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Chicago's 'Bathhouse John' brought 'Coney Island of the West' — and more — to Colorado Springs

March 4, 2018 Updated: March 6, 2018 at 4:46 pm
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The entrance to John Coughlin's Zoo Park. From the collection of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Gazette today begins an occasional series highlighting the colorful history, stories and characters of our region.

President Theodore Roosevelt was addressing a large Colorado Springs crowd from the second-floor balcony of the Antlers Hotel when a portly man in a fine carriage and garish attire yelled out during a pause.

"Teddy, me boy, how are ye?" he shouted, tipping his gray top hat.

Roosevelt looked at the man and smiled.

"How're you, John?"

The man recognized by the president was "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, a summer resident of Colorado Springs and proprietor of Zoo Park - perhaps the city's greatest attraction from 1906-15.

Ladies pose in front of the Buffalo pen at the Zoo Park. From the collection of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
Ladies pose in front of the Buffalo pen at the Zoo Park. From the collection of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. 

His recognition by the president, no doubt, was owed to his fame - or infamy - as an alderman for Chicago's bawdy First Ward, commonly known as "The Levee."

"Around the turn of the century, Chicago's First Ward had the dubious honor of being the wealthiest and most sinful in the city," a contemporary Chicago Tribune article said. "Here, amid its prosperous stores, fine office buildings and handsome churches as well as brothels, gin mills, dime hotels and free-lunch saloons, the city's elite rubbed elbows with pimps, prostitutes, thieves and gamblers.

"Reigning over it all for nearly half a century were the ward's two aldermen, Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna and 'Bathhouse" John Coughlin."

Coughlin had been a "scrubber" in a bathhouse as a teen and carried the moniker to his grave. Backed by Chicago gambling king Mike McDonald, he was elected alderman in 1892, a position he held until his death in 1938.

The position proved profitable. Coughlin and Kenna created a powerful political machine funded by graft from saloons, brothels, gambling halls and other businesses.

Coughlin owned a piece of Frieberg's Dance Hall, which employed James "Big Jim" Colosimo, who would go on to found the Chicago Outfit, later run by Al Capone. Noted gangsters such as Capone and Johnny Torrio got their start working for Coughlin or Kenna.

None of that followed Coughlin to Colorado Springs, known then as now for its majestic scenery, but also for its dry air and tuberculosis sanitariums.

The double fogure-8 roller coaster at the Zoo Park. From the collection of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.
The double fogure-8 roller coaster at the Zoo Park. From the collection of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. 

"Two years ago I came to Colorado Springs to spend a short vacation," Coughlin was quoted in The Gazette on Dec. 30, 1902. "I had visited nearly every summer resort in the United States and as I had heard of this place, I decided to come here and try it. Now, I would not think of spending my vacations elsewhere."

He purchased a home on Cheyenne Road - now West Cheyenne Road - as his summer residence.

In 1906, he opened Zoo Park, the "Coney Island of the West," to rave reviews.

"Everybody who went out to the Zoo liked the place," a May 31, 1906, article in The Gazette said. "They went seeking pleasure and found it in both quantity and quality."

Located at Cheyenne Road and Eighth Street, Zoo Park was a combination zoo and amusement park. The Old Mill was a water ride with a circuit of over 2,000 feet. The roller-coaster featured two figure eights and a 200-foot-tall slide emptied into a pond.

True to his roots, many of the rides came from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Coughlin is reported to have bought them at a bargain price, since he already had been charging for their storage on city property.

The star attraction among the over 100 animals in the menagerie was Princess Alice, an elephant that drank a pint of whiskey a day. The pickled pachyderm had been obtained from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo after Coughlin had convinced the city council that maintaining two elephants was a waste of taxpayer money.

Other animal attractions included a sacred cow from India, African lions, camels and buffalo. The staff let the monkeys run loose one season and the alpha monkey, Groucho, kidnapped a guest's dog and held it captive in a tree.

Tragically, Princess Alice froze to death one winter when her handlers forgot to light a warming fire during a blizzard. That would turn out to be the first of several unfortunate setbacks that would lead to Coughlin's permanent departure from Colorado Springs.

The rise of reformers and organized crime was taking a serious bite out of Coughlin's Chicago revenue. Around the same time, the gold fields of Cripple Creek were drying up, and with them, the disposable income of many of Colorado Springs' residents. Despite adding and updating attractions, Zoo Park revenues tumbled.

Then came the fire. Coughlin had donated 1,000 feet of hose and a carriage to the Ivywild Fire District. Ironically, his own home, which had been completed in 1912, caught fire on Sept. 23, 1914.

"Owing to the lack of water connections near the place the fire department was practically helpless and the building burned to the ground with most of the furniture," the Colorado Springs Telegraph reported the next day.

Adding to the injury, Coughlin was billed $20 for the fire district's response.

His income drying up, Coughlin turned to the Colorado Springs bankers that he regarded as friends for financing to keep the animals fed through the winter of 1914-15. He was rebuffed.

The final straw came when Colorado enacted prohibition, outlawing alcohol. Coughlin refused to reside in a dry state and sold the park for next to nothing.

The animals were removed in 1915, with the bears and the sacred cow butchered and served up by a local restaurant. The park itself was eventually sold for building lots.

His love affair with Colorado Springs ended, Coughlin went back to living full time in Chicago. In his later years, he "largely became a doddering figurehead for the Torrio-Capone syndicate, a kindly old gentleman who enjoying telling self-aggrandizing stories about days gone past," according to the Chicago Crime Scenes Blogspot.

He did, however, pay the $20 for the fire response.

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