The park had a dance pavilion, amusement rides, canoe lockers, refreshment stand, and other recreation features. By 1907 the park had become run down and not well maintained. In 1910, Dayton started leasing the park land for $3,000 a year, and in 1911, a recommendation to buy the land was proposed in the report submitted by the Olmsted Brothers; world renowned and famous for enhancing the natural beauty of urban sites with their designs. It’s noteworthy that the whole report stems from the urging of John Patterson (co-founder of the National Cash Register Company).
The Great Flood of 1913 left the Dayton area incapacitated and knocked out the bridge that allowed passage; and damaged a number of buildings at the White City Amusement Park. Because of the park was located in a flood area there was initially no redeeming quality to replace the bridge that connected the park at Helena Street to the Main St. car line.
Then, on July 13, 1913, the Dayton Canoe Club held its first regatta. D.W. Begley the owner to the boathouse across from White City Park ferried spectators across the river free of charge. Consequently, after two more successful regattas’ that summer the Dayton city officials decided to rebuild White City. On June 20, 1914, the park formally opened as Island Park. The park became an ideal location in the coming years for programming that included bathing, picnicking, canoeing, boating, dancing, ice skating, water carnivals, evening band concerts, and general recreation.
In the 1920s, Dayton’s municipal leaders were keeping a watchful eye on a potential den of decadence, at the Island Park dance pavilion. Only the year before the nation had decided to improve its moral fiber with “the noble experiment” known as Prohibition, outlawing the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. A report to City Manager J. E. Barlow warned of the “slow, sensuous character of the music” being played at the pavilion and the “suggestive movements” of the dancers. A Dayton Daily News article of July 10, 1920, carried the headline: “Shimmy Music at Island Park; Conditions Bad.”
In 1940, a Band shell was erected, and opened under the name of the Leslie L. Diehl Band shell where programmed concert attendance totaled 80,000 in 1943. One account in 1940 said “Canoeing is one of the popular forms of recreation in Island Park. For the benefit of the canoeists, new lockers which will house about 382 canoes were constructed. In addition, since this park is also used by many groups of picnickers, a new shelter house was built. Band concerts at Island Park have been provided for many years. A new band shell was completed this year which is one of the finest in the country. Many thousands have enjoyed the concerts and other entertainments during the past season. It is estimated that crowds from 8,000 to 12,000 in a single evening have enjoyed the concerts.”
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, a film comedy team, filled Island Park on August 16, 1942 when they arrived to help build interest in the war bond and stamp campaign. More than 20,000 people came to watch the two men clown around.
In the 1970s and 80s, Island became the home of large festivals like Dayton River Festival each Memorial Day weekend. Over the years, the festival featured music, food, entertainment and activities, including water sports on the Stillwater River. The event usually drew 60,000 to 70,000 people. A ban was placed on fireworks after a shell exploded in the crowd at the 1988 River Festival, injuring 27 people. This caused declining attendance and eventually killed the festival.
In the 1990s the park was home to the Dayton Black Cultural and Fly City Festivals.
Dayton official annual reports reveal a pattern of heavy use and evolution of the park and it shows that through war and peace, prosperity and urban challenge, Island Park remained a focal point of Dayton recreation for decades.