June 3, 1977:  Duluthian killed at Kiddieland next to Duluth’s zoo

On this day in Duluth in 1977, a 22-year-old man was killed while trespassing at Thornton’s Kiddieland, an amusement park for children located next to Duluth’s zoo in Fairmount Park. Kiddieland, beloved by zoo-goers since 1937, featured Chair-O-Plane ride, a Ferris wheel, a “Little Dipper,” and other rides—but its most memorable attraction was one of eleven miniature trains built by Elmer O. Thornton, father of Kiddieland founder Robert Thornton. On that June night between one and two hundred “young people” gathered at the zoo’s parking lot next to Kiddieland. The spot had become a popular place to party. A twenty-two-year-old man entered Kiddieland (some say he jumped a fence, others said the fence was in disrepair and easily circumvented) and climbed to the top of the big slide using the structure’s girders—the stairs were not accessible because they had been blocked to prevent unauthorized use of the slide. The man did not know that a chain had been stretched across the base of the slide, also intended to keep trespassers off. When he slid down the man’s throat hit the chain, sending his head backward against the slide, causing fatal injuries. In 1981 the victim’s widow brought a successful lawsuit against then-owner Jeff Vollma, although the victim was also determined to be partially responsible for the accident. As a result, Vollma closed the amusement park. Read more about Thornton’s Kiddieland here and the history of Fairmount Park, including the zoo, here.

Robert and Mabel Thornton pose next to one of the eleven miniature trains Robert’s father Elmer O. Thornton built during his lifetime. (Image: Robert Rodriguez)