How the west was lost

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THE decimation of Frontierland will be completed this year when the last two rides are pulled to the ground.

Only the Log Flume and the Sky Ride remain as reminders of what was once a busy fairground - but is now acres of wasteland and one giant pile of rubble.

All the other old rides and attractions have been either sold on, moved to Blackpool Pleasure Beach or Southport Pleasureland, dismantled or bulldozed.

"There are old rides from Frontierland all over the world now," said Steve Riley, as he showed me around the 'bomb site' which was once billed as 'the UK's premier western theme park'.

"It's very depressing. I have to walk past this every day and it breaks my heart."

Steve has worked at Frontierland for over 15 years and was part of the park management team for most of that time.

He has experienced most of the ups and downs since the then-Morecambe Pleasure Park had its Wild West facelift and became Frontierland in 1987.

Steve was there in the heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, when hundreds of thousands would come to the park each year.

Dwindling

He was there in the days when celebrities such as Annabel Croft, Margaret Thatcher and Curly Watts from Coronation Street paid a visit.

And he was there at the end of the 1999 season when Blackpool Pleasure Beach, owners of the park, announced the start of a gradual closure due to dwindling visitor numbers.

Steve has watched with sadness over the past four years, as the park has been whittled down to almost nothing.

Now, alongside colleague Rob Ellershaw, he manages the Ranch House Bar and arcades - the sole remnants of over 100 years of funfair history...

The Marine Road West site, where Frontierland once stood, was home to a fairground for well over a century.

Controversy

In 1909, the Thompson family, owners of Blackpool Pleasure Beach (BPB), acquired what was then known as West End Amusement Park.

The multi-millionaire Thompsons, whose fairground empire now also includes Southport Pleasureland, have owned the site ever since.

Today, the last vestiges of the park belong to Geoffrey Thompson, managing director of BPB since 1976, the days when Frontierland was called Morecambe Pleasure Park.

Geoffrey initially invested heavily in the Pleasure Park, bringing in new rides and attractions such as Fun City.

Billed as an 'indoor children's paradise', Fun City arrived in 1980 and was an instant favourite with kids.

However, within three months of Fun City opening, Morecambe High School headmaster Mr J D Foster made a complaint about it to the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr Foster claimed schoolchildren were injuring themselves on the Fun City slides, such as the Moment of Truth and Kamikaze.

Controversy also followed the arrival of the 150 foot high Ferris Wheel that season.

The Big Wheel, which opened in 1980, could be seen from the M6 and was a hugely popular attraction with tourists.

But neighbours complained that 'peeping toms' could see into their bedrooms from the top of the wheel and after just two seasons, Lancaster City Council ordered it to be pulled down in a row over planning permission.

The Big Wheel was eventually sent to the Thompson-owned Magic Harbour Amusement Park in South Carolina.

Tragedy struck the Pleasure Park in 1985 when a three-year-old boy was killed after a one-armed bandit fell on him in one of the arcades.

Still dismayed over the council's decision to remove the Big Wheel and claiming to be concerned for the future of Morecambe as a tourist destination, Geoffrey Thompson considered pulling out of the resort in the mid-80s.

But instead, in 1986 he announced ambitious plans to give the Pleasure Park a quoted 1.5million transformation.

Over the next 12 months, the traditional fairground was modernised and turned into a Wild West theme park.

The Casino pub on the seafront, which dated back to 1958, was re-named the Ranch House Bar.

The old Mr Funshine 'smiling sun' logo of Morecambe Pleasure Park was replaced by a brand-new park mascot, gun-slinging dog, Frontier Fred.

Fred (or rather a staff member in a bulky costume) patrolled the park every day for years, meeting and greeting visitors.

The Cyclone roller coaster, first brought to Morecambe in 1938, was now known as The Texas Tornado.

Staff, including ride operators, dressed up in cowboy uniforms and The Morecambe Raiders, the town's fund-raising gang of Wild West buffs, made the park their second homes.

Lavish family entertainment shows, some directed by Geoffrey's daughter Amanda Thompson, were put on in the new Crazy Horse Saloon (which opened in 1988).

Popular attractions from the Pleasure Park days, such as Noah's Ark, The Ghost Train, the Dodgems and The Haunted House, remained.

They were joined by new themed features such as the Trading Post shop (selling cuddly Frontier Freds), the Haunted Silver Mine and the Carousel.

So on June 4 1987, Frontierland was born - officially opened by TV celebrity Jeremy Beadle.

Disaster struck in November 1987 when Fun City, also known as the Fun House, was destroyed by fire. It was eventually re-built as a scaled-down version.

Despite the blaze, Frontierland bosses claimed their first season was extremely successful, quoting an estimated 400,000 visitors through the gates, rising to 1.3million by 1991.

But behind the scenes, insiders claim the park lost money year after year.

Even so, 1989 was a high-profile year for Frontierland.

Tennis and TV star Annabel Croft opened the new Sky Ride, taking an aerial trip with Frontier Fred 30 feet over the promenade.

Meanwhile Coronation Street star Kevin 'Curly Watts' Kennedy turned country singer, performing at the Crazy Horse Saloon in August.

In 1991, General Manager Jim 'JR' Rowland, who had been in charge of the park for 20 years, left Frontierland to manage Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

The following year, the recession hit and Morecambe's tourism industry began to suffer.

Despite a record-breaking Easter weekend in 1992, Frontierland struggled to maintain such high visitor numbers.

That year, Geoffrey Thompson announced a claimed 500,000 investment for Frontierland in the shape of a new 168 foot tall 'space tower'.

This observation tower had been at Blackpool for the previous 12 years.

Bosses said it would offer breathtaking views across Morecambe Bay and hoped it would help revitalise the fortunes of Frontierland.

Popular

Original plans were to site it at the back of the park where the Big Wheel used to stand, but when the Polo-sponsored tower opened in 1995, it was situated on the seafront.

Although originally the novelty of going up and down the Polo Tower proved to be popular with visitors, it soon wore off.

By 1995 Frontierland was facing serious problems.

Although still packed out on bank holidays or during the summer, and popular with families because of its many rides for small children, on certain days the park would close earlier than advertised due to lack of custom.

Park employees at the time, some of whom worked 60 hours a week earning less than 2 an hour, blamed a lack of investment.

While during the 90s Blackpool Pleasure Beach boasted spectacular new rides like the Pepsi Max Big One and PlayStation, no such 'white-knucklers' were brought to Morecambe.

Many local people saw Frontierland as low budget and behind-the-times when compared to super theme parks like BPB and Alton Towers.

By the time Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to the park during the General Election campaign of 1997, naming one of the horses on the Carousel after herself, it was in serious danger of closure.

In February 1999, The Visitor reported that officials from Blackpool Pleasure Beach had met with Lancaster City Council to discuss plans to convert some of the park into a Freeport-style shopping village.

"There are not enough visitors to Morecambe to sustain (Frontierland) in its current form," said David Cam, BPB company secretary, at the time.

That September, BPB announced they were scaling down the park by dramatically reducing the number of rides and cutting jobs.

Flagship rides The Texas Tornado and The Wild Mouse/ Runaway Mine Train were put up for sale - the Tornado eventually being demolished in 2000 and The Mouse sent to Southport.

Wasteland

As for poor old Frontier Fred, he ended up in a store room at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

Supermarket giants Morrisons then bought the site and were granted planning permission to build the proposed retail village in 2001 after a public inquiry. But now it is 2004, Morrisons are struggling to find tenants for their project, and so still the wasteland remains.

On a positive note, the arcades were recently refurbished and the Ranch House is still especially busy at weekends.

But Frontierland itself, once a colourful and busy place of fun, is now an eyesore.

The front of the one-time fairground is now sealed off from the promenade by yards of unfriendly fencing, while that ever-present mountain of rubble looms large over its horizon, a permanent reminder of what used to be there.

Now the council, as reported in The Visitor recently, is pushing for the frontage to be tidied up "to hide the site behind", at least until a decision is made on its future.

Steve Riley, for one, would certainly welcome some positive developments, after witnessing years of decay and decline.

"I don't really care what they do with it now, as long as they do something," he said, staring out onto the 10 acres of dirt, puddles and stone.

Once themed on the Wild West, how sad it is now Frontierland is little more than a bleak and desolate desert.