Oaks Park: Portland’s Coney Island on the Willamette

This photograph, taken by F. Sowell around 1912, shows Edward Klees pulling taffy at Oaks Amusement Park. Image credit: Oregon History Project.

My oldest memory tied to Portland’s Oaks Park mostly reminds me of the Don McLean song American Pie. When it was first popular on the radio, early in the 1970s, I was an eleven-year-old kid. I remember frequently sitting in our parked car at home in Wilsonville with the radio on in hopes that this song would play. I loved it. And I loved Don McLean, even if I didn’t know what he looked like. Oh yes, so you may be wondering – Dede, just where does Oaks Park fit into this story?

My mom was one of the designated drivers taking my brother Andrew and his Scout troop to Oaks Park, and I was the tagalong little sister. If you read My Music Man, you might remember my many boy crushes I share in my chapter, Girl in a Boy’s World, finding ways to use my tomboy behavior to attract their interest. (Swishing hoops from the corner line before lunch seemed to work once in awhile.) And then there was Don. Don Wagner, as it turns out, not Don McLean. When I took the bus home from school our house was the last stop in a long circle Cap Kruse drove, finally heading back along Stafford to Rose Lane, our stop. Don’s stop was the one before ours, and he – this older man by two years – would kindly tease me in a way that grew my biggest elementary crush. ( I haven’t seen Don since those days and have no idea if he knew that.) Forward ahead to the drive to Oaks Park, and I happened to be sitting next to Don in the back seat when – you guessed it – American Pie played on the radio. I don’t remember much about skating that night, my memories only include having sat next to Don while I listened to the other Don.

I thought about Oaks Park recently after learning about its closure for the remainder of 2020 because of the pandemic. Coincidentally, at the same time, I was writing about Oaks Park as a setting for a flash back in my “in progress” short story collection. I imagine very few Portlanders have not been to the park at one time to roller skate, take in a thrill ride, or attend a picnic.

Oaks Park opened on May 30, 1905 and is still one of the ten oldest amusement parks in the United States. During its first decade, the Oaks drew around 300,000 visitors each year. I’m not a big fan of thrill rides and remember feeling like I might vomit after one when my kids were school-aged. A few years before that I also remember surprising my then 3-year-old daughter as we reached the top of the Ferris wheel by telling her I was a bit scared: my pregnancy with her little sister offered a strange new (temporary) fear of heights.

The Park was built by the Oregon Water Power and Navigation Company in what most of us know as Sellwood, adjacent to what we know today as Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. Historians say that Oaks Park was built to get more people to ride the streetcar lines from Portland to Gresham, Estacada and Oregon City. History buffs will recognize that this Park was built at the same time as the Lewis and Clark Exposition with a bit of a challenge created to see which would open first, with Oaks winning as it opened two days earlier than the Exposition. Perhaps the best photos and details about all this is documented by PDX History. Rather than plagiarize or duplicate that site, I encourage anyone interested in this fascinating history, complete with photos, to visit their page, Portland’s Oldest Amusement Park: The Oaks.

Imagine those days when you might be encouraged to jump on a street car downtown on 1st Avenue so to spend a few hours at Oaks Park. I am sure my mom, growing up during the depression and living in Northeast Portland used her bean or strawberry picking money to travel a few times to skate or hang out with friends on a Saturday, although the Park hit hard times during the 1930s. Visitors didn’t pick up much until the 1970s.

For me, it is the skating rink that leaves me with the fondest memories. Remember the grand Wurlitzer pipe organ, and skating to All Skate and Couples Skate (nope, didn’t do that with Don) and the Hokey Pokey? Wow, a bit hard to imagine in these coronavirus days of masks and hand sanitizer. Before my time and prior to the addition of the organ in 1922, a live orchestra played from the balcony above the rink.

Rising waters did impact operations at the park, including by damaging the maple wooden skating floor. The same 1948 flood that destroyed Vanport required five months to repair the rink. They got a bit smarter after this flood as they recognized being situated on the Willamette River flood plain, and engineers installed iron barrels under the rink floor so it could float above any future rising waters. After the Christmas flood of 1964 (the same one I claim my grandmother WhoWho canoed down our street Montgomery Way in Wilsonville), it still suffered some damage because at more than eight feet of water, the workers were prevented from getting in immediately. The next day, however, they were able to cut the floor supports so that the wooden maple floor could float. I recall showing my kids the high water marks on the walls near the rink back when they were younger.

Through depressions, floods and now a pandemic: I am hopeful that the rink and its adjoining amusement park will survive into 2021. There is no doubt it’s a great place to create memories.

Oaks Park kiddie ride from 1993.

Other writing of mine from the Exposition era:

My Music Man
Oregon, football and stadiums: a recap
Oregon’s visitor form the sky: the Willamette Meteorite
Oregon’s past in a deck of cards

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