The Golden Years of Portland’s “Million Dollar Playground”

by Ella Menashe

May 26, 1928, was a day like no other. The sky was a cloudless blue, the sun was shining brightly, and birds sang cheerfully as families arose to greet the pristine Saturday morning.

Little fingers held tightly to their larger counterparts as laughter and enthusiasm exploded through the city of Portland, Oregon, in a bustling rush toward the gleaming archway of Jantzen Beach Amusement Park. Picnic baskets were jostled about with the general push and pull of enthusiasm as families experienced their first-ever day at the park. From picnicking to swimming to riding any of 28 separate rides, there was hardly a dull moment at Jantzen Beach Amusement Park (Purdy 168). For many of the children who visited Jantzen Beach during its 42 years of existence, days at the park grew to become some of their happiest memories, long after childhood had faded into the blur of the past.

Jantzen Beach Amusement Park touched many lives between its opening in 1928 and its closure in 1970. As a visitor later recounted, “I am now 63 years old and looking back more than five decades to my earliest years as a boy, I recall with great fondness those magic days spent at that magical place called the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park” (qtd. in Rosman).  Filled to the brim with constant excitement, the park welcomed a total of 30 million visitors in its history, and for good reason; the park was home to a ferris wheel, four pools, a restaurant, a ballroom, a roller coaster, and, most importantly, a carousel (Purdy). Known as the Jantzen Beach Carousel, it spans almost seventy feet in diameter and holds 72 hand-carved horses (“About Us”). The carousel was built in Kansas in 1904 for the St. Louis’ World’s Fair by Charles Wallace (C.W.) Parker, who is known as the “American Amusement King” for his many ornate carousels (Re-TURN the Jantzen Beach Carousel). The only one of Parker’s “large, extravagant ‘park’ machines” still in existence, the Jantzen Beach Carousel had several of the horses that were carved by inmates at the Leavenworth Penitentiary (“History”) (Wheeler). From Kansas, the carousel eventually moved to Venice, California, and finally to the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park in Portland, Oregon in 1928. Here, the much-beloved carousel received its name and entered the childhoods of many (“About Us”). Created originally as a tool to help sell Jantzen Beach Swimwear, the park became known as Portland’s “Million Dollar Playground” and gained popularity after its opening. However, by 1950, the allure of the magical park was beginning to fade, until it finally closed on Labor Day of 1970 (Killen).

The history of Jantzen Beach isn’t completely idyllic, however; a series of accidents and scandals brought forth the notion that the park itself was ill-fated. Jantzen Beach Amusement Park’s tremendous success in the first years after its opening caught the attention of the public eye, and, in particular, of a group of investors who had a plan in mind. In an attempt to make money, the investors decided to build a competing amusement park, called Lotus Isle, off the east tip of Hayden Island. Their goal to persuade Jantzen Beach’s owners, Carl Jantzen, in particular, to buy Lotus Isle did not seem to be succeeding. Carl Jantzen was not intimidated by the existence of Lotus Isle; on the contrary, he was enthusiastic. With Jantzen’s joyful blessing, Lotus Isle opened in 1930– just two years after Jantzen Beach– but its success was dashed when, two months later, a sixteen year-boy fell off the roller coaster and drowned in the Columbia River. The owner of Lotus Isle was so upset by this tragic event that he committed suicide the following day. In 1932, the “gaudily themed Parisian” park closed due to bankruptcy (Wheeler). Needless to say, Lotus Isle was not able to eclipse the success of Jantzen Beach. In addition to this scandal, the Vanport Flood of 1948 and a fire in 1960 both took a toll on the park, along with Jantzen Beach’s own roller coaster death in 1959.

When the park eventually closed in 1970, the carousel remained at Jantzen Beach, which, by then, was no longer an amusement park. The spectacular park, which once hosted about 750 thousand visitors per season, was transformed into the Jantzen Beach Center, a shopping center, the year after the park’s closure (Rosman). In 1996, the Jantzen Beach Center became Jantzen Beach SuperCenter™ with the redevelopment of the mall. At the Jantzen Beach SuperCenter™, the carousel was on display and functioning for sixteen yearsthat is, until the shopping center was renovated yet again. With its fifty million dollar remodel in 2012, the center was transformed into the Jantzen Beach it is today: an outdoor shopping mall in its original location out on Hayden Island (Rosman). The Jantzen Beach Carousel then caught the attention of a local nonprofit called Restore Oregon, who added it to their “Most Endangered Places” list after learning that it had been dismantled and stored, no longer preserving its historical integrity (“The Carousel”).

By doing restorative work to maintain and preserve historical places all around the state, Restore Oregon acts as a liaison between what exists now and what used to be. The organization’s action to restore the Jantzen Beach Carousel is just one example of their many endeavors to be involved in bettering Oregon’s community. Founded in 1977 as the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, the later-titled Restore Oregon maintains history by preserving landmarks throughout the state that make Oregon unique. The nonprofit acts as “active stewardship” to maintain historic spaces for future generations, and has launched dozens of preservation projects through a variety of programs around the state. In visiting the organization for myself, I was able sense the passion and joy that the people of Restore Oregon bring to these projects, and the sense of enthusiasm around being able to save pieces of history.

I swung open the heavy glass door, and was promptly greeted with a warm whoosh of air as I stepped inside the tall building that housed Restore Oregon’s headquarters. Following the directions I had been given, I headed toward the doorway that was clearly marked with a navy, white, and mustard yellow ‘Restore Oregon’ sign. Almost immediately, it seemed, as my foot crossed the threshold, I was greeted by Peggy Moretti, the executive director of the organization, with a warm handshake and an infectious smile. Although I only had the pleasure of spending an hour in Moretti’s company, the first few moments in her presence taught me all I needed to know: she is someone who exudes a simple sense of goodness. Moretti’s care for others and bettering the world around her was clear as we talked about her work with Restore Oregon.

Moretti’s favorite part of working with Restore Oregon is the ability to meet such fascinating people and learn about the stories of others in the past. With great enthusiasm, she told me about working with historic places: “It’s about what happened there, and the stories, and the history, and so there are all the stories around the places themselves whether it’s the Oregon Trail Pioneers, or the people who came across in a covered wagon…every place tells a story. And those stories I find just really, really fascinating.” Moretti’s tangible excitement for history was apparent as she talked, making her easily one of the most genuine people I have spoken to. As we spoke, the theme of ‘character’ in the context of place occurred repeatedly, and brought up the question of what, exactly, builds the character of a city or state.

To many people who grew up in Portland between 1928 and 1970, the Jantzen Beach Carousel helped build the sense of character of our state. Moretti told me that the carousel “started out as an Endangered Place, and then we got a call that they [the owners of the shopping center] were asking if we would accept it as a donation. Because they were selling the shopping center where it used to be, and it had been kept right there- even when they took it all down and put it away, they hadn’t shipped it somewhere else- it was just nearby. So it had never actually gone very far, but they really needed to do something with it.” Moretti continued to explain that Restore Oregon had been reaching out to the owners of the Jantzen Beach Center, persuading them that the carousel needed to find a home in Portland. The shopping center effectively told Restore Oregon that if they were serious about their intentions, then the shopping center would donate the carousel to Restore Oregon, who then be charged with finding a suitable home for the carousel. Moretti explained cheerfully, “So we decided we were willing to do that. And it’s a really big project; we don’t normally take ownership of our Endangered Places,” she said, laughing, “it’s also a really big carousel, just about the biggest ever made.”

The carousel has come with its fair share of challenges, though. First and foremost, its size provides a difficult task of finding a place large enough to house it. Moretti told me that, right now, the carousel can’t go into an existing building for the simple reason that there are none big enough! To combat this situation, Restore Oregon rallied a committee called their ‘Blue Ribbon Committee’, full of people, “who have really diverse perspectives and wide relationships, because we knew we’d need to tap into so many different pools of knowledge, and various opportunities,” Moretti explained. Looking forward, she estimates that this project will take several years to figure out. Until then, the organization will continue looking for the perfect home for such a piece of iconic Portland history. Moretti has a clear goal in mind, and she would love to see the carousel go back into use, someday. “Because, ultimately, I would love to see that the Jantzen Beach Carousel is put in a great spot that’s both scenic, and where the carousel helps stimulate even more great activity going on there,” she told me, “and it becomes one of those things you do. It’s like Voodoo Donuts, and Powell’s Books, and the Portland White Stag sign, it’s one of those icons, that when you go to Portland, you’ve got to ride the carousel! It’s just one of those things you do.”

A few days before speaking with Moretti and touring Restore Oregon, I had visited the Oregon Historical Society to learn more about the tremendous role it undertakes in safeguarding the entire state’s history. The sky was overcast and fiercely threatening rain as I marched up the steps under the royal blue awning in downtown Portland. Having visited the Oregon Historical Society of my own accord the previous spring, I was pleasantly surprised to see a shift in the decor and a brand new exhibit on display. I meandered about the big, bright room until I heard footsteps approaching, and turned to see the very man for whom I had been waiting. A middle-aged man with an abundance of energy and an enthusiasm for history, Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, greeted me warmly and led me to two chairs across the room. Although we had only met once before, Tymchuk remembered enough about me to inquire about school and my family before I even had a chance to ask about history of any sort.

With a keen sense of observation and a good memory, it seems natural that Tymchuk would have a job so deeply intertwined with history. For Tymchuk, however, his focus was initially elsewhere: in politics and public service. Despite this career choice being so far removed from his primary focus as a history major at Willamette University, history had always been a passion for Tymchuk. “I’ve always loved history,” he said, “grew up loving history”. After working in politics and public service alongside serving on the volunteer board at the Oregon Historical Society, it wasn’t until the retirement of Kymchuk’s predecessor in 2011 that he came into his current position. “The board chair took me out to lunch one day,” Tymchuk told me, “and said, ‘you’re the right person for the job!’”. Sitting in the lobby across from Tymchuk, it was clear to me that he was entirely the right person for the job; practically glowing with enthusiasm, he pointed out the Oregon State exhibit that I had previously spotted, and promised to give me a tour after our conversation.  

Throughout nearly ten years in his role at OHS, Tymchuk has gained much wisdom about the preservation of history. He explained to me that, when it was founded in 1898, the Historical Society required all members to be able to trace their lineage back to an Oregon pioneer. With nothing short of exuberance, he said, “And that’s not what we’re all about, our mission is to tell the story for all Oregonians. Whether you’re the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a pioneer, or a Native American– who were the first ones here– or whether you were a Vietnamese immigrant who moved here last week, we want to tell everybody, every Oregonian’s story” (Tymchuk).

Tymchuk’s position at OHS also aligns to allow him to have a close professional relationship with Restore Oregon. With a smile, he explained that many people confuse the two organizations, and mistakenly think that the Historical Society is charged with maintaining historical places. “We’re the historical society, we’re the museum and the library,” he continued, “advocating for, restoring, and saving historic places is their job!” (Tymchuk). The relationship between the two organizations has also allowed the Historical Society to work with Restore Oregon on several projects. “We’ve gotten to know their work and supported their projects, especially the carousel!” Tymchuk told me. On a more personal level, Tymchuk himself is on the committee for the carousel. He explained to me that he had advocated to put the horses around the city of Portland with information about their history and Restore Oregon’s work. If it ends up being impossible or implausible to reassemble the carousel, this seems like an alternate approach to return these pieces of history to the Portland community. “Because they’re beautiful, beautiful horses,” Tymchuk said, professing his hope that there would be public interest in the carousel’s return.

Raindrops were dancing across the windshield as I drove on the busy highway the following Saturday morning. My father, having been wrenched from his normal weekend activities, was guiding me through the city with the natural ease of a native Oregonian. As we pulled into the parking spot, I paused for a moment, unsure what to think. “This is it?” I asked my father, who nodded, devoid of emotion. Once known as Jantzen Beach Amusement Park, this very same piece of land brought joy, laughter, and long-lasting memories to generations of families in Portland. In the place of picnic-goers and family outings, however, all I could see in every direction was concrete. Modern stores housed inside bland buildings were stacked neatly atop a blanched sidewalk, which contrasted dully with the dark cement of the parking lot. To make things worse, we were utterly unable to find any sort of plaque commemorating Jantzen Beach’s rich history. Only one sign attempted to divulge the park’s past; neatly spelling out JANTZEN BEACH, the sign hinted at some sort of vague history by using vintage-style lettering. As we sat on a bench outside yet another gray building, I looked up at my father. “Do you remember it being like this?” I asked. “No,” he replied, shaking his head, “the last time I was here, it was the Jantzen Beach SuperCenter™. Now, this… it’s all concrete” (Menashe). He was right, of course; before becoming the present outdoor shopping center, Jantzen Beach served as an attached, indoor center. This is where the carousel was housed for many years before it was disassembled during the deconstruction of the shopping center. We sat for a moment in contemplation. “Why do you think people stopped coming here, when it was the park?” I finally asked, breaking the silence. “I think,” he said, “that the construction of I-5 probably had to do with it. When the interstate was built, it created a lot more noise and a lot less foot traffic.” Sure enough, the interstate highway was near enough to the park that, from my position on the bench, I could see cars whirring past in the distance. Later, I learned that the construction of I-5 was finished in 1966, just four years prior to the closure of the park (Kramer). Traveling on I-5 today, one would pass a mere two hundred yards from where Jantzen Beach’s Golden Canopied Ballroom once stood (Dietsche). As with most major roadways, the number of people stopping for a moment of entertainment gradually ceased as the interstate began to flourish, and the park’s turning gears eventually came to a halt. Looking back on this moment, I realized neither Moretti nor Tymchuk had been able to answer this question for me, maybe because neither of them were native Portlanders. My father, however, had the advantage of growing up in our city, watching it flow, halt, and settle into its eventual rhythm.

For some, history fades until all memories are coated with a permanent, lingering dust. For others who hope to maintain history, they keep the stories of the past alive by educating generations to come. Today, the Jantzen Beach Carousel is disassembled. Its vibrant horses are lined up mane-to-mane, tail-to-tail on racks in a storage space out on Hayden Island. If you were to look hard enough, you could find other pieces of the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park scattered across the city of Portland. The wood from the stomach-dropping Big Dipper roller coaster can now be found in the form of benches, inside Ken’s Artisan Pizza on SE 28th Avenue. In addition, the pumping system from the park’s swimming pools is currently being used to pump water to the residents of Hayden Island (“Jantzen Beach”). As for the former park? Well, as I learned from my attempt to explore the shopping center, everything good must come to an end… but that doesn’t mean we have to forget.

Sitting on the bench that day, as I watched the cars whir by and the busy shoppers bustle about, I pictured Jantzen Beach. Not in its current form, but in its true prime: as Portland’s “Million Dollar Playground”, the home of memories that have lived through the decades. I saw children laughing on a whirring carousel, picnickers wandering about, swimmers jumping, diving, splashing. I saw my the towering Big Dipper, rows of striped picnic blankets, and the famed dance pavilion. Before I had to blink myself back into the cement reality, my mind went back to my conversation with Moretti. As we talked about history, Moretti had explained to me that she always puts herself in peoples’ shoes to better understand their stories. “Then it’s not this completely separate, impersonal thing,” she said as I watched the carousel spin in the distance, “it almost feels a little bit like it’s yours.”

Works Cited

“1902 to 1952.” Archives and Records Management, City of Portland, Oregon, www.portlandoregon.gov/archives/article/284517. Accessed 22 May 2018.

“About Us.” Restore Oregon, 2018, https://restoreoregon.org/about-us/. Accessed 5 Mar. 2018.

DeMarco, Gordon. A Short History of Portland. Lexikos, 1990.

Dietsche, Robert. Jumptown: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz. Oregon State UP, 2005.

“History.” Leavenworth Historical Museum Association, 2018, www.firstcitymuseums.org/carousel/history/. Accessed 25 Apr. 2018.

Killen, John. “Throwback Thursday: Portland’s Jantzen Beach Amusement Park kept things fun for decades.” The Oregonian, 23 July 2015, www.oregonlive.com/history/2015/07/throwback_thursday_portlands_j.html. Accessed 5 Mar. 2018.

Kramer, George. “Interstate 5 in Oregon.” The Oregon Encyclopedia, 17 Mar. 2018. http://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/interstate_5_in_oregon/#.WtbodBPwZHQAccessed 18 Apr. 2018.

“Jantzen Beach.” Portland History, 18 Oct. 2016, www.pdxhistory.com/html/jantzen_beach.html. Accessed 21 Apr. 2018.

Menashe, Albert J. Personal Interview. 5 March 2018.

Menashe, Jack. Personal Interview. 4 March and 7 April 2018.

Moretti, Peggy. Personal Interview. 8 March 2018.

Purdy, Ruby Fay. The Rose City of the World. Binfords & Mort, 1947.

Re-TURN the Jantzen Beach Carousel. Restore Oregon, 2018.

Rosman, John. “Jantzen Beach Amusement Park.” Oregon Public Broadcasting, 8 Aug. 2014, www.opb.org/news/series/lostsummer/jantzen-beach-amusement-park/Accessed 5 Mar. 2018.

“The Carousel.” Restore Oregon, 2018, https://restoreoregon.org/carousel/. Accessed 4 Mar. 2018.

Tymchuk, Kerry. Personal Interview. 6 March 2018.

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