Friday, April 25, 2008

Nope, still another rerun: Oaks Amusement Park

What was your most memorable amusement park experience?

I'll be honest right at the front here and tell you that I cribbed this idea from another site. Not like either one of us care, but if you should happen to visit the same site and have an 'aha' moment I will have already trumped you. This one goes out to Tazzy the Yorkshire sex god and Piggy the...whatever he his- who never visit any more because there are too many big words. Cunts.

New York had Coney Island, California had Knotts Berry farm. Portland Oregon had Oaks Amusement Park. It was not world famous like Coney and it was not state of the art like Knotts Berry was at the time, but what it was, was stone fucking cool.

This midway area was still present in large part when I was a kid, but most of the buildings were boarded up, gated over and flood damaged. Spooky? Romantic? The very definition thereof, my dear.

I defy you to find another amusement park with as much pure class as the Oaks had back then. Think of the myriad haunted amusement parks in Scooby Doo...bullshit. Think of the best midway you had ever visited...roadkill. The Oaks had it ALL. And all of it was blessed with that perfect touch of dereliction, sleaze and enchantment that all proper amusements parks should have.

It had been built at the very beginning of the 1900s on what at the time was a small island in the Willamette river...far enough out of town at that time so that a special excursion trolley ran out to it on a trestle over the water, hung with strings of lanterns at night.

It was a fantasy of carved wood, Victorian lace, gargoyles, a little Venice, a little New Orleans and a lot pure Americana. Straight out of Dandelion Wine was this place.

The main portion of the old park was shut down save for a very few of the pitches. You had to traverse this entire midway to the far end to reach the remaining few operating rides, pitches and roller rink. All of it was set in the midst of huge oak trees full of swallows and bats and the rich smell of the river and cotton candy and diesel.

in the 1960's and '70's, you crossed over a small bridge and the first thing you passed was a tiny cinderblock radio station on the right hand side down amid the blackberies. KXI, I think it was*. It was painted sea green with glass blocks by the entry and a tall tower rising from the roof with blinking red lights on it at night.
And it was haunted.

The story was, a night shift dj had played a farewell song dedicated to his girlfriend...'Misty'...and when someone came in a few hours later to find out why the same song had been playing over and over they found the dj hanging from the overhead pipes with the phone cord wrapped around his neck. Sometimes, late at night, it was said that the 'On the Air' sign would light up, and you could hear 'Misty' playing inside, but there never was a night shift after the dj died.


Next you came onto a huge picnic and outdoor gathering park. The living trees were used as part of the decoration, hung with electric lights and incorporated into bowers, bandstands, and picnic enclosures, all of them fancifully themed with spiders webs and wooden vines. John Phillip Sousa had played here during his heyday.

An elfin railway ran the circuit of the park with a tiny engine and 20 cars, a scary tunnel and a causeway out over the water that crackled when the train passed, making fish jump out from around the pilings to take a look as you chugged by.

There was a permanent midway with carnival games of skill. Most of it was shabby and abandoned and cooler than jeezley fuck. All the joints had been decorated with gilt and glass gems, applied- relief cherubs, theatrical masks and gargoyles, monkeys and pierrots and ladies and gentlemen in domino masks dancing minuets, and all this ornament colored. Everything else was painted white. Most of it was fancy with turrets and widows walks and fretwork and oriental arches all falling into the most delicious, mysterious shadowed ruin!. this pitch still operated intermittantly, the faded origional lettering showing up behind the new signs. later it was gated off and used as a storage area and was full of old ride cars and carnival flash.

At the very end of the place was a funky rollerskating rink that was built on a floating platform. It had been added in the 1930's. The place had a pipe organ for music. The works were suspended over the center of the rink and covered with colored lights. The organist sat in a glass block booth high up above one end, wearing a suit with a ruffled shirt. He rang the skates and took requests and controlled the lights and everyone waved at him as they rolled around.

this is a very spic-and span picture of the pipe organ works suspended over the rink. in my day they were crusted with blowing dust scarves and old crepe streamer fragments. the whole place looks like it got the 'Pine-Sol and paint' treatment, which is all for the good.

The thrill rides, I now realize, were probably as close as I ever came to a horrible death in my youth.

I don't think these things had ever been inspected for safety. I don't think that most of them were built during a time when safety codes existed. The oldest and most beautiful of them all was called The Caterpillar. All it was, was a kind of roller coaster that ran in a circle on a planked runway that dipped and banked. The cars were driven from a single engine in the center from which diabolical blue clouds would billow as it chuffed and blew and gathered speed. A fan of iron spokes ran from the central turbine to the cars.

The whole ride was decorated with 'Alice in Wonderland'-y had kind of an 'Early Campbell Kids meets Arthur Rackham' look to it. The Caterpiller himself was a cheery, googly-eyed bug with fat green segments for cars and jolly rubber wheels with red centers. As long as you didn't look too closely, this was all very reassuring. Jolly Green Caterpiller was the childrens' friend!

As the ride would gain speed, the fissured, chewed-up tires would begin to skip and sing over the boards, making the cars rattle and bash against one another and tug at the spokes. Faster and faster the ride whizzed around the track, harder and harder you were pressed against the rattling half-moon door of the car, louder and more alarming became the truly amazing creaks, bangs, snaps, sudden jolts and screeches of the machine. Boards would lift away from the racecourse and rattle. Huge blasts of steam would FASSSSSHHHHH! out of the engine unpredictably. The platform of the ramp-in other words, the entire base of the ride- would lift up off the ground on the opposite side and wham back down when the cars passed over it again.
And then, at the height of all this, The Caterpiller Canopy began to deploy.
All along its length it began to unfold from the inner side like an accordian, revealing thousands of brightly colored dots and squiggles, and slowly, slowly, the canvas arched overhead and came down on the other side, latched-
and then the ride REALLY SPEEDED UP.
You were entirely in the dark. Inside the Caterpillar.
The whole thing felt like it was going to wrench itself apart at any moment.
Some of the cars were rattling and skitttering so hard that they juddered back and forth like marbles on a roulette wheel. The platform was lifting off the ground in full earnest now, WHAM!WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAMWHAMWHAM!
Until there was a sudden huge screeching and squealing of brakes and an exhalation of steam, and the entire ride came to a complete stop in the space of a single rotation.
The canopy unlatched and slowly accordianed back overhead; folded itself away with a 'whapkechunk'.

It was the Goddamndest thing!

The Carousel, back then, was a thing of splendour. It had been built by convict labor, horses, decoration and engine, up at Rocky Butte prison**. It was everything the rest of the park was and more. It was a jewelled wedding cake, a castle, a hall of mirrors, a pile of pirate treasure. I have yet to see a carousel to equal it for sheer Victorian glory.
The central pillar was shaped like an octagonal castle tower. Its sides were covered in painted french panels...lady Columbia danced over the river with a star on her forehead that sparkled when the light caught it. Triton rode a sea-chariot pulled by white horses with manes of wave-crest, surrounded by nymphs. A dawn-lit view of Mt. Hood. Men in leather helmets scored a touchdown with a cheering crowd in the background. America the Beautiful, revealed in triumph with an eagle and star spangled negligee; a gorgeous, rosebud mouthed Gibson girl. In fact for years I was certain that this merry go round had really been decorated by Charles Dana Gibson, because that was the style and the skill of the work.

Imagine it!

My favorite mount was a sable charger with patriotic banners and rubies studding its equippage. I loved that horse. It had a real bridle and reins and real stirrups with starred spurs. It was a beautifully executed thing. All the animals on the circuit were-ostriches, kangaroos, sea beasts, zebras, eagles, swans and a jewelled throne for mothers with scared children to circle around in with a little dignity saved.

below is is a picture of the pavillion that housed the carousel taken from a rollercoaster ride that was derelict by the time I came along. unfortunately, the carousel was the victim of a tasteless and unskilled restoration in the 80's.

The other ride that I will never forget was The Mad Mouse.
Remember the Milton-Bradley game 'Mousetrap'? Kind of a Rube Golberg rack of rails and clackety rickety things? That was this ride.
It was based on a roller coaster, but with a twist-the cars were single, and they made right angles. There were no macaroni curves, just ramps and angles. And the whole thing ran at light speed!

The cars got released from a starting gate at intervals with split second timing and passed each other as though they were going to collide. In fact, there was a segment of rail that shunted open at the middle where two cars would suddenly find themselves speeding head on, then at the last possible moment race off at right angles to each other.
This fucking thing scared the living piss outta me. I ALWAYS rode it.

The last time I rode, I was the only rider on the course. That was fine. It must have been about 1969-70. The first stage of the ride was a long, slow incline up from the starting gate, upon which you gained speed until you reached the top just screaming along, came to a dead stop, spun in a circle and headed down a zigzag.
My car gained speed going up the hill. All around me flakes of rust are falling off the track scaffolding, rivets are visibly pivoting, some are completely missing and replaced with wire looped around and around.
My car gains speed. My braids are flying straight back.
My car reaches the top.
It comes to a whiplash stop.
And the entire structure continues to move.
Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaak k k kkk k.
I look out over the marsh below me. My braids are in front of me now.
The car pivots around in a circle and comes back to the starting gate. The operator hands my father his money back.

It took me years to put it all together and realize just how close I came to taking a swim that day.

The Oaks is still there. It's on the national register of historic places and has been completely restored from what I understand.
I will never go back and visit. I like it just the way it is now.

this brought the memories tumbling back. i visited some historic sites for the pictures and was pleased to find that the stories i had heard, and my memories, were pretty accurate. interestingly enough very few pictures survive from the 60's and 70's, when the parks finances were at their lowest point. I did find mention of the midway being haunted by a kid in 70's clothes, though... I remember when that rumor started! the owners were just beginning to think about reviving the place and everyone pretty much knew that it was something they had cooked up. I found the story on a ghost site! But no mention of the haunted radio station.
*if somebody knows, please tell me!!
** the history says that this was a 'noah' ark' style carousel manufactured back east. I recount the story told me by my father and grandmother. they were certain that the animals had been made locally by convict labor. i remember they had to ship in a tiny litle guy from italy to fix the animated musical contraption inside about once a year, too.


  1. Tazzy & Piggy are apparently taking some time off to "enjoy each other."

    The mind boggles at that image.

  2. As A Kid I went To Beele Vue in Manchester (sadly,long knocked down) They had a Recording Booth were i made my own 45! (a rolling Stones Number i believe) similiar to a popped the coin in and cut a disc for you......!

  3. Anonymous6:10 PM

    when i was growing up, we didn't have amusement parks. the occasional carnival was all there was. now, of course, there's disney world, busch gardens, and a six flags everywhere it seems.

  4. I wanna go to Dollywood.

  5. Hello again, I enjoy reading your blog, but mostly it's the honesty of life and not holding back.
    In case you are in need of an idea or story to post, I have a problem and felt drawn to your wittyisms and can this Irishman belittle her? Can he stand up to the the likes of First Nation? If she read this stuff I'm certain she will knock his balls off. The posting is fresh, about IADT in Ireland, but the comments between us are becoming harsher and harsher... I was hoping you could shed some light into this Irishman's rant.

  6. Keerist you are good! I was there with you, only it was in a creaky amusement park in San Francisco, not too far from the present zoo, they had the fun house with the manic laughter and rather gentle wooden rolling barrel to giggle through and a marvelous gigantic wooden slide. I have never heard of such a ride as the green caterpiller, wonderful. You should seriously get paid for this shit.

  7. So picturesque....or something. My thrill rides were of the yearly carnival - if the folks had money to take us. Once a year during Cherry Festival a carnival would come into town and set up for most of the week. What excitement for a little farming community, safe? I highly doubt it.

  8. Mj: eeeeeeeeeeeeew!
    that having been eew'd, i hope they post pictures.

    tony: they had those things here too! man, do a post on the place and see if you can find old pictures to post up. If an american amusement park was cool, a british one had to be 100 times cooler!!

    pink: that pretty much describes the entire northwest when i was a kid, too; except for the Oaks. the way i understand it, oaks park may just have been started as an investment loss scam back in the day...!

    mj: you could ride the boobercoaster and the merry-go-tits and the big hair-0-whirl and....

    calle: hello again yourself! I have sended you an electronic mail re the annoying douchebag.

    retroblog: *blush* old amusement parks are the best. the new ones are nice and bright and safe, but the old ones had that touch of danger and american sleaze that you just can't beat.

    gale: i remember those little travelling carnivals. I also remember Cascade Shows and Olympia Attractions getting raided regularly for health and safety violations-which only means that they didn't bother to pay their 'patch' to the city council.

  9. When growing up in the county of Wiltshire we had a travelling funfair about twice a year. They had a ride called the Octopus, little spinning "tubs" at the end of mechanical tenticles which rotated. After gorging myself on hamburgers, coca-cola, candy floss and brandy snaps I went on the ride. It was early afternoon and the fair was not busy so the fair folk kept the ride going for extra time. After what seemed like ages my churning tum gave up and I did a beautiful arc of multicoloured vomit into the sky (and seconds later the customers). They soon stopped the ride after that.

  10. MJ I WANT TO GO TO DOLLYWOOD AS WELL....i bet it craptastic.

    FN you could have almost exactly described Dreamland Park in Margate where I grew up , we had the same rides . I remember the caterpillar very well , and the mighty mouse or whatever it was called . I was luckier in that the original wooden roller coaster was still working , and was declared a historic monument to protect it. Sadly it just burned down last month in somewhat dodgy circumstances. :-(

  11. Frobi , I saw someone do that at a theme park in the south of spain , it splattered all over the people sitting in an outside cafe ..... it made my day :-)

  12. for me it was pacific ocean park on the pier in santa monica...great times, sugar, great times! *sigh*

  13. I hit old Palasades Park back in New Jersey. The rides all sound the same, but at least we had a theme song.

  14. i god woman! what a writer you are. I thoroughly enjoyed that.

  15. Cheeky cunt. We do so visit!

    We've just not been commenting much lately.

    But we're here!