Portland Was Once Home to the Largest Amusement Park in the Nation

The Big Dipper / Image via Oregon Historical Society

Largest, and according to many sources, MOST AWESOME. It was part carnival, part water park, and existed on 128 acres of Hayden Island land between Portland and Vancouver on the Columbia River. “Portland’s Million Dollar Playground”, Jantzen Beach Amusement Park opened on May 26, 1928, to huge fanfare and even bigger ticket sales.

Image via The Oregonian / Dave Knows Portland
Image via PDXhistory.com

15,000 Portlanders flocked to the new “Coney Island of the West” on opening day (paying just $.10 admission), followed by another 25,000 the following morning. Sights and smells abounded, delighting guests with two swimming pools, a dance pavilion, thrill rides, Midway games, and what was to later become a famous carousel.

In the 1930s, a “railroad” and Venetian Canal rides were added, along with a Fun House that boasted air jets in the floor with animated ghosts and goblins. There was “The Elbow Room” cafe, a promenade with buildings reminiscent of The Enchanted Forest, and bumper cars.

Image via PDXhistory.com
Image via PDXhistory.com

By the 1940s, the park was garnering national attention. The ballroom pavilion drew big-name bands each week and The Big Dipper rollercoaster was the biggest and best in the entire country. The Dipper cost $75,000 to build in 1928 and had a 3,000-foot-long track with reverse curves, 60-degree banks, and one virtual somersault. 55 feet tall at its highest point, it was said to send cars screaming downhill at close to 100 miles an hour.

Screaming guests on The Big Dipper rollercoaster. / Image via hayden-island.com
The Big Dipper / Image via hayden-island.com

At the height of its heyday, the amusement park was drawing in some 725,000 visitors annually.

The Vanport Flood of 1948 would signal the changing of an era.

From the magazine “Goin’ Places”, 1944. / Image via PDXhistory.com

Although Jantzen Beach Amusement Park survived the massive flood that destroyed an entire nearby city, many people began moving out of the area resulting in a loss of ticket sales. Tolls collected on the Interstate Bridge construction during the 1950s weren’t exactly helpful either. Commercial value of the acreage was steadily increasing as attendance slumped and the park was officially closed on Labor Day, 1970, to be replaced with the current Jantzen Beach Mall that remains today.

Not All is Lost

Vestiges of the amusement park are still around these days if you know where to look. The pumping system from the swimming pools remains installed and is used to pump drinking water to the residents of Hayden Island. The wood from The Dipper coaster was salvaged and used to build a small warehouse on SE 22nd and Division, and the Oregon Historical Society has one of its original wooden cars. Perhaps the most famous and sought-after piece of Jantzen Beach though is the historic 1921 wooden carousel.

Jerry Campbell with Janet and Jean Hoke on the Jantzen Beach carousel, July 30, 1950. / Image via PDXhistory.com
Image via MPF Conservation

The building housing the carousel was demolished in 2012, and the structure itself disappeared into storage, feared by many to be lost and forgotten.

Demolition of the carousel building at Jantzen Beach, 2012. / Image via Friends of Portland’s Wooden Carousels

In 2019 however, news emerged that the historic ride may be saved after all. In conjunction with the awesome folks at Restore Oregon and various conservation firms, artists’ renderings were released with hopes that the carousel could be relocated into a permanent and family-friendly home. Perhaps the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park legacy could still live on.

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