When Oklahoma City was in its infancy, the river was where everyone gathered to have fun.
More than a century has passed since Delmar Gardens met its demise, the victim of flooding, mosquitoes, and Oklahoma entering the union as a Prohibition state.
But in its prime, Delmar Gardens, located east of Western Avenue along the north shore of the Oklahoma River, was home to the city's first zoo, ballpark, a beer garden, amusement park and boardwalk.
The rest of the story is well told; the river was “fixed” by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and then brought back to life as part of the 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects and the creation of a boathouse district thanks to Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, and SandRidge Energy.
Talking to Lee Allan Smith, a veteran civic booster and fundraiser, one cannot help but walk away with new dreams and visions for the city's future. And for Smith, whose current task is raising money for the unfinished American Indian Cultural Center on the river's south shore, the big dream is what's next for the Oklahoma River.
Imagine a boardwalk once again lining the river, replacing the rock riprap placed by the Corp of Engineers a half century ago. Imagine restaurants and hotels adding to the mix of exciting amenities already along the river.
Or simply imagine what the river will look like with the currently funded list of improvements being added as part of MAPS 3 and other public-private endeavors.
The river is already a busy destination again, thanks to the rowing programs that call the Chesapeake and Devon boathouses their year-round home. The river is also a training site for the U.S. Olympic rowing team and the Para Olympics.
The Chesapeake Finish-line Tower created a grand viewing stand for rowing and boating events. And two more boathouses, one for the University of Central Oklahoma and another for the University of Oklahoma, are in final planning stages.
Add to this mix the SandRidge Pavilion, nearing completion, which will add zip line, ropes courses and huge slide to the riverside attractions. An elaborate playground, meanwhile, is nearby thanks to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Oklahoma.
MAPS 3 venues, including a viewing grandstand, night time lighting and a white water rapids course, will turn the Regatta Park area at Lincoln Boulevard into what Smith sees as a 21st century Delmar Gardens.
He might be right. So what's next for this vision? Consider that a few years ago, developer Grant Humphreys bought the Santa Monica pier Ferris wheel to be incorporated into a mixed-use development at the old Downtown Airpark along the south shore of the river west of Western Avenue.
That development has yet to take place as planned, and the Ferris wheel remains in storage.
But what if the Ferris wheel, which lights up at night, were to be added to the mix at Regatta Park? Add the eye-catching former landmark to the mix at Regatta Park, and the city might have an irresistible draw for motorists on nearby Interstates 35 and 40 to stop and check out a river that was once an embarrassment to the city.