Oaks Amusement Park

By Aalberg, Bryan | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Oaks Amusement Park


Aalberg, Bryan, Oregon Historical Quarterly


LICKED 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. …

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