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Fifty Years Beneath The Oaks

Northwest Roto Magazine
Published: August 14, 1955

Special trains used to whisk merrymakers from downtown Portland to the Oaks amusement park, still going strong after half a century

The thrill rides and midway concessions at Oaks amusement park have changed considerably over the years. but the park, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, continues to be a popular place for fun.

Today Oaks park boasts such features as 18 exciting rides and the mammoth roller skating rink, but back when grandmother was taking advantage of the midway attractions, things weren't so dull either. In fact, two of the original buildings (the roller skating rink and the merry-go-round) are still in use.

In the era after 1905, when the Oaks was opened, Oregonians could visit the park's Japanese tea garden, the ostrich farm or the Merry Maze, which was a walk around as adapted from the famed Hampton Court Gardens in London.

There was a large auditorium where legitimate plays and the famous D'Urbano concerts were presented. Schilzonyi's Hungarian Hussars also gave concerts there regularly, Some of the celebrities who have appeared at the Oaks include Harry Breton, the fearless daredevil; Franz Rainier's original Tyrolese singers and dancers from Switzerland, and the renowned John Philip Sousa.

An example of the entertainment that could be found at the Oaks auditorium theater is recorded in the park's files. It was for the week commencing Monday, July 21, 1921. The schedule included presentation of "The Winter Garden Girl" with such numbers as "Jumbo Land" and "A Chicken Fit for Old Broadway" and many songs by Gregory's Parisian Trio.

The park was started by George Morris, then President of Oregon, Water and Power Company. He bought the present site, then being used by the Oregon State Militia as a rifle range , and hired G.I. Brown, as a civil engineer, to survey the sandy isthmus and adjoining flats, It was Morris' capital that financed building the amusement center.

The Oaks immediately became known as the "White City" of the West, nicknamed after the Big White City in amusement park in Chicago at that time. which similarly had all of its buildings painted white.

Edward Bollinger purchased the park from Portland Electric Power Company in 1943. Robert inherited the management from his father and is now general manager of the park.

Transportation to the Oaks park in the early days was by train or river launch. The train departed regularly from S.W. First Avenue and Alder Street, only a block from where the interurban streetcars now load up. The train usually included five cars, some of them open and resembling San Francisco's cable cars. They were equipped with horizontal guard rails at the bottom of each side so that enthusiastic picnickers wouldn't fall under the wheels - if they were unfortunate enough to fall off the train.

Evidence is occasionally found to point up the fact that the site on the Willamette River banks, just North of the Sellwood Bridge, or was very popular long before Oaks park was thought of.

Through the years gardeners at Oaks have been finding arrowheads in their rounds of the park. Expanding roots of many old Oak trees expel bits and of flint to recall the days when the site was a favorite fishing place of the Indians. The redskins would come from distant inland points to spear the salmon in the Willamette.

During the past 50 years, Oaks park has seen both happy and sad days. Sadness, of course, was brought by the flood of 1948, when the dance pavilion and skating rink were ruined. The management went to work immediately; however, and soon both were in operation again after a $100,000 reconstruction job.

The present floor of the roller rink, largest in the Northwest, has a floating floor as a precautionary measure against flooding. Air-tight drums carry the multiple surface high above the water level. The rink is one of the biggest attractions of the park, and the better skaters belong to a figure skating club which annually presents a musical on wheels.

Besides the rink at Oaks park today, there are the long, gay midway and rides for "kids" from 3 to 93. Also, available at the admission-free park are spacious picnic grounds, free kitchenette, a dance pavilion, and the popular Kiddleland, the largest of its kind in the Northwest.

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Updated 10/09/2013