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Clark County History: Jantzen Beach

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This 1953 photograph shows Jantzen Beach Amusement Park, along with its swimming pool and roller coaster, as well as the single-spanned Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River.
This 1953 photograph shows Jantzen Beach Amusement Park, along with its swimming pool and roller coaster, as well as the single-spanned Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Before Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain or its Incredicoaster, Jantzen Beach Amusement Park offered the Dipper, later called the Big Dipper. The original park cost a half-million dollars to build (about $8.7 million today). For 42 years, the park remained an island of fun, including rides for all ages, a midway, restaurants, music and dance bands.

The park stood atop Hayden Island, a place that had worn many names. In 1792, the commander of the HMS Chatham, William Broughton, named it after the ship’s botanist, Archibald Menzies. Lewis and Clark recorded it as Image Canoe Island, and the Hudson’s Bay Company named it Vancouver Island after the English explorer George Vancouver. The 1851 renaming of the island for owner Gay Hayden sticks today. Yet, Jantzen Beach persists as a colloquialism for the area.

In 1926, Jantzen Knitting Mills created the Jantzen Swimming Association as part of an advertising effort to stimulate swimming instruction and safety — and sell swimming suits. The company built two pools, which refreshed themselves every eight hours, devouring 1 million gallons of water daily.

Before Disneyland became “the happiest place on Earth,” Jantzen Beach Amusement Park was commonly known as a place where families spent an enjoyable day and returned home happy. The campaign sold Jantzen’s swimsuits so well that after a decade, park management slowly detached from the company’s product sales to make the park profitable on its own.

Jantzen Amusement Park gained notoriety nationwide in the first season despite traffic jams turning away 400,000 people. The 1929 season opened with 10,000 new parking spaces. The park expanded its amusement space to 123 acres at the cost of a quarter of a million dollars. A decade later, the 1948 VanPort flood swamped the park, and it struggled to recover previous ticket sales.

Still, the wooden roller coaster designed by Carl Phare was a huge draw. On opening day in 1928, The Oregonian characterized the Big Dipper as the largest west of Chicago. According to the story, riders rolled “3,800 feet in one minute, with 14 dips, five of them over 35 feet, and the deepest 70 feet, straight down.” The park’s Kiddie Dipper for children offered a less gut-wrenching ride.

By 1970, an estimated 300,000 people rode the Big Dipper. A freeway interchange and Jantzen Beach Mall threatened the amusement park with extinction. The roller coaster’s days were numbered. The Columbian carried small, boxed ads offering free park admission and parking for those willing to pay for one more stomach-dropping ride until Labor Day. Then, on Sept. 6, heavy equipment workers razed the Big Dipper turning its memories into a jumble of broken wood and twisted rails.

The island remains haunted by the ghost of the amusement park that persisted for decades. The park’s colorful C.K. Parker carousel eventually found a place inside the mall, bobbing smiling kids up and down on horses to calliope music. Currently, it awaits restoration. In 2017, part of the Big Dipper reappeared when the Oregon Historical Society received donation of a roller coaster car. Presently it’s secreted away in a warehouse interred like the Ark of the Covenant in “The Raiders of the Lost Ark.”


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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