This month’s feature story describes the history of tourism here in the Zenith City, including White City, an amusement park that stood at Oatka Beach, between 39th and 40th Street on Minnesota Point, from 1906 to 1909. While it only stood for 3 years, White City is often mentioned in histories of Duluth, perhaps in part because it was well documented in photographs and color postcards. Duluth’s White City often overshadows a later amusement park on the Point that operated for over 20 years within the Park Point Recreation Area and was often referred to as the Minnesota Point Amusement Park.
The Park Point Recreation Area began in 1936 when the Works Project Administration announced plans for a $90,000 (nearly $1.5 million today) project to turn unused land south of 42nd Street—then the terminus of Minnesota Avenue—and turn it into a large playground with a bathhouse for swimmers, fields for football and softball, tennis courts, and more—perhaps even tourist cabins and a hay fever colony among the pines south of the new facility.
At the time city-owned property ended at 42nd Street, where Minnesota Avenue terminated. Beyond that point to the Superior Entry lay a stretch of sand that, except for a grove of old-growth pines, was relatively void of vegetation. It was known as the “Barrens.” Its southern end was occupied by the St. Louis River Military Reservation, including the ruins of the Minnesota Point Lighthouse and the U.S. Lighthouse Station Depot. Most of the of land north of the Reservation was acquired by the city for the Park Point Recreation Area.
In March of 1937 Parks Superintendent Rodney Paine released an architect’s sketch of the proposed facility, which included a dock and a boat launch and, for the future, a swimming pool. That summer workers extended Minnesota Avenue about three-quarters of a mile, laid down six inches of top soil for the athletic fields, and broke ground on the bathhouse. A miniature train was used to carry materials over the sand to the construction site.
Perhaps that little train inspired the idea of including an amusement zone in the recreation area, sparked by memories of White City, which included a miniature train. (“Kiddieland,” adjacent to the Zoo at Fairmount Park, also had a miniature train.) By April of 1938, the city council had approved plans for an amusement park south of the athletic field.
On June 15 the council voted to approve $10,825 (about $175,000 today) to finance the amusement park, including salaries for a manager, ticket sellers, parking lot attendants, a caretaker, and two merry-go-round attendants. Earlier that month the city had spent $5,300 for a merry-go-round, a 1906 Alan Herschel 36-horsepower carousel with hand-carved wooden horses suspended on brass poles; it originally ran on steam. A “flying scooter”—similar to modern Chair-O-Plane rides—was also acquired. The amusement park opened for the first time later that summer with A. H. Muir as its manager.
Operation of the amusement park in 1938 resulted in a net loss of $221.53. The next year, despite the official opening of the bathhouse on June 24, the loss was nearly doubled. The deficit was blamed on cold and rainy weather.
In 1940 the park opened on May 25, two weeks earlier than the previous year. By then rides included the merry-go-round, the miniature train, the flying scooter, a Ferris wheel, and a new ride called Dodgem cars—a brand of bumper car. The older rides were fitted with “new and colorful fronts,” and the miniature train’s railway was triple in length. These improvements helped increase income by nearly $3,000, but despite the long summer and new attractions, the amusement park operated at a loss. While the Dodgem cars increased receipts, renting the ride and building a facility to hold it cost over $2,600.
The next year saw the addition of an archery range; a giant checker board; outdoor ping pong tables; and courts for Shuffle board, horseshoes, croquet, and quoits. The facility also got a new manager, J. C. Shields. For the next 20 years the park operated between Memorial Day and Labor Day, depending on the weather. A Snack Bar was added, topped with a large concrete ice cream cone, and later a penny arcade with a photo booth and a record-making booth.
By 1960 the amusement park was under the management of H. C. and Mae Onsgard, both familiar with the amusement park business: It was H. C.’s father Bert who first brought the idea of a municipal zoo at Fairmount Park in 1923; he later operated the Arrowhead Amusement Park across from the zoo. According to former employees Charlie Willis, the city maintained ownership of the carousel and the Dodgem cars and the Onsgards owned the other rides.
(Robbie Thorton Bailey disagree with Willis. Bailey remembers that her parents Robert & Mabel Thorton ran the amusement park adjacent to the Zoo from roughly 1940 to 1965, when Robert died. It was then known as Thorton’s Kiddieland and, after Thorton’s death, simply as Kiddieland. According to Bailey, her grandfather Elmer O. Thorton built eleven steam-powered miniature locomotives, and his son Robert had two of them. One operated at Kiddieland and the other was used for the Austin and Owatonna county fairs and the Minnesota State Fair. But there was a miniature train near the Zoo as early as the 1930s, when the postcard shown here was made. Perhaps the Arrowhead Amusement Park operated before Thorton’s Kiddieland at the same site? It would seem so, as according to Bert Onsgard’s granddaughter Lynn Perry, Bert owned Arrowhead Amusement Park across from the zoo. “I practically lived at the Arrowhead Amusement Park,” Perry wrote on the Duluth Attic blog in 2012. “I played there as a child [and] have photos of me as a child on the merry go round. It was a happy life.”)
Willis, who earned fifty cents an hour at the park during the summers of 1960 and 1961 operating the carousel, remembers that by then the Dodgem cars were well past their prime. Willis wrote on the public blog perfectduluthday.com that “The bumper cars were in terrible condition and the building was pretty dilapidated. If you bumped the cars, the steering chains would fall off the bottom, and two or three of us would have to tip the cars over on their sides and put on the chains.”
In 1964 Duluth Mayor George D. Johnson proposed closing the park. He thought the Point should remain natural and that the amusement park drew crowds of “black jackets,” likely young men with too much time on their hands. Johnson’s proposal resulted in a failed petition to oust the mayor.
The park did not reopen. That year Park Maintenance foreman Ozmo E. Tahja reported that his crew transferred the carousel to the Zoo at Fairmount Park and removed its concrete base from the recreation area. Park department employees also removed the bases for the Ferris wheel and the flying scooter. Tahja did not mention the fate of the Dodgem cars.
We’ve left a fairly big gap in the history of the Minnesota Point Amusement Park, from about 1941 to 1960. Help us fill it in by sharing your memories by posting below; you can email us photos at info[@]zenithcity.com and we’ll post them with the story.