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Oaks Amusement Park, and its beginnings

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: COURTESY OF SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - These lively dancing ladies's were part of the free entertainment offered in summer stage shows. The Oaks Park Chorus Line would dance onto the stage, singing popular songs and kicking up their heels.When Edward H. Bollinger purchased the Oaks Park Company in 1925, he had aspirations of turning it into one of the largest and finest amusement parks on the west coast. This time was the golden era of amusement parks; investors were capitalizing on the entertainment desires of the middle class and working people. Every major city boasted an amusement park, and by 1919 there were over 1500 parks operating around the United States.

Oaks Park originally opened on May 30th, 1905, two days before the historic Lewis and Clark Exposition. Thousands of curiosity seekers from around the United States and Canada came to visit Portland’s first and only World’s Fair, and to partake of the city’s highlights.

Officials of the Oregon Water Power and Railway trolley line were counting on luring the overflow crowd from the Exposition to visit their new amusement park, and they did. Those visiting “The Oaks” were fascinated by the novel new attractions at the park, and quickly lined up for the giant Ferris Wheel, the Roller Coaster, and the Carousel ride. These innovations soon became mainstays for every newly-built amusement park.

As pointed out in Sara Paulson’s extensively researched Master’s thesis on the subject, Oaks Park has had but a handful of owners. During the first few years, record profits were made by the O.W.P & Railway, as patrons were charged a nickel apiece to the ride the rails, and admission to Oaks Park was only a dime.

In 1909, the Portland Railway Light and Power Company, new owner of the light rail lines and the park grounds, wanted to concentrate on future profits from the streetcars instead of amusements parks. Local theater and museum owner John F. Cordray leased Oaks Park from the power company, and for the next sixteen years practically monopolized the entertainment revenues in the city.

When Cordray unexpectedly died in 1925, Edward Bollinger and his son Robert purchased the park from his widow. Oaks Park was then in the hands of two of the most enthusiastic and dedicated owners imaginable. Through their lifetime the Bollingers’ creative marketing skills, and expertise in upgrading the park and its attractions, contributed to Oaks Park eventually becoming the oldest continuously-operated amusement park in America.

Attractions they introduced included the Giant Whirl, the Mystic Maze, the Laughing Gallery, the Whip, Dodgem Cars, and ever-popular roller coaster called the “Figure Eight”.

The most dramatic and thrilling of the rides was the Chute the Chutes, a two story wooden structure that looked out over the eastern side of The Oaks. Patrons were required to climb a set of stairs that zig-zagged back and forth to the top of the tower. Passengers then took a seat in a flat bottom boat that whisked the riders down a steep incline plunging into a small man-made lake below. Adventurous riders took their positions on backless seats with only a polished steel handrail to hang onto! If they didn’t suffer terrible back and shoulder pain after the ride was over, they certainly could tell about the drenching they’d received when the boat splashed into water below, covering any thrill-seeker who dared to sit in the front row of the ride. An attendant clad in rubber waders and waterproof clothing guided the boat with a long pike-pole back onto the track that would haul the boat back up the ramp for the next batch of ticket holders.

The “Barrel of Fun” was included in one of Frederick Bracher’ s more memorable accounts of his own visit to the park in the 1920’s. In his Oregon Historical Quarterly submission entitled “How it was then”, he observed that “The Barrel of Fun included screaming skeletons, mazes of mirrors, and dark dead-end hallways that offered a variety of thrills for most young folks. Unsuspecting females who stepped on a rigged grating were surprised when a light turned on and a blast of compressed air blew up from below, lifting their skirts to an absolutely astounding level.”

For serious and more mature adults, the dark and secluded tunnels in the Mystic River Ride offered a chance for young man to sneak a quick kiss on the cheek of his date, or the special girl he was fond of.

For mom and dad and other family members, the dance pavilion and the outdoor bandstand and auditorium drew some of the best entertainers from around the world. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the John Philip Sousa Marching Band, and Patrick Conway and his World Famous Band all appeared at “The Oaks”. In 1926 a local favorite was the Normandy Girls Band, made up of eight talented ladies who entertained audiences with their ukuleles, banjos, and mandolins, along with other unheard-of instruments like the sousaphone and the “fish horn”.

A “floating” bath house was anchored at the south end of the park along the river, and bathers could dive off a twelve-foot tower, or bathe in the murky waters of the Willamette that flowed freely into the tanks. Large wooden slats allowed the current of the river into the pool, and kept big fish and water creatures away from the bathers. One-piece bathing suits could be rented for a small fee, and after use they were collected by pool attendants and carried to the roof of the bath house to be dried by the sun and rented out to the next swimmer.

Frederick Bracher continues his reminiscence by reporting that the first swimsuit issued was a basic black suit with a short skirt worn by both boys and girls. By 1930, the Oaks Park swimming pool was deemed unsafe and closed because of possible water contamination. Westmorelanders and Sellwood residents moved over to the chemically-treated waters of the new public Sellwood Pool, opened in 1925 in Sellwood Park at 7th and S.E. Miller.

The Oaks faced stiff competition when the Jantzen Beach Amusement Company opened its own amusement park in North Portland on May 26th, 1928, welcoming over 15,000 visitors. Two years later, Lotus Park on Tomahawk Island offered Portlanders the opportunity of viewing a reproduction of the Eiffel Tower at its entrance. The Bollingers welcomed the challenge, and were constantly on the lookout for innovative and new sources of entertainment. They hired promoter Rudie Shaw, who booked some outstanding vaudeville acts into the park. Shaw’s entertainment included high wire performances from the “Three Barlows”, contortionist Peggy Ward “the human pretzel”, and the “Cycling Newmans”, who performed a boxing match on stage from motorized vehicles.

Lotus Island Amusement Park lasted only two years, and the pioneering Council Crest Amusement Park, located on the west side of the river, lasted from 1905 to 1940. Jantzen Beach was the only park to successfully give The Oaks a run for its money, but it was replaced by a shopping mall in the 1970’s.

Through the ensuing years at The Oaks, buildings, arcades, and attractions came and went, as floods and fires took their toll, while other structures and rides at the park were deemed unsafe or outmoded and were torn down. The dance hall and the skating rink are original buildings that survived the rampaging floodwaters of the Willamette River in 1913, 1948, and 1996.

In 1985 Robert Bollinger, who had continued operating Oaks Park after his father’s death, created a nonprofit organization to oversee the duties, operations, and funds, of the park to ensure its success in perpetuity.

Today, what was once the Mystic River Ride is now being renovated, being torn back to its bare bones, and it will be thrilling to see what the management of the country’s longest-continuously-operating amusement park will offer in its place.

Whatever it is will stand in mute testamony to the strength of the dream that the Bollingers had over 85 years ago.