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Dallas Schenk and Robert Bradford negotiating the watery entryway of Oaks Park in the flood of 1964; the photo is taken from Oaks Park calendar in Joannes collection, obtained for her by Glenn La Fontaine.Some people get to witness history; others become a part of history. JoAnne Schenk, with the help of her dad and their little motorboat became part of the story of the historic flood of 1964, when they helped saved the roller skating rink at Oaks Park.

Throughout its history, The Oaks Amusement Park has survived its share of disasters and mishaps – from the floods of 1948, 1964, and 1996, to the Columbus Day Storm that damaged many of the park’s prized Oak Trees. One of the park’s most popular rides, the wooden 2½-story Shoot the Chutes, caught on fire and burned to the ground in the late 1920’s. Even two World Wars and the Depression of the 1930’s provided a challenge to the park’s owner, Ed Bollinger, when few people could afford to attend the park’s attractions.

But through troubled and times and good ones, Oaks Park has continued as this nation’s longest continuously operated amusement park, and one of the City of Portland’s “crown jewels” attractions.

Oaks Park was built in the spring of 1905, when the owners of the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company decided to construct an amusement park along their new interurban railway line, then being constructed through the Sellwood neighborhood. The interurban ran as far east as Estacada, and even farther south to Oregon City and to Canemah Park, where thousands of people gathered for weekend outings.

Fred Morris, President of the interurban railway, invested $100,000 to construct an Amusement Park that would draw Portlanders and out-of-state visitors via their trolley line to the new attraction. Extra money collected from admission to the park, plus the increase of ridership on the interurban, would provide new revenue for the company.

The site chosen for the amusement park was a narrow 44-acre peninsula sitting at river level – precariously close to the east bank of the Willamette River. All of the structures and amusement rides built for the park had to be constructed on pilings.

During the first few months that Oaks Park was open, 300,000 people attended events that ranged from band concerts to comedians and vaudeville acts, to viewing live animals. One of the top draws and the management’s most profitable venue was the roller skating rink, which attracted young and old.

Park Superintendent – and at one time, an electrician during construction of the park – Edward H. Bollinger bought Oaks Park in 1925. Combining his marketing skills and ingenuity, Edward added new rides yearly, and hired showbusiness agent Rudy Shaw to present fresh acts to attract fraternity and social groups, families, and visitors new to Portland, to the best place for local entertainment, Oaks Park.

Unfortunately, in 1948, one of Portland’s worst disasters – the Vanport flood – struck the park hard. Although the doomed community of Vanport was miles away near the Columbia River, when the dike broke, the high Columbia waters backed up into the Willamette; and as Bryan Aalberg reported in his history of Oaks Amusement Park, the high waters of that flood swamped the park for thirty days. Most of the rides were warped, and water damage to the roller skating rink took five months to repair.

Once Bollinger decided to rebuild the expensive floor of the skating rink, engineers and the Park Superintendent conceived the plan to tie airtight iron barrels under the new floor. In the case of another flood, the floor could be floated above the waters, saving the expense of building another floor.

Since she entered grade school, JoAnne Schenk spent almost every minute of her free time skating, working, playing, and practically living at Oaks Park. She wouldn’t discover until years later that herself and her family would be pivotal in helping save the roller rink on which she enjoying skating for so many years.

JoAnne started skating when she was 12, taking lessons from longtime Oaks Parks icon – and lifetime employee – Dale Pritchard, who taught Joanne the basics of roller skating; and from there she was just a natural on the skating rink. Besides skating, she also worked the outdoor snack bar, and occasionally sat behind the admission counter. Even later she herself became a skating instructor at the rink.

Even when not working at the amusement park, it seemed Joanne couldn’t keep away. Waterskiing down the Willamette, with her dad Dallas manning the boat, was one of her favorite summertime activities. The dock at Oaks Park was the ideal launching platform for her water sports. With a laugh, Joanne replied that “Dale Pritchard taught me to roller skate, and I taught him how to water ski!”

In The 1950’s and 60’s, Joanne was part of the competitive Oaks Park Skater Club. She competed in figure and freestyle skating, pairs dance team with Ron Gustafson, and speed skating. The team traveled to competitions as far away as the East Coast, and to meets in California where skating was popular. When the national skating championship was held in Cleveland Ohio in 1958, at the fabulous Rollercade, she wore number 982 on her back, and skated against some of Americas best young freestylers. “I would never have had a chance to see those parts of country without the support of the skating community,” remembers Joanne.

Shows were presented to paying audiences at the Oaks Park Skating Rink to finance competition meets, uniforms, and skating equipment. The Oaks Skater Club performed in team programs, much like the musical movie shows of the 40’s and 50’s. Performers dressed as can-can girls, Hawaiian dancers, and Arabian tribesmen performing themed skits, routines, and shows on skates to the audiences’ delight. “Mom made my costumes, and dad helped build the background scenes each year,” remembers Joanne.

All of that almost came to an end in December of 1964, when a cold snap hit the Portland area. Low temperatures, followed by an intense snowstorm, caused a buildup of ice under a heavy snow pack, forcing The Oaks maintenance crew to button down every ride and close off unused buildings for the winter.

A sudden rise in temperature caused the snow rapidly to turn to slush, and suddenly massive flooding occurred throughout the city. The Willamette River rose to a high level of 29 feet, and city officials called on all available help and city workers to save Portland’s waterfront – while little thought was given to the protection of Portland’s historic amusement park.

News reports of the time say that “water gushed through the gates, immersing the park in eight feet of brown water”. The elegantly-carved animals of the musical carousel stood in water up to their necks.

Part time employees who normally were hired just for the summer season were called in to help, by Bollinger. Workers with chainsaws were standing ready to save the roller rink, but couldn’t reach it due to the height of the water. Joanne Schenk, and her father Dallas, were among of the first to arrive with a boat, so the Schenk family came to the rescue, transporting park workers by motorcraft into the roller rink, so the $40,000 treasured wooden maple floor could be saved.

Maintenance personnel worked for four anxious hours to cut the 100-by-200-foot floor from its supports, freeing the rink floor to float to safety above the rising tide. Damage to the flooded park still cost new owner Robert Bollinger over $100,000 – and, surprisingly, it was not insured, even though Robert Bollinger and his dad Edward had witnessed the same damage in the 1948 flood.

On and off during that busy day, park employees arrived, eager to help in preserving any park equipment they could, and showing owner Bollinger their support. Workers took the valuable carousel animals apart, transferring them into a dry section at the dance pavilion. Throughout the rest of the day and late into the evening, the Schenk boat shuttled helpers in and out of the park.

When the floodwaters finally receded, helpers donned fishing waders and shoveled hundreds of pounds of mud and sludge out of the skating rink. Drying machines were brought in by Bollinger, and the skating rink was up and running in a short amount of time. The Wurlitzer organ that was purchased from the Broadway Theater in downtown Portland had been safely situated in a loft above the rink and suffered only minor damage, since the organ and its pipes were untouched by the muddy waters.

When Edward Bollinger died in 1949, his vision of preserving The Oaks Amusement Park permanently was passed on to his son Robert Bollinger, who kept the park running for future generations to enjoy. Long before he passed away in 2004, Robert ensured that Oaks Park would never turn into a residential development: In 1985, he transferred ownership of the park to a nonprofit organization that would keep Oaks Park operating perpetually.

So, it will be fifty years this December since the great flood of 1964 – but thanks to the dedication and the determination of the Bollinger family, their employees, and a young girl and her father’s boat, the skating rink, and the amusement park in which it sits, are still a treasured part of Portland today.

Dismissing her actions as heroic, JoAnne Schenk – who, by the way, met her future husband during the flood, James Barr – summed it all up: “We just did what should have been done” – helping someone in need.

Contract Publishing

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