During the early years of the Highlands, the roof of the picnic pavilion served as a beer garden where people spent spring and summer evenings watching the sun set over the western skies of Missouri while sipping 3.2 beer. Later, the table and chairs were replaced by a simple tar covering to prevent leakage on the picnickers below -- a tar covering that was very flammable. The wooden soldiers that supported the roof would soon be fighting a battle they could not win.

Today, July 19, 1963, was a special day at the Highlands. The carousel horses felt important; they looked forward to each ride with unbridled enthusiasm.

On the opposite side of the park, at one of the sno-cone stands located near the entrance rotunda, worked Don Lewis Jr., then 13 years old. His father, Don Lewis Sr., had worked at the park since 1940; his grandfather, Harry Lewis, had worked there since 1924.

Harry Lewis was the consession manager in charge of the parks' two restaurants and the two bars that served 3.2 beer. Harry was known for being quite the dresser: most of the men wore a plain white shirt with black pants, but Harry would always wear a bow tie. Don Sr. had his jewelery and souvenier stand just inside the entrance rotunda. On July 19, Don Sr. was playing golf at St. Ann's on old Rock Rd. This was Don Jr's first year at working at the Highlands and his friends considered him lucky. He was working at the sno cone stand when best friend David Mitchell showed up to pay a visit. David was at the Highlands with his parents and out of town relatives. The two boys were having a good time; Don loved working at the Highlands and was pleased that his best friend stopped by to chat. Don did what any 13 year old would do, He treated his friend to a free sno-cone.

Around noon, after some conversation, David noticed some black smoke coming from the basement of the restaurant at the opposite side of the park. Don Jr. figures the smoke was just another grease fire. Little did he know the end of a St. Louis landmark had begun. Maintenance workers were already in the restaurant doing the best they could do to subdue the fire spreading in the basement below. One of the workers started to chop a hole in the floor of the restaurant. It created a small explosion and the flames started to spread more quickly than before. Harry Lewis realized the situation was getting out of hand and sounded the alarm at 2:30pm that would bring outside help.

Stan Rimkus was one of the Highlands' electricians. He had been working at the park since 1958. He worked for the St. Louis Arena Corporation, which owned both the amusement park and the arena next door. The first part of each day Stan worked at the arena. At about 2:30, he would walk over to work at the Highlands. From the arena, this day, he could see the backside of the dance hall engulfed in flames. A call on his walkie talkie confirmed his worst fears: the parks's dance hall was on fire and fire trucks were starting to arrive near the back of the dance hall near the park's power station. He had to get over to the Highlands to shut off the power.

Back at the sno-cone stand, Don Jr. began to get very worried. In a short time, the smoke wafting from the restaurant basement had grown into a sizable fire, with menacing red and yellow flames now reaching above the dance hall's roof! Just then, the owner of the leased ferris wheel, Johnny Miller, ran by yelling to no one in particular, "the dance hall is on fire!" Before Don could retrieve the days' cash receipts hidden in the bottom of the sno-cone stand, several firemen appeared from no where, ordering him to get out. THIS PLACE IS ON FIRE! GET OUT NOW!

Some 260 firemen, including those off duty, were called in an effort to help save one of St. Louis' most beloved attractions. The dance hall was almost completely engulfed in ever growing flames and began to collapse. The heat and hundreds of sparks from the fire fueled by a changing north wind, headed for the Rocket Ships directly in front. The flowers at the base of the ride begin to wither and die from the intense heat and flames. The bottom of the tower, where you would walk up a flight of stairs to board, soon caught fire, weakening the structure and collapsing it towards the main midway.

As the flames grew higher and stronger, they continued to advance toward the former Hall of Laughter which stood directly behind the parks' famous swimming pool. The firemen even used water from the pool to help fight the out of control fire. Their efforts were in vain; soon the fire claimed those attractions as well. By this time, Don Lewis Jr. and his best friend David and David's family had been evacuated from the Highlands and gathered on the west side of the pool, not too far from the arena. As the fire and its 150 ft. flames reached the roof of the picnic pavilion, the winds shifted once more. The 145ft steel tower with the flag on the top, would peek out from the smoke much like a crows nest on a flagship during a really bad storm. The tar on the roof of the pavilion, heated by the July sun, served as an accelerant. It caused the flames to literally race toward the rotunda building, creating a rolling wave of red hot destruction.

It was then that Don Jr. realized that his beloved Highlands was actually burning down. Tears welled up in his eyes, tears that would not disappear for three months. Most of the people watching that day felt the same way. On Oakland Avenue, outside of the entrance rotunda and across the street at the Forest Park Zoo, crowds of people were creating a "hall of tears" as they stood and watched the Highlands turn into burning rubble and fond memories.
Rotunda on fire at Forest Park Highlands The Johnson Mansion on fire at Forest Park Highlands
This photo was taken from a color video someone had sent me. The Rotunda had collapsed at about 5:00pm. The building had offices in the upper section. Don Lewis Jr. had related stories to me of how he and various friends would spend hours playing monopoly in his fathers' office. As the Rotunda collapsed, it just didn't fall, it twisted in a final firey pirouette.
Soon, the building in this shot, formerly the park office, the arcade and in the beginning, the Highlands Cottage restaurant would be a burnt out, hollowed out shell with nothing left but the walls and a lot of memories. The fire had spread so quickly that the women that worked at the park were not able to grab their purses. They had to collect their last paychecks at the Arena next door. --(courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri-St. Louis)
Dance Hall collapses at Forest Park Highlands
Little Toot driver watches park burn
(above) The dance hall had collapsed at the point. But the water from the hose' nozzle doesn't seem to be anywhere near the fire. Theres a crowd of people watching in the background and notice the rainbow over the ruins brought on by all the water that was used to fight the fire. (courtesy of Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri -St. Louis.
(above) The train conductor for Little Toot watches as the dance hall, along with his immediate future and some of his past, goes up in smoke. The fifth and final alarm was sounded at 3:13pm. Forty five minutes later, about 4:00, the dance hall started to collapse.
Flying Turns ride in flames at Forest Park Highlands
Firetruck in foreground - Flying Turns on fire at Forest Park Highlands
charred remains of Flying Turns cars at Forest Park Highlands
A collector has holy grails that he looks for. The ultimate prize, photo, or whatever it may be. I was very lucky. I found quite a few of my holy grails. Two of the most sought after ones were the Flying Turns/Bobsleds during the fire. I didn't know if that photo exsisted. My new FPH friend, Conrad Berry, surprised me with the above three Flying Turns photos he had photographed during and after the fire. After collecting/searching for over 30 years, there they were, and here they are.
photo above courtesy of Conrad Berry
The steel frames for the troughs to the Flying Turns/Bobsleds are all that remains of the most unique ride at the Highlands. Located just to the east of the rotunda, it was one of the last rides to succumb to the fire. When this ride was destroyed, only three rides of its' kind remained in the United States.
Photo added 12-16-11: One can find the most interesting things on the internet. I found this gem on the internets' flea market, also known as ebay. An original print, it is facing NE, as our beloved St. Louis landmark meets its' firey demise. The Rocket Ships have collapsed at this point. Just about everything else has too...except the Comet & the Carousel. 07/19/63
video of the fire that destroyed Forest Park Highlands in St. Louis
The photo above is a still frame from a video taken during the massive fire that hit Forest Park Highlands on July 19, 1963.
To see the entire video, click on the photo above.
©2009