Home of Miss Able sign.

Monkey Island, Home of America's First Space Monkey

Field review by the editors.

Independence, Kansas

In the 1930s the WPA built a number of small "monkey islands" at zoos across the U.S. Surrounded by a pond, the islands afforded visitors a clear view of the monkeys, which could not escape and were allowed to frolic freely. The Monkey Island at Ralph Mitchell Zoo was particularly elaborate, with a castle, a main street with storefronts, a jail, a windmill, and even a miniature Liberty Bell.

This was fertile soil, and it nurtured the first non-communist primate to travel into outer space. Her name was Miss Able, a rhesus monkey who had been born on Monkey Island, and she was strapped into an American Jupiter rocket (along with Miss Baker, another monkey) and fired 300 miles into the thermosphere on May 28, 1959.

Miss Able, monkey.

If the Ralph Mitchell Zoo harbored hopes of becoming the home of a space celebrity -- and maybe building a little rocket for the island -- they were quickly dashed. Miss Able returned safely to Earth, but died the next day during surgery to remove her electrodes.

Monkey Island's rhesus monkeys were eventually replaced with spider monkeys, and then capuchin monkeys. Its structures were allowed to decay. Today, all that remains of its real estate is the aging castle. Vegetation was added in the 1980s, which probably pleases the monkeys but isn't as photo-friendly as a windmill.

For years the Ralph Mitchell Zoo at least had a decent sign -- of a cartoon monkey hanging out of a rocket -- telling Miss Able's story. But it was replaced in the late 1990s with a more serious one -- strictly informative.

Monkey Island, Home of America's First Space Monkey

Riverside Park

Address:
Wells Drive, Independence, KS
Directions:
North side of town, just east of US Hwy 75, in the Ralph Mitchell Zoo in Riverside Park. Two lions at the entrance, drive into park past locomotive toward fences, watch for small zoo sign.
Save to My Sights

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August 22, 2019

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