Oaks Amusement Park

Tucked away in Southeast Portland near the Sellwood Bridge is Oaks Amusement Park, one of the oldest continuously operated amusement parks in the United States. A modest operation, the park currently includes about two dozen rides that operate seasonally, a skating rink that is open year-’round, and picnic grounds. The Oaks has been a part of the lives of many Portlanders and other Oregonians for nearly a hundred years, and many people hold fond memories of it. In 1984, for example, Frederick Bracher remembered his experiences at The Oaks during the 1920s:
The charm of The Oaks, unmistakable to anyone who visited the park, is not easy to explain. It owed something to the natural setting, of course; and the Chutes, the Barrel of Fun, and the Punch and Judy shows added a touch of the strange and wonderful to a familiar background — the long summer twilights of Oregon, the cool sea breeze rustling the leaves overhead, the lingering glow in the western sky, the roiling eddies in the swift dark water of the Willamette below. A luxurious weariness helped to make the day, seen now in retrospect, seem celebratory and solemn…. As we looked back on it during the rainy season, The Oaks seemed to exist in a timeless eternal summer, punctuated by brief showers that sent people good-naturedly scurrying for shelter. Even the autumn decline and closing carried a promise of renewal…. Just before Decoration Day, the special Oaks Express trains would begin to leave the Interurban Station at Second and Alder streets. The park gates would open, the mechanical piano of the Merry-go-round would begin to play the Skaters’ Waltz, and The Oaks would flourish once more, improved by repairs and fresh paint, new rides as well as old favorites.[1]

In 1905, Fred Morris, president of the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company, invested a hundred thousand dollars to develop a forty-four-acre amusement park on the banks of the Willamette River. It was a time when trolley companies occasionally built amusement parks at the end of their lines to increase ticket sales during evenings and weekends, when the trolleys carried fewer passengers. A trolley line ran from downtown Portland to Canemah by way of Oregon City, and Morris located The Oaks at an intermediate point in order to increase short-haul traffic. He also hoped that the park would attract the crowds that were expected to attend the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition — a world’s fair being constructed in Northwest Portland that would attract 1.6 million people during the four and a half months it was open. [2] Morris chose as the site for The Oaks a small isthmus in the city’s Sellwood District, beneath a bluff on the east side of the Willamette River. The site lay partially on a floodplain and was a difficult and costly place to construct a park. With only twenty-one acres suitable for building, nearly every structure at Oaks Park — anything that extended beyond the narrow strip of land occupied by the midway — had to be constructed on pilings. [3]

Oaks Amusement Park officially opened on May 30, 1905, and was considered a success. In its first four-month season, three hundred thousand visitors made their way to the park to swim, enjoy the rides, picnic, and listen to live band music.[4] By 1909, the Spectator, a Portland magazine, reported that “going to The Oaks has become the popular pastime of hundreds of Portland people.”[5] The park continued to draw an average of about three hundred thousand visitors per season for the first ten years of its existence.[6]

In those early years, there were only three ways to get to Oaks Park: on foot, by riverboat, or by trolley. The fifteen-minute trolley ride from downtown Portland at Southwest First and Alder quickly became an integral part of the Oaks Park experience. The popularity of the park and the trolley ride was so great that in 1907 the railway company added fifteen long, open cars ran to and from the park every five minutes. By 1909, according to Randall V. Mills, “On Sundays and holidays as many as 30,000 went to The Oaks, and every one got there by trolley.” [7]
Most amusement parks in the United States have been corporate enterprises, but Oaks Park has been owned by one family — the Bollingers — throughout most of its history. In the early 1920s, the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company sold the operating company stock to John Cordray, a manager of The Oaks. After Cordray died in 1925, Edward Bollinger, the superintendent of the park, bought the — excluding the land — from Cordray’s widow. Almost twenty years later, in 1943, Bollinger and his son, Robert, bought the land from the Portland Electric Power Company. The Bollingers had lived at the park since Robert was a child, and he had become manager of the roller-skating rink when he was twenty-five.[8] When Edward Bollinger died in 1949, Robert took over The Oaks’ ownership and operation.

The Bollingers were also involved in a number of related businesses, including the Coasters in Puyallup, Washington, and a park in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the 1950s, Robert Bollinger further expanded the business to include traveling carnival rides for other amusement parks; and in 1958, with partners Denver Burtenshaw and Gerald McKey, he formed Burrard Amusement, Ltd., which built Playland Park for the Pacific Northwest Exposition in Vancouver, British Columbia. He also owned N.W. Chicago Skate Agency, a wholesale skate distributor, and was co-owner of Funtastic Rides Co., a Northwest supplier of carnival amusement rides.[9]

The rides at Oaks Park have changed over the decades as the park expanded, as floods and fires destroyed them, and as technology brought along new advances. Many of the rides were considered permanent, but others were booked for only short periods of time. In 1909, for example, the Spectator announced that the regular changes in rides at the park made return visits “the rule.” [10] Shoot the Chutes may have been the most popular ride at Oaks Park and it is probably the best remembered. Courageous park-goers climbed seventy feet of zigzagging, open wooden stairs to a platform. Slanting down from the platform was the chute, a twenty-five-degree ramp that ended in a long, shallow pond. Riders sat in a flat-bottomed, open boat that held twelve people, faced forward in backless seats, and nervously gripped the handrail in front of them. The ride tenders maneuvered the boats onto greased rollers, gave a shove, and the boat rushed down the chute at tremendous speed. The boat hit the water with a rousing crash, drenching the passengers before it skimmed across the pond to the far end, where a worker in rubber waders pushed it to shore with a pikepole. [11]

Two roller coasters attracted visitors to Oaks Park in the early years, combining technological thrills with the pleasures of viewing the surrounding countryside. Frederick Bracher remembered that the “Scenic Railway was much better — that is, more thrilling — than its decorous counterpart at Council Crest,” offering a series of steep drops and banked curves.[12] The Zip, a metal rollercoaster, was designed to cover more area than Oaks Park had available when it was built on-site, probably in the mid–1920s. The ride was “a little sharp, a little tight and a little rough.” It thrilled riders with sharp turns and drops that took them dangerously close to the water around the park. The management removed the Zip about six years after it was built for fear that the ride might shake itself to the ground.[13]

Carousels offered a contrast to the thrill and speed of the roller coasters.[14] When the park opened in 1905, a Herschell–Spillman carousel carried riders on twenty-four leaping animals and four chariots while a band organ played music. Eighteen electrically driven wheels rotated the platform. The carousel was sold in 1928 to free up more space for the newer model that had been installed in 1924.[15]

The second carousel — a Herschell–Spillman Noah’s Ark, or menagerie, carousel manufactured in about 1920 — is still in the park. The ride features two rows of hand-carved, jumping animals — two horses, two roosters, two frogs, two dragons, two giraffes, and so on — that lift and fall as the carousel revolves. Stationary animals are mounted on a two-tiered platform, and small horses are positioned in front of chariots. Two band organs provide music played from paper rolls. The carousel has withstood decades of enthusiastic use and four floods. In the 1964 flood, the elegantly carved animals stood in water up to their necks. When a horse was stolen from the carousel in the early 1960s, Portlanders were outraged, and an article in the Sunday Oregonian’s Northwest Magazine compared the loss to theft from a library or museum. The Oaks Park carousel is one of only two hundred “classic” carousels remaining in the world and one of two still operating in Oregon.[16] It is the only part of the Oaks Amusement Park that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1905 and 1930, the Oaks Amusement Park boasted elephant acts, high divers, trapeze acts, and flagpole sitters. There were monkeys, bears, lions, an ostrich farm, and an aquarium. Visitors could watch outdoor movies, ride ponies, and watch balloon ascensions and fireworks displays. In 1909, a couple was married inside a cage with two lions, and in the 1950s, the park had a roller-skating elephant. By the middle of the twentieth century, most of these attractions were gone, the victims of unpopularity or of natural disasters such as fires or floods. The only permanent attractions that endured the Great Depression were the dancing pavilion, the roller-skating rink, and the picnic areas, which are still used today. [17] Since 1995 the park has hosted the Multnomah County Fair, and each year it celebrates Oaks Park’s birthday in May, the Fourth of July, and Octoberfest.

The natatorium, a bathhouse at Oak’s Park, took advantage of the park’s riverside location. The oblong tank was about six feet deep, made of wooden slats set a few inches apart and hung from a float to allow river water to run through into the pool. Swimmers could stay in the pool or cross the barrier into the river itself. On three sides, patrons found dressing rooms where they could change into rented black swimsuits. From balconies on the top floor of the bathhouse, above the dressing rooms, onlookers could look down on the swimmers. By 1930, the natatorium was closed because of reports that the Willamette River was polluted and unsafe for swimming. The park’s owners considered building a swimming pool that was separate from the river, but those plans were abruptly halted when the city of Portland made the nearby swimming pool in Sellwood free to the public.[18]

A four-thousand-seat auditorium and an outdoor pavilion located in a grove at the far end of the park hosted local bands and popular musical groups from around the nation between the time the park opened in 1905 and the 1930s. The open-air stage, with its gracefully curved, shell-shaped backboard, bustled with music and vaudeville entertainment twice a day.[19] All stage acts were free with admission to the park, and people often watched them while picnicking. A band concert was heard every evening during the week and twice on Sundays.[20] Oaks Park hosted William McElroy’s Band, D. Urbano’s Royal Italian Band, and the renowned John Philip Sousa Band, which preferred to play in the outdoor pavilion because of the natural setting and because the auditorium was “too noisy.”[21] In a letter to John Cordray in 1917, Sousa’s band manager expressed his admiration of The Oaks:
it was very noticeable that everything around the park was kept up in first class shape and neatness was very observable. The class of the people on the grounds was above average in quality. The way the public was handled showed a splendid system, and the freedom from any rough element was a comfort…. Mr. Sousa called it [The Oaks] a beautiful place to play.[22] A puppet-show booth near Shoot the Chutes also offered free shows, such as “The Punch and Judy Show.”

Because of rainy weather, rides, attractions, and picnic areas were open only during the four-month summer season — from Memorial Day to Labor Day — but the roller-skating rink was open year-’round, contributing significantly to park income.[23] The rink opened in 1905 and is now the oldest continuously operated skating rink in the nation. A skating club that was formed in the late 1930s as a social group evolved into clubs whose members have participated in artistic-, dance-, speed-, and hockey-skating competitions across the state, region, and nation.

For the first twenty years, the rink offered live music, with a brass band situated in a loft directly above the rink and a large Wurlitzer organ providing accompaniment. In 1925, a two-manual William Wood Console organ with five sets of pipes replaced the Wurlitzer. In 1955, Robert Bollinger purchased another Wurlitzer organ from the Broadway Theater in downtown Portland for about five thousand dollars. The Mighty Wurlitzer, a four-manual, eighteen-rank organ with 1,242 pipes, 2,525 magnets, 4,700 pouches, and over 500,000 feet of wire, was installed without shutters to make it loud enough to be heard over the din made by the skaters.[24]

By the 1930s, a significant change was apparent in the business climate for amusement parks in the United States. The Great Depression brought a serious loss of revenue to the industry, and increasingly common automobiles allowed people the convenience and relative ease of driving to a variety of other amusements. [25] Many amusement parks in the Pacific Northwest closed down, including Lotus Isle (1928–1932), Columbia Beach (1916–1926), and Council Crest (1905–1941) in the Portland area and Luna Park (1907–1913) in Seattle. By the early 1940s, only Oaks Park and Jantzen Beach Amusement Park (1928–1970) were left in the greater Portland metropolitan area.

Oaks Park also had to contend with natural disasters. In 1928, the park lost one of its most popular rides when Shoot the Chutes burned to the ground. In 1948, the Vanport flood devastated The Oaks, swamping the park for thirty days, drowning a third of the oak trees on the bluff, and warping most of the rides. Water damage to the roller-skating rink took five months to repair.[26] When the park had started to flood, the wooden floor began float. Park engineers, fearing that the building would collapse, weighted down the floor with sandbags, completely submerging it under the floodwaters, which drastically warped it. After the floodwaters subsided, Oaks Park’s superintendent, Walker Leroy, contacted some engineers he knew at Portland Electric Power Company, and they developed a plan to rebuild the floor of the rink on airtight iron barrels, allowing it to float in the event of another flood. Six-by-six-foot wooden timbers supported the rest of the building. [27]

The ingenious design had two separate occasions to prove itself. When the Christmas flood of 1964 immersed the park under eight feet of rolling brown water, park employees used chainsaws to cut the floor loose from the supports at the first sign of water seeping into the building. The rest of the park suffered significant damage, but the rink reopened in a month.[28] The floor floated and was saved again during the floods of 1996.

By 1972, the Oregon Journal could report that “the Oaks … may be on the verge of a renaissance.”[29] The Bee, a Sellwood community paper, reported in 1975: “The Oaks today has not lost that magic pull … 30,000 people a month still come during the summer.”[30] The resurgence of Oaks Park in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the nation’s general economic prosperity, the growth in population in Sellwood and Portland, and the absence of any competing amusement parks in Portland after Jantzen Beach closed in 1970.[31]

Investments in the park also paid off. Between 1965 and 1985, the park invested $1.5 million in park improvements.[32] During the 1960s, the lowlands on the south side of the park were filled with dirt left over from the construction on the I-5 and I-205 freeways and from the dredged-out sections of docking stations at the Oregon Yacht Club nearby. The newly created land raised the ground under buildings that had previously perched as high as twenty feet on wooden pilings and gave the park room to expand to about forty-four acres.[33]

On January 17, 1985, Robert Bollinger announced the creation of the Oaks Park Association, a nonprofit organization that would operate the park through a board of directors. The Oaks had significant personal meaning for Bollinger, and he believed that its family-oriented character, low prices, and hometown feel made it unique. The association helps preserve the park’s character, protecting it from development and ensuring that the land can only be used for an amusement park. Bollinger donated $5 million to the association in land, buildings, amusement rides, and other stock and business interests.[34] The Oaks Park Association also concentrated on a philosophical reorientation of the park, redirecting it from modernization efforts pursued during the previous two decades toward a nostalgic orientation.[35]

Since its opening in 1905, Oaks Park has been a staple of entertainment for the community of Portland and for visitors. A description in an Oregon Journal article in 1980, on the occasion of the park’s seventy-fifth anniversary, still holds true as The Oaks nears its centennial in 2005:
[The Oaks] seems always to have been there, but it is never very much in the news. It’s something that regionally is taken for granted, like rain and green trees…. like the Willamette River beside which it nestles, the Oaks seems always ready to roll on.”[36]

Notes

1.� Frederick Bracher, “How It Was Then: The Pacific Northwest in the Twenties,” part 3, Oregon Historical Quarterly 85:2 (Summer 1984): 179–80.

2.� Michael McCammon, “Exploring Our History: Oaks Park Local Treasure Spans Generations,” Portland Family, March 1996; Judith A. Adams, The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 57; Randall V. Mills, “Early Electric Interurbans in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 44:1 (March 1943): 94–5.

3.� Dale Pritchard, rink manager and museum curator, interview by author, Portland, Ore., November 6, 1999.

4.� Mills, “Early Electric Interurbans,” 95.

5.� “The Oaks, Portland’s Popular Playground,” Spectator 5:25 (September 4, 1909): 26.

6.� Robert Bollinger, interview by author, Portland, Ore., September 5, 1999; Pritchard interview; C.F. St. Charles, “A Day at ‘The Oaks,'” Northwest, the Sunday Oregonian Magazine, June 8, 1975.

7.� Mills, “Early Electric Interurbans,” 95.

8.� Pritchard interview.

9.� Bollinger interview.

10.� “The Oaks, Portland’s Popular Playground.”

11.� Bracher, “How It Was Then,” 174–5.

12.� Ibid., 174.

13.� Pritchard interview.

14.� A carousel has a variety of wooden animals, whereas a merry-go-round has only horses.

15.� Oaks Park Web site, www.rbollinger.com/html/robert.html , under “The Oaks” (May 22, 2003); “History—The Oaks Carousel,” typescript prepared for the Oaks museum, November 23, 1998, copy in author’s possession.

16.� Ibid.; Rick Rubin, “Carrousel at Oaks Park,” Northwest, the Sunday Oregonian Magazine, May 29, 1966; Pritchard interview.

17.� “The Oaks, Portland’s Popular Playground”; Pritchard interview.

18.� Pritchard interview.

19.� Bracher, “How It Was Then,” 178.

20.� Season program, Auditorium at Oaks Park, 1917, on display at Oaks Park Museum.

21.� St. Charles, “A Day at ‘The Oaks.'”

22.� Edwin G. Clarke, manager of Sousa’s Band, to John Cordray, manager/owner of Oaks Park, 1917, on display at Oaks Park Museum.

23.� Pritchard interview; Bollinger interview. See also “3,500 Visit Oaks Park,” Morning Oregonian, August 24, 1925.

24.� Oaks Park Web site, www.rbollinger.com/html/robert.html , under “The Oaks” (May 22, 2003); “History—The Oaks Roller Skating Music,” typescript prepared for the Oaks museum, April 10, 1999, copy in author’s possession.

25.� Adams, American Amusement Park Industry, 66, 80.

26.� Bollinger interview.

27.� “Water Ruins Oaks Park,” Sunday Oregonian, December 27, 1964.

28.� Bollinger interview. See also “Water Ruins Oaks Park.”

29.� Arnold Marks, “Oaks Park, Only One of Kind Left, to Open 67th Year of Entertaining,” Oregon Journal, March 15, 1972.

30.� Tom Pry, “Oaks Park Has Lasting Impact in Sellwood,” Bee (Portland, Ore.), July 31, 1975.

31.� Pritchard interview.

32.� Ibid. See also “Bollinger Donates Oaks Park to Portland,” Portland, the Magazine of Oregon Life and Business, March 1985, 45; “Bollinger Turns ‘Oaks’ Over to Non-profit,” Bee, January 24, 1985, 45.

33.� Steve Erickson, “Oaks Park Plans Special Celebration,” Sunday Oregonian, August 1, 1980.

34.� “Bollinger Donates Oaks Park.”

35.� Mary Beth Coffey, member of Oaks Park Association, interviews by author, Portland Ore., August–December, 1999.

36.� Jack Pement, “The Oaks, Aging, but Still a Spry 75,” Oregon Journal, May 13, 1980.

 

 

By: Bryan Aalberg

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