Usually this column focuses on the history of individuals, families and places that have long passed, which some people might have heard about but few actually remember. This week, Niagara Discoveries is looking in on a place that existed within the past 75 years and many local residents still recall with fond memories.
Max Oppenheim, a Niagara Falls businessman and philanthropist, began visiting zoos around the United States in the late 1930s when he was nearly 70 years old. In 1941, he developed a vision for a zoo in the city of Niagara Falls, preferably in Hyde Park. He offered to build, and then operate, the zoo at his own expense but was rejected by the Niagara Falls City Council. It may have been because Buffalo already had a large zoo, or possibly with war looming around the world, it was felt the time wasn’t right for a zoo.
Oppenheim, however, was determined to establish a zoo, so he purchased approximately 80 acres of farmland from the DeVantier family on Niagara Falls Boulevard near Witmer Road in the town of Wheatfield (not to be confused with Witmer Road in the town of Niagara). He later bought another 50 acres to grow feed for the animals and allow for future expansion. Although the area was still considered rural, it was not far from the recently opened Bell Aircraft plant as well as housing developments and apartment complexes built for the workers.
The Oppenheim Zoological Society of Niagara County was formally incorporated in December 1943, and opened to the public the following spring. Most of the zoo’s operating budget was funded by Oppenheim. It was overseen by a board of directors. Parking and admission free but memberships were offered to assist with the care and feeding of the animals.
From the start, Oppenheim Zoo was a success. Each year, the official opening day in June was celebrated with much fanfare. “Name the Baby Animal” contests were held each spring and the winners were awarded prizes on opening day. Most species on display were native to North America but there were also animals from Africa, Asia and South America. All the animals were herbivores. As the post World War II baby boom began, the popularity and growth of the zoo increased each year.
Oppenheim continued to invest in both the zoo’s infrastructure and collection. Facilities and amenities were added or improved each year and although local residents made up the bulk of the attendance and repeat visits, it also attracted tourists from Niagara Falls. When Oppenheim died in 1956, the property was deeded to the Zoological Society and he left funding for the continuation of the zoo’s operation. By 1959, the Society was home to over 100 animals and increased visitation triggered the need for additional picnic facilities. Rather than expand the zoo’s footprint, the Society transferred 70 acres to Niagara County for the development of a public park to be called Oppenheim Park.
Despite the fact that in 1965 “attendance was increasing every year” and the zoo was in the “finest condition in its history,” there were questions about how the Society would operate if and when Oppenheim’s financial legacy was depleted. As early as 1958, the Niagara County Legislature voiced concern over whether the county would be asked to take fiscal responsibility for the zoo if the Oppenheim funding should run out. Oppenheim had stipulated that the zoo would always be free of charge although money could be raised through membership and concession sales.
\By the late 1960s, people began to notice that the zoo was showing its age and some of the animals looked uncared for. In the early 1970s, editorials were appearing in the local papers and the Society faced criticism from the public, humane societies and local government. Questions arose about the financial stability of the Zoological Society and what could be done to alleviate the problems.
Civic organizations and youth groups held events to raise funds for the zoo and the Society Board appealed to the public for donations, but things got worse. Politicians used the zoo as a political football, and when seven animals died during the Blizzard of ’77 because zookeepers did not seek help in getting the paths to the animal dwellings cleared to feed them, people were outraged.
The zoo continued to operate through all of the negative publicity. In 1984, there was renewed hope for the zoo when the Niagara County legislature approved $20,000 in funding and a new five-year “Revitalization Plan” was unveiled. Another $30,000 came two years later. But it was too little, too late. The zoo closed in 1988 after operating for 45 years.
For the next 30 years, efforts were made to reopen the zoo but nothing ever came of the plans. In 2017, Niagara County purchased the zoo property from the Society for $5,000 for expansion of Oppenheim Park.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.