A long forgotten Palo Alto, CA, fun park

By Mike Carroll
June 7, 2010

Traveling under the Embarcadero Road underpass toward Stanford University in the fab fifties, as you made your way back up and looked to the right, there was a lot of color, activity, fun and happy children. A Standard Oil gas station would first catch the eye, but further observation revealed that it was part of a really cool amusement park. Surrounded by a red wooden fence, Playtown occupied the east end of Palo Alto's Town & Country Village shopping center. The above image is as close as I can remember from a child of 3-5-years-old.

Playtown was the handy-work of Arrow Development, of Mountain View, California. Arrow was formed in 1946 by Bill Hardiman, Angus Anderson, Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon, who worked together at Hendy Iron Works. Hardiman and Anderson later sold their interest in the company. In its early days, Arrow made crop duster and ride equipment for amusement parks. As the crop dusting market began to decline, they bid for a contract from Walt Disney. In 1953, Arrow was contracted to make 6 rides for the new Disneyland "theme park". Uncle Walt apparently was quite a fixture in Mountain View in those days, as he made frequent trips to the Moffett Boulevard shop. Disney, Morgan and Bacon were often be seen at local eateries for lunch. They later made: It's A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Adventures Through Inner Space, and The Haunted Mansion for the Anaheim park as well as Florida.

The company’s innovative Arrowflite Freeway Auto Ride, an electric car system for children, constrained the vehicle to the roadway while giving a sense of steering control. An early problem with Disneyland’s Autopea was that the mini-cars often strayed off the road. Arrow’s new system solved this, and by the late fifties, Arrowflites were delivered to Ward’s Coney Island, New York; Woodland Park, Seattle; Peppermint Parks, Houston; Disneyland, (Autopea) Anaheim; Suker’s Kiddieland (Firestone Freeway), Los Angeles, Elitch’s Gardens, Denver; Shanahan’s, Anchorage, Alaska; Gold Coast Shows (ride operator for Valley Fair, San Jose; Bay Fair, in San Leandro and Emporiums, in San Francisco) and Palo Alto, according to a February 1957 “The Billboard”, a weekly publication catering to amusement parks.

An authentic looking miniature Standard gas station stood at the foot of the Playtown's Arrowflite ride, complete with gasoline pumps labeling the Standard Oil brands. From what I recall, the Standard sign and and pumps were around ½ scale and station around a third. But what got your attention was how detailed this miniature was. It’s not clear of what involvement Standard Oil had with the attraction.

It took some time for design and development of Playtown, but “drew record crowds during the pre-Christmas (1956) season”, according to a January 5th, 1957 Billboard. It was a way to test new ride systems and displays, “and make money”. The 54 store merchants were very pleased with Playtown, as it brought people to their shops while the kids hung out at the park.

“The park (included) a new tracked auto ride, electrically controlled sports cars crossing a pool in one place and running through a tunnel in another; boat ride in an oblong pool, a Diesel-type miniature train around the perimeter of the park, a Fontaine Fox-type of street car, a 32-foot Merry-Go-Round with horses for adults and children, and five other rides.” according to the article. It went on to say that there were plans to restore a San Francisco cable car for the park, but it’s not clear if they did. “A ‘birthday play-land’ (was) featured. This is a package deal that (included) ice cream and cake with the rides.”

On August 21, 1960, a terrible tragedy occurred at Playtown. According to the Palo Alto History Project:

“(It) involved the son of Frank Freidel. A Harvard professor known for an extensive biography of Franklin Roosevelt, Frank was a fellow at Stanford for the summer. As the new school year approached, Professor Freidel was in the process of driving cross-country back to Harvard with his oldest son, David. On August 21st, his wife Madeleine and her three youngest boys were scheduled to fly back to meet him at their Belmont, Massachusetts home. Before the flight at 11 AM, Madeleine took the boys to Playtown at Town & Country.

As she was standing in line to buy tickets for a miniature train ride, Phillip, who was just three and a half, wandered off and sat down on the tracks. Moments later, Playtown’s miniature train came around a curve in the track, driven by 17 year old Harold Huthmacher --- grandson of Playtown's manager. Harold had just turned around to see if his other small passengers were sitting down, when he turned back to see that ten feet in front of him, Phillip was sitting on the track. He slammed on the brakes so hard the train derailed. He attempted to jump from the train to reach the boy, but Phillip was struck head-on. He suffered massive head and leg injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at the Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital.”

The park closed soon after. It’s sad that such a wonderful and happy place had such a tragic ending.

November 24, 1956 ad from the Billboard
Playtown was a straight shot from Arrow's shop
Courtesy of Tales of the seven seas, this is what 243 Moffett Blvd., Mountain View, CA, looks like at the time of this post.
February 9, 1959 ad from the Billboard. Was this publicity image taken at Town & Country?