Disneyland 1958 - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I've always enjoyed looking back at the earliest days of Disneyland when Walt Disney was still alive and continually "plussing" the park.

As the year closed on December 31, 1957, and Disneyland hosted its first New Year's Eve party, the 10 millionth guest, Leigh Woolfenden, walked through the gates. Yearly attendance was up to 4.3 million. That number would remain just about the same for 1958.

Walt was very serious when he said that Disneyland would never be completed and each year he kept adding to the park after it first opened culminating in a huge second opening in 1959 with the introduction of the first three "E" Ticket attractions: the Alweg Monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

However, 1958 brought many significant additions to the park as well including new attractions like the Columbia Sailing Ship, the Alice in Wonderland dark ride, the Grand Canyon Diorama with the introduction of the third engine for the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad and more.

Disneyland's Frontierland in 1958 touted attractions that embraced the Wild West - the addition of the Columbia in 1958 expanded the offerings.

Imagineer Bob Gurr told me, "Looking back in recent years, I'm still amazed at how much work was done so fast by so many back in 1958-1959. I think this was Walt's golden age in building Disneyland. When you look at all the complicated civil engineering, the massive amounts of concrete work, to say nothing of engineering from scratch, this was unprecedented in the theme park industry."

Here are some of the additions to Disneyland in 1958 that we take for granted were "always" there.

Sailing Ship Columbia

Walt stood alongside Dick Nunis looking at the Rivers of America with the Mark Twain, the keel boats, the rafts going back and forth to Tom Sawyer's Island, and Indian war canoes paddling furiously near the shore. He turned to Nunis who thought Walt was going to comment on how busy the river was and said, "What we really need is another big boat!"

Walt Disney considered adding a replica of Robert Fulton's first commercial steamboat The Clermont to the Rivers of America. Admiral Joe Fowler, head of Disneyland construction, after exhaustive research at multiple maritime museums suggested instead the "Gem of the Ocean", Columbia Redivivia ("freedom reborn"), the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe in 1787-1790. It was a merchant ship and a private vessel so that is why it is not preceded by "U.S.S."

At the time of its construction, it was the first three-masted windjammer built in the United States in more than 100 years. It was designed to follow the same hidden track used by the Mark Twain. The flat-bottomed steel hull was constructed at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, California as well as the masts, rigging, spars and sails. Steel plates were added to the hold below the water line to keep the ship from tipping over because of the tall masts.

Architect Ray Wallace, who had a love of classic ships, was commissioned by Fowler to design and build the ship. Wallace was Errol Flynn's first mate on his sailboat that they took to Catalina. Wallace is also the person responsible for the Min and Bill ship at Disney Hollywood Studios.

Only one known picture was known to exist of the ship, "Columbia in a Squall," but Wallace used research from the Library of Congress, as well as the blueprints for the H.M.S. Bounty built two years earlier by the same shipbuilders. Authentic teak, oak, and maple wood was used in the construction of the outer hull, decks, masts and other areas. Blaine Gibson sculpted the figurehead.

The ship was launched at a ceremony on June 14, 1958 at 5 p.m. Following nautical tradition, Walt had placed a new silver dollar under each of the masts for good luck, but they disappeared when the masts were replaced in the 1990s. The main mast is 84 feet tall.

An attraction poster of the Columbia, the first three-masted windjammer built in the United States in more than 100 years.

Disneyland claimed that the cost to build the ship was $100,000, although some estimates put the final cost at much more.

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Alfred Carroll Richmond presented a Bible to the Columbia's acting skipper, in accordance with maritime tradition. And the Admiral's wife, Gretchen Richmond, christened the Columbia with a bottle of champagne as Walt looked on proudly.

Even though Richmond retired in 1962, he returned in full uniform to inaugurate the below deck museum in 1964.

A new dock and landing was built for the ship to be in drydock, dubbed Fowler's Harbor after Admiral Joe Fowler retired from the U.S. Navy and who was in charge of construction of Disneyland. Walt jokingly referred to it as "Joe's Ditch."

Fred Gurley Train - Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad

Between 1955 and 1956, the trains circling Disneyland had carried more than 775,000 passengers and that number doubled between 1956 and 1957 and then nearly doubled again by the beginning of 1958 so the system was struggling to handle more than 2 million guests a year.

The third engine on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad came into service on March 28, 1958. It was named after Fred Gurley who was the president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, one of the largest railroads in the United States. He was a good friend of Walt Disney's and was the man who brokered the deal for the Santa Fe to become involved as a lessee at Disneyland.

On Disneyland's opening day July 17, 1955, Gurley was in the cab of the E.P. Ripley with Walt Disney riding into Main Street Station. The first two engines (E.P. Ripley and C.K. Holliday) had been built from scratch and were based on Walt's handmade Lilly Belle engine for his backyard Carolwood Pacific miniature railroad. Just building the frames alone cost almost $50,000 each.

To save time and money, it was decided that any new additions would be previously existing engines with the frames retained, but the rest rebuilt. The Fred Gurley was originally built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia in August 1894 and spent much of its time working carrying sugar in Louisiana. It was officially retired in 1956 and purchased by Disney for $1,200 plus $300 for shipping to Los Angeles.

The years of hauling sugar in humid weather had taken its toil on the little engine and much of it was rusted and with wood rot. However, some important things were salvageable, including the frame, wheels, cylinders, domes and more including the bell that still rang clear despite decades of grime and soot.

It was entirely taken apart for careful examination and then re-built at the Disney Studios in Burbank including a new boiler, tender tank and an enclosed hardwood cab based on an authentic design among other things. Even after all of this work, the total cost was $37,061, which was significantly less than the first two engines.

One of the things that made this train different is that the cars it pulled were excursion cars with all seating facing to the right toward the inside of the park, making it more effective to see things and easier to board and exit each car. This was done primarily to better see the new Grand Canyon Diorama.

Work was started on the fourth engine, the Ernest S. March, which would be introduced to the park in June 1959.

The 100th anniversary celebration for the Fred Gurley took place the morning of August 15, 1994. Ward Kimball was in attendance, along with Ollie Johnston, a bib-overall-wearing Mickey Mouse, the Disneyland Band, and a group of invited guests. Disneyland's executive vice president, Ron Dominguez officiated, in what would be his last official duty at the Park. A plaque was affixed to the engine's running boards to honor her 100 years of service.

The engine was later completely rebuilt in 2006.

A new 202-foot-long train station was opened in Tomorrowland in April. It was not as elaborate as the other train stations, because it was supposed to represent "a futurist's design of a transport loading station," so it was basically just a concrete block with an aluminum cover supported by tubular steel.

The large round holes in the beams were a popular "futuristic" architectural design element in the 1950s. It was a similar design to the earlier Viewliner station. The station was also meant to obscure the view of vintage railroad trains stopping in the future. There was a ticket booth in front of the station, as well.

Grand Canyon Diorama

In 1958, Walt Disney produced a film titled Grand Canyon that won the Oscar for the Best Live-Action Short Subject. The film features scenes of the Grand Canyon—from sunrise to sunset, including thunderstorms, and many of the different species of wildlife that inhabit the canyon set to Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite."

Walt became intrigued by dioramas while visiting museums and he contacted Bob Sewell, who had worked for a decade at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History to help his team create one for Disneyland. Imagineer Claude Coats was put in charge and sent on a field trip to the Grand Canyon.

Total staff time to create the attraction was more than 80,000 hours at a cost estimated at $367,814, plus an additional $2,374 for the new sound equipment in the passenger cars.

The Grand Canyon Diorama was added to the Disneyland theme park on March 31, 1958, at 11:30 a.m. A 96-year-old Hopi Indian chief, Chief Nevangnewa, blessed the trains on the diorama's opening day.

The new third train was officially dedicated as the Fred Gurley on that day as well. Walt Disney and Fred Gurley, chairman of the Santa Fe Railroad, wore railroad caps and proudly smiled standing by a sign proclaiming the entrance to the attraction and then steamed it through the new wooden tunnel that had been built.

Musical entertainment was provided both by The Disneyland Band, as well as the Santa Fe All-Indian Band from Winslow, Arizona. Over forty newspaper and television writers and cameramen were present for the dedication and hundreds of park guests as well.

A new park attraction poster created by artist Paul Hartley was revealed to promote the attraction.

Painted on a single piece of seamless, hand-woven canvas and representing the view from the canyon's south rim, the rear of the diorama measures 306-feet long, 34-feet high, 45-feet wide and is covered with 300 gallons of paint.

Within the diorama it's possible to find a mountain lion, porcupines, skunks, a golden eagle, rattlesnakes, rabbits, deer, crows, wild turkeys and plenty of sheep, surrounded by aspens and pine. All of the animals were real taxidermied animals that were treated extensively with flame retardants.

Instead of seeing artificial animals that move like on the Jungle Cruise, here were real ones that didn't move.

Emile Kuri, who had designed Walt's apartment and exterior elements on Main Street, directed the taxidermy staff to get a sense of realism and motion. One day, Walt looked in a freezer and discovered the skinned carcass of a coyote and was so appalled that he decreed this was the last time that real animal skins would be used for a Disneyland attraction.

The scenery changes from sunrise to snow through a storm (complete with rainbow), a sunset, and baking desert to the music of Grofe's "On The Trail" segment from his "Grand Canyon Suite."

Imagineer Marvin Davis suggested that it should be a diorama featuring all the National Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. However, Walt was adamant that it would be just the Grand Canyon, but had to be convinced by Imagineer Claude Coats there were wild turkeys that lived there.

When other Imagineers said it made no sense to have a train leave Tomorrowland and then go into the Grand Canyon, Walt replied that the train ride needed a grand finale before returning to the Main Street station.

Before the installation of the Primeval World segment with dinosaurs in 1966, guests caught a glimpse of a backstage parking lot when they exited the tunnel.

The Other Additions

On January 18, the Ken-L Land Pet Motel pet boarding facility (sponsored by Ken-L Ration) opened outside the Disneyland main gate. It could house up to 160 pets for $0.25 each a day, which included food and water. It lasted until 1968 when sponsorship was taken over by Kal Kan and then even later by other sponsors.

Participating in the opening ceremonies were Old Yeller's son, Duke, and Kevin Corcoran, the youthful star of the 1957 film Old Yeller. It was Walt's idea to have the location because he was afraid that people visiting Disneyland would leave their pets in their cars. Because he loved animals, he wanted a safe and secure place for those pets, rather than roasting in the hot Anaheim sun with a small cracked opening in a window.

The Mad Hatter of Main Street shop and The Hills Brothers Coffee House opened in Town Square in June reminding us that new businesses were always appearing in the park.

The iconic Disneyland Marquee sign on Harbor Boulevard made its first appearance in 1958 inspired by a similar design for a sign outside the Disneyland Hotel since 1956. On each of its two sides, a huge "D" on a yellow panel was followed by the other letters on separate white panels. At night, the backlit panels would glow. Tall poles supported colorful, rigid banners.

Underneath was a rectangular panel where information in plastic letters was posted like operating hours, special events, etc. The lettering was done by hand with a long pole like for the marquee of a movie theater. The original sign stood with a few changes (including the removal of the banners) over the decades 30 thirty years and was replaced in 1988.

Disneyland sponsored "Disney Night" at the Hollywood Bowl on August 1. Highlight of the entertainment was a 1,000-foot glide over the audience by aerialist Tiny Kline dressed as Tinker Bell and that gave Walt an idea. Kline, a grandmother, would be flying over Sleeping Beauty Castle three years later in 1961.

August 16 brought Bob Gurr's Motorized Firetruck to Main Street, and it became one of Walt's favorite vehicles. The last public photo of Walt at the park was taken with him behind the wheel of the truck and Mickey Mouse by his side.

Gurr purchased a 1938 Chevrolet fire engine from the Crown Coach Fire Engine Company for $150 just to get all the fire equipment that came with it. Imagineer Ward Kimball suggested some improvements including a more impressive looking front end with big Rushmore headlamps.

Gurr drove it down the Santa Ana Freeway from the Disney Studio in Burbank to Disneyland to help break in the engine. When he got near the park, he stopped at a corner and a little boy shouted out that by the time he got to the fire, the place would have burned down.

It was the last motorized vehicle introduced to Main Street. It operated concurrently with the horse drawn fire wagon for a few years.

The Junior Autopia and Viewliner closed in September to make way for the 1959 improvements since Walt's 1958 European trip had shown him a new type of monorail and the majesty of Matterhorn Mountain when he visited the film set for his 1959 live-action film Third Man on the Mountain. It is amazing that Walt thought of these attractions in late 1958 and they became a reality by June of the following year.

Another event that year that would also influence Disneyland was the outdoor amusement venue Pacific Ocean Park opening July 26, 1958, in Santa Monica to take advantage of the success of Disneyland. It was a joint venture of CBS and Santa Anita Park racetrack and would become the backdrop for the Lawrence Welk television show.

The park included bubble-shaped gondolas that went out over the ocean like the Skyway, Mystery Island Banana Train Ride, Flight to Mars, King Neptune's Courtyard, Sea Serpent Roller Coaster, and more. As a kid, I got a chance to visit and it was quite the experience.

Unfortunately, it started to fall into disrepair as early as 1965 with nearby construction of the surrounding area discouraging people from going to the pleasure pier and it closed permanently in 1967. It instituted the "Pay One Price" (POP – Pacific Ocean Park) policy in an attempt to undercut Disneyland and its ticket books.

Next week, I will finish looking at Disneyland in 1958, including the now-classic Alice in Wonderland attraction.



  1. By danyoung

    Thanks for the history - looking forward to next week!

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