Steampunk Fortnight

Gaslight: The First Steampunk Amusement Park

Dateline, April 1, 2008: It really was a grand announcement. Not since the world premiere of the world-wide epic film of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had so many gathered in steampunk costumes to parade in front of the world-wide media. Three hundred people in costumes, another hundred in suits, and a few in full-blown tuxedos. They mingled with a crowd of a few thousand in the parking lot that had served as a FEMA staging ground in New Orleans for more than a year. Fake Cockney, western, German, and other accents mingled with the Louisiana banter. The attendees wore bright vests, fanciful pocket watches, pinstripes, corsets, bowlers, bustles, and goggles—always goggles. At exactly three o’clock, several costumed men and women with large, fanciful guns made their way up to the massive, temporary stage. The people in suits got the chairs. The costumed folk had to stand, the sweat starting to show around the collars of some of the gentlemen. Towering above them was the entry sign that once greeted drivers coming to Six Flags New Orleans. Mayor-for-Life Ray Nagin took the podium at 3:07 PM.

“We stand here today to announce, with a heavy heart, the loss of one of the great companies that put so much faith in the people of New Orleans,” the mayor announced, “Six Flags Entertainment Corporation has sold their interest in what was once Six Flags New Orleans. It is a shame to lose such a wonderful partnership from the development of our city, but the damage done by Hurricane Katrina made it impossible for the company to re-open the park in anything like a speedy manner.”

The audience, many of whom had followed the in-fighting over insurance claims and negotiations with the City in the Times-Picayune, gave a short chorus of boos, allowing Mayor Nagin to do his favorite “hush the maddened crowd” double-hand gesture.

And, of course, they quieted down.

“We are proud to say that a new corporation has stepped forward, assisted in the settling of the issues with the property, and agreed to reopen the property.”

A grand cheer rose from the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Gaslight!”

And the covering over the sign fell, revealing wrought ironwork that would have made a Victorian craftsman proud.

Gaslight

The mayor introduced Donald Traseros, the amusement park consultant who had managed to gather investors after turning around several Paramount parks. His biggest single investor, Alec Knight, the founder of Bazoomer.com, sat comfortably in the front row. As Traseros stood to speak at the podium, Mayor Nagin slapped him on the shoulder and they chatted quietly.

The crowd loved it. After the speeches, the costumed characters returned to the audience to interact while waiters made the rounds with trays of canapés and small English Trifles.

Of course, many of those who had gathered would be the same ones suing Whitechapel-Gaslight Amusements less than two years later.

The building process was fast. A project the size of Gaslight would normally be scheduled over two or three years. Gaslight would open on May 13th, 2009. Gaslamp-Whitechapel hired two completely separate groups to build its park. The first, Techilla & Bonetti, built the western portion, while another, Rick Roll Builders, built the eastern setion. This increased costs hugely, but it also allowed the team to halve their timeline. The demolition of nearly everything that had been standing after Hurricane Katrina devastated the park took a mere three weeks, allowing the building to commence almost immediately.

It also allowed the overruns to start much earlier than usual.

Both contractors claimed timeframe pressures were increasing their costs. The original project, budgeted at nearly four hundred million dollars, had now ballooned to nearly three-quarters of a billion. This was covered through increased investment from Knight, who had sold Bazoomer.com to Google for almost seven billion just a year before. He covered nearly the entire amount, believing that Traseros had what it took to make a successful theme park, and and thought that the steampunk theme ensured income, especially in light of the massive financial windfall that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen brought its producers.

The building of the park was fast, though both companies were seen to be cutting corners. One of the dosshouses built by Rick Roll collapsed just thirteen days after its completion. The wooden rollercoaster The Anubis Gates was deemed unsafe and would not be allowed to operate on opening day, though the few employees who snuck a ride deemed it excellent, especially since it felt as if it might send them flying off the track at every turn. There was significant uncertainty as to whether or not they would be able to keep the opening date, but it turned out that, with the exception of The Anubis Gates and the Jack the Ripper-Roaring Rapids, the park was completed in time for the premiere.

The layout of Gaslight was seen as innovative, the kind of park designed more for class credit in an advanced public architecture class than to be an actual, buildable design. At slightly more than 200 acres, it was large enough to allow for multiple “steamscapes,” or themed lands. The central walk was a re-creation of a late 19th century downtown. Disney lawyers did not fail to notice the similarities to Main Street U.S.A., though the differences, such as the fact that Gaslight’s plot was full-sized compared to Disney’s famous three-quarter scale, seemed to hold them off. At the central hub of “Downtown” were the four spokes of the park. To the northeast, The Weird West; an area of sand and wooden-planked walkways where costumed gunslingers walked, ladies of a certain repute flirted, and mad scientists demonstrated their latest innovations. The all-wood design of the buildings was an essential part of the architecture of The Weird West, and an oddly beautiful one as well. Three rides; the Thunderbird hanging roller coaster, the ShootOut Bumper Cars shooting arcade ride, and The Iron Horse Racing Steeplechase roller coaster.

To the southeast, The Adventurers Club, focusing on the worlds created by Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells. This land was the most rushed of them all. The only thrill ride in the area, a double-drop ride based around Poe’s 1844 balloon hoax, won several design-theme awards. Many simpler rides, including a dark ride based on Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and an arcade themed around The Sleeper Awakens, rounded out the area. The major food court of the eastern portion of the park sat in the centre of The Adventurers Club, half-heartedly emulating The Reform Club from Around the World in 80 Days. It appears Rick Roll thought an animatronic form of Phileas Fogg was enough to capture the theme.

The southwestern portion of the park was the largest: Whitechapel. A full eight square block area re-created the area of the Whitechapel murders. The effect was quite striking and apparently accurate; the narrow streets and alleys allowed pickpockets and other sneak-thieves to operate with ease, and more than one sexual transaction was interrupted by the authorities. The Anubis Gates ride was to be the gem of the area, but a large Victorian merry-go-‘round was also a centerpiece. Shops and food stalls occupied the various workshops, taverns, and flophouses. Jack Kosminsky, perhaps the best-known Jack the Ripper cosplayer in the world, was hired to lurk in shaded doorways and occasionally wash his hands in the public fountain. Knight had personally contracted with The Science Museum in London to build a second Difference Engine based on Charles Babbage’s drawings from the 1830s. This was presented in the reproduction house where Annie Kelly’s body had been found and was a very popular attraction.

The final area was Arkham, which was supposed to present a full array of Cthulhu and other Weird fiction concepts. This area, the least cohesive but most beloved, was full of strange sights, such as a children’s train ride that left from Perdido Street Station and a walk-through house of fun called Robida that presented as realistic a version of Maison tournante aérienne (the Aeirial Rotating House) as possible. There was also a large playground called R’yleh which featured a forty-five foot Cthulhu with a slide down its back and a set of swings attached to its tentacles, and a Mountain of Madness made of foam rubber. The children also enjoyed taking rubbings of the Ancient, Lovecraftian phrases that were carved into the walls surrounding the play area.

The initial crowds were promising, with capacity crowds for the first three weeks and overwhelming sales of food and gifts. A crafts fair expo hall in Whitechapel that allowed artisans to sell their own goods to patrons proved hugely popular. Many of the roller coaster enthusiast websites gave Gaslight’s offerings high marks in all areas, especially theming. The world record for the game Gunslinger was set in The Sleeper Awakens arcade.

It all seemed so perfect…save for the part where they were losing three million dollars a day.

A major part of the concept for Gaslight were the performers who would stroll the area at all times. While an average amusement park might employ as many as one hundred on a busy, mid-summer day, Gaslight employed almost five hundred every day. Add to that the number of craftsman conducting demonstrations in the various areas, the cost of acquiring authentic whale oil to lubricate the Babbage Engine, the incredible number of repairs that were required on even the simplest buildings, and the costs began to pile up. By July 1, paychecks had started bouncing. Assurances from Traseros, accompanied by cash payouts for some portion of every worker’s check supplied directly from the coffers of Bazoomer.com kept almost all of the employees happy enough to remain on the job. While a hundred or so did leave, they were mostly the more highly skilled workers who provided demonstrations, which could be covered for by simply putting up signs saying “Coming Soon.”

The reaction to the second round of bounced paychecks in the middle of July were not as orderly. At least 1,100 of the nearly 2,000 employees quit, some quite messily. Many were told by their managers to take their day’s pay from the registers if they could, and costumed characters boldly walked out with arms full of fabric, accessories, and goggles. After the exodus, the only remaining costumed characters were those who simply loved playing dress-up. Kosminsky continued playing The Ripper with as much vigor as ever. A memo from Traseros said that all workers were to report to the park for reduced hours of noon to five. Vice-presidents were seen working as hot dog vendors. At one point the crew operating the bumper cars, made up entirely of members of the HR team, held a meeting while assisting riders. Most visitors were reporting their displeasure with the park, though income was still relatively strong for a park of its size. The shortened day decreased costs, but also limited the amount that could be made on concessions, the area where they’d been making the most profit. Gaslight was easily the most expensive amusement park ever to operate, and there was no way to make it profitable.

The final bullet came on August 1, when a balloon payment was due to the ride designers and it couldn’t be met. Paychecks weren’t even issued and everyone who came in to the park was told they’d been laid off. Knight came to the park himself and handed out five-hundred-dollar checks to every employee as they left. High-priced security guards, brought in by Mr. Knight himself, made sure that no more potential assets were lost to disgruntled former employees.

Traseros was not present. In fact, he’d not been seen anywhere near New Orleans since the middle of June. Creditors were searching for him, employees who weren’t getting paid were waiting on the sidewalk in front of his house, and the law was interested in hearing about how a series of code inspectors had suddenly been able to move into nicer neighborhoods. Traseros was not located until October 21, when New Orleans police arrested him after breaking into Gaslight to try and remove as much copper wiring as he could carry.

In the six months after the August closing, hundreds of lawsuits were filed against Gaslight-Whitechapel Amusements. Season passes had been offered to locals for 250 dollars apiece, but they were not to go into effect until after August 1st. Local contractors who had been performing some work on contract were left unpaid. The Norwegian Whale Oil concern had not been paid for the last barrel shipped to New Orleans.

The company finally declared bankruptcy on August 3, 2009. The City seized the property, which is promptly sold to a development group based in Michigan. They quickly demolished the eastern portion and almost all of Arkham to begin the process of building condos. Of Arkham, only the R’lyeh playground remains, as a part of a city park. The Whitechapel portion of the park was allowed to reopen as an independent theme park until being demolished demolished last week. The Michigan group announced plans to expand Whitechapel and use it as the theme for the gated condo community they were building.

While the failure of Gaslight was so extreme as to eclipse almost every other major development failure of the Great Recession, it did spawn a major fan community which collects and trades memorabilia from the park. An original felt top hat with a name embroidered across the front has been known to fetch upwards of fifty dollars (depending on how cool the name is) while auctions for fixtures such as park signage and costumes have exploded. The Babbage Engine was sold back to the Scienc Museum, who sold it another computer software billionaire. It was never seen in public again and currently occupies a place of honor in the purchaser’s living room.


Chris Garcia is a filmmaker, computer historian, and Hugo-nominated fan writer. He is co-editor of The Drink Tank (with James Bacon), Exhibition Hall (with James Bacon and Ariane Wolfe), and Journey Planet (with James Bacon and Claire Brialey), all available at eFanzines.com, and the upcoming film journal, Klaus at Gunpoint. He Twitters as Johnnyeponymous.

Image border courtesy of From Old Books

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