- Robert Matsumura
The Coney Island of the West: History Of Jantzen Beach
For the multitude of travelers crossing the Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington, Jantzen Beach is simply a vast sprawl of shopping centers, restaurants, and hotels clustered on Hayden Island as you zoom past. Many will have a vague notion of the area being associated with the Jantzen brand of swimwear, but with each passing year the memories of the iconic Jantzen Beach Amusement Park dwindle into obscurity. Back in the day, hailed as the “Coney Island of the West,” Hayden Island was once home to the largest amusement park in the nation—a massive park encompassing 123 acres that was patronized by over 30 million people during its 42 years of operation.
It all began in 1927 when William A. Logus and Leo F. Smith purchased forty acres on Hayden Island from the Portland Electric Power Company. Shortly thereafter, Logus and Smith launched the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park, named after Carl Jantzen of swimwear fame; along with a number of Jantzen executives and several prominent members of the community, Carl Jantzen underwrote the entire $500,000 project. Jantzen and his fellow investors envisioned the park as a showcase to promote swimming as a public activity, which later included the company’s sponsorship of national “Learn to Swim” weeks throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. With swimming as a primary focus of the park, four gigantic swimming pools were constructed as well as a natatorium (an indoor swimming facility).
The Jantzen Beach Amusement Park officially opened on May 26, 1928. In addition to the swimming pools, the park also featured a number of popular rides including the Big Dipper Roller Coaster and a custom-made carousel. Constructed by C.W. Parker, the “American Amusement King,” the carousel was hand-crafted in 1921 and first operated at Venice Beach in Los Angeles. After surviving a fire, the carousel was later shipped to Portland where it became a highlight attraction at Jantzen Beach. Of the various rides created by Parker, only the carousel survives today. It resides in the custodianship of Restore Oregon, an organization with plans to reassemble and install the carousel in a permanent new home that will “serve as a new attraction for our region.” On a spooky note, the carousel was for years the source of ghost stories. A number of youngsters, as well as maintenance workers, claimed to have witnessed ghostly children on or about the ride.
The Big Dipper Roller Coaster, designed by Carl Phare, took center stage as the featured attraction of the park. The “Dipper,” a gigantic amusement construction, boasted to be the largest roller coaster west of Chicago, traveling 3800 feet per minute with 14 dips, 5 of them in excess of 35 feet, and the steepest dip which plunged riders 70 feet straight down. For the more faint of heart, the park offered a Kiddy Dipper roller coaster, and included arcade games and picnic grounds.
One of the biggest draws of the park was the Golden Canopy Ballroom, which became Portland’s premier dancehall during the 1930s and ‘40s. In 1942, Clara Shepard of the Spectator newspaper wrote: “If a young man about town says dancin’ to a girl, he might as well say Jantzen Beach at the same time…for they are synonymous as far as she is concerned. The Golden Canopy Ballroom features the sweetest swing in the country every night of the park’s season, with a parade of big name dance bands moving across its board…” Shepard’s description was no exaggeration. World famous musicians such as Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong performed at Jantzen Beach to the delight of thousands who flocked to the park for unforgettable nights of top shelf entertainment.
By the late 1940s, however, Jantzen Beach was in decline. Vanport, a town created during World War I to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and Vancouver (hence the name Vanport), was located at today’s Delta Park area and provided one of Jantzen Beach’s primary revenue sources. As the second largest city in Oregon at the time (by population), the residents of Vanport frequented Jantzen Beach for its wide variety of entertainment right in their own “backyard.” After the Vanport Flood of 1948, which effectively destroyed the majority of the town, and the decline in population after the war, this important revenue stream dried up for the once thriving park.
Changes in the society at large also contributed to the decline of Jantzen Beach. While television rose to prominence as America’s go-to entertainment, people frequently opted to stay home rather than venture out during their leisure time. When they did venture out, the boundless freedom of the automobile—now a staple of American society—offered endless opportunities for recreational activities. The allure of the traditional amusement park had lost its luster.
In 1960, a fire broke out in the Tunnel of Love, resulting in its destruction as well as that of the Fun House and the Dutch Mill. In the face of tragedies and declining attendance, the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park closed its doors after Labor Day weekend in 1970. Following the closure of the amusement park, Jantzen Beach Center, a large shopping complex, eventually arose, and for some years housed the historic C.W. Parker carousel, which may operate again one day should Restore Oregon succeed in constructing a new home for it. The pumping system for the swimming pools of the old amusement park are still in use today, providing drinking water for residents of the Hayden Island area. And wooden remnants of the Big Dipper Roller Coaster live on at Ken’s Artisan Pizza on S.E. 28th St. in Portland, where they have been repurposed as tables, as well as the bar itself.
So the next time you’re caught in traffic on I-5 near Jantzen Beach, allow yourself to daydream a little about the “Coney Island of the West,” that famous amusement park on the Columbia from days gone by that brought joy to millions, and memories to last a lifetime, for those fortunate enough to share in the experience.