- Park & Zoo
Riverside Park and Ralph Mitchell Zoo
Our Mission:It is the mission of the Independence Park Department to enhance the quality of life in our community by providing quality open spaces, facilities, and programs that promote citizen involvement and a strong sense of community.
History:Riverside Park was founded in 1914 when 50 acres of land along the Verdigris River was donated to the city. Renowned landscape architect, George Kessler designed the park to work in harmony with the natural surroundings while anticipating future needs of the community. In following years the park grew to include a large playground, baseball stadium, band stand, tennis courts, and buildings used for gatherings. Later additions to the park include a carousel in 1950, a miniature train in 1953, a 1050 steam locomotive in 1955, and around 1965, a Corythosaurus from the Sinclair Dinoland display at the 1964 World's Fair.
Ralph Mitchell Zoo was added to the park in 1925. Lions, tigers, and bears (Oh, my!) were early attractions for zoo visitors until the debut of Monkey Island in 1932. The Island continues to draw visitors from all over due to its distinction as being the birthplace of Miss Able, a rhesus monkey made famous by her successful trip to space aboard a Jupiter Rocket in 1959. Monkey Island shares historical significance with other structures in the park and zoo in that it was one of the many construction projects built during the Great Depression. Between 1930 and 1940 the Island, Swan Pool, and stone steps in the zoo as well as 3 park buildings, the stadium wall, and the wall surrounding our 86 acre cemetery were constructed through the efforts of the local townspeople.
Since its inception, Riverside Park has grown in importance for families in Independence and the surrounding areas. Countless weddings, reunions, and social gatherings have been held here.
The Park and Zoo Today:
The staff of Riverside Park and Ralph Mitchell Zoo are proud of the history that surrounds us and we take our stewardship seriously. We are aware that progress marches steadily forward and work hard to maintain the balance between new and old. We believe we can offer new attractions while preserving and sharing those things that make us truly unique.
Park and Zoo personnel have been working hard the last few years to revitalize our facilities and exhibits along with performing much needed renovations to our vintage amusement rides and overseeing the addition of new play equipment.
In 2019, new handicap accessible swings were installed in Riverside Park playground.
In 2021, FORPAZ raised funds at Zoo Brew for the purchase of new playground equipment to be installed in the Riverside Park playground. The board decided to utilize the funds to install a new "Sensory Garden" area, which will be ADA accessible and will feature musical elements. This equipment is designed specifically for use by children with mental disabilities. Construction on this project is anticipated to begin in summer of 2023.
In 2022, new ADA accessible sidewalks, an ADA bridge to the castle, and a new single-family restroom were constructed in Kiddy Land at Ralph Mitchell Zoo.
In 2022, a Master Plan was developed that outlines all major upgrades to the Zoo for the next 25 years. Planned upgrades include a new exotic species building, upgrades to Monkey Island and the Duck Pond exhibit, a new Education/Welcome Center, infrastructural upgrades such as improved utilities, fencing, and ADA sidewalks, and several new exhibits.
In 2022, FORPAZ began a fundraising campaign to restore the AT&SF 1050 locomotive that has been a feature of Riverside Park since 1955. The project will include remediation, metal repair, sandblasting, and painting. Future upgrades include installation of a catwalk that will allow safe access to the steam drum. Construction on the project is anticipated to begin in summer of 2023.
In 2023, a renovation of the landscaping around Stich Shelter House was completed. This design features maintenance friendly shrubs and perennial plants that will provide colorful blooms in the summer months. A new drip irrigation system was also installed to reduce time requirements on park staff.