Exploring the Rich History of “The Bear Pit” Fountain in Merriam, Kansas
Discover The Merriam Bear Pit! If you’re an enthusiast of fountains like me in the Kansas City area, make sure to include a visit to the suburb of Merriam, Kansas. There, you’ll be delighted by “The Bear Pit,” an alluring public art installation created by Kwan Wu in 2006 that has a rich history. Not only are the fountain and bear sculptures visually captivating, but they also possess a remarkable connection to the area’s historical geography. Let’s delve into this intriguing story behind “The Bear Pit” and its ties to Merriam’s past.
Merriam Park’s Legacy
Situated within Merriam Historic Plaza and Visitors Bureau, adjacent to the I-35 / W. 63rd Ave interchange, “The Bear Pit” serves as a tribute to Merriam Park. During the late 19th century, this park held significant importance, captivating the hearts of locals and attracting visitors from far and wide. The park’s establishment can be credited to the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Gulf Railroad (KCFS&G), which acquired 40 acres of land in Campbellton, Kansas, along its right of way in 1880, and George Kessler, the original Kansas City park system architect.
A Marketing Ploy with a Purpose
Motivated by fierce competition with rival rail lines in the region, the KCFS&G aimed to bolster the desirability and economic growth of Kansas City. By creating Merriam Park as an elaborate private “amusement park,” they sought to enhance the city’s appeal as a residential and tourist destination. In an impressive feat, they even secured the presence of former President and war hero Ulysses S. Grant for the park’s dedication in July 1880.
Merriam Park’s Attractions
Merriam Park flourished as a popular attraction, drawing up to 20,000 visitors daily. The park boasted a picturesque lagoon for summer sailboating and winter ice skating, a horse-drawn carousel, and facilities for croquet, tennis, baseball, and square dancing. Notably, trees from around the world were meticulously planted throughout the park, adding to its allure and diversity.
The Connection to “The Bear Pit”
Among Merriam Park’s highlights was a small zoo featuring a pit that housed three bears. The legends recall occasional bear escapes, leading to their mischievous ventures into the nearby town. Once captured, the bears were promptly returned to their pit. Interestingly, during this time, the town’s name was changed to honor Charles Merriam, the secretary and treasurer of the KCFS&G, a common practice in that era when towns were often named after railroad executives and their families.
Transformation and Preservation
In 1888, the KCFS&G merged with other railroads, and eventually, Merriam Park ceased operations about a decade later. Today, the park has undergone significant transformations. Merriam itself remained a peaceful town until the 1950s when a post-war housing boom transformed it into a bustling commuter suburb. “The Bear Pit” fountain and plaza now reside in a dynamic setting surrounded by hotels, and storefronts, yet despite the noise from nearby roads and the freeway, the fountain serves as a nostalgic reminder of Merriam’s past.
“The Bear Pit” fountain stands as a captivating testament to the rich history of Merriam, Kansas. By exploring this public art installation, visitors gain a deeper appreciation for the remarkable evolution of the region and the role played by the KCFS&G in shaping the area’s growth. As a lover of all things Kansas City, I invite you to embrace the historical significance and enchantment of Merriam Bear Pit Fountain. It’s a good one, I promise 🙂