The Park Point Recreation Area’s bathhouse, built by the Works Project Administration, as it looked on the day it opened, June 24, 1939. (Image: Duluth Public Library; click to enlarge)

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.

Plans for the Park Point Recreation Area in 1937 included a site for a future swimming pool, but not an amusement park. (Image: Duluth Public Library; click to enlarge)

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.

The Minnesota Point Amusement Park’s Flying Scooter ride in 1938. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

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.

The carousel at the Minnesota Point Amusement Park is assembled for the first time in May of 1940. When the amusement park closed in 1964 the carousel was moved to Fairmount Park. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

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.

This 1961 aerial photograph of the Park Point Recreation Area shows the location of the Minnesota Point Amusement Park, circled in red. (Image: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; click to enlarge)

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.

A postcard made between 1925 and 1940 of the miniature train that operated near Fairmount Zoo. (Image: X-comm)

(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.

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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.

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11 Responses to Lost Landmark: Minnesota Point’s other Amusement Park

  1. Elaine Thornton Rodriguez says:

    Hi again, In the process of gathering info on Thornton Miniature RR, it’ll take some time! Most in my personal archives! Elaine Thornton Rodriguez

  2. Tony Dierckins says:

    Thanks, Elaine! We love getting comments like this. Can’t wait to discover what you have to share!

  3. Elaine Thornton Rodriguez says:

    Wow am I excited! Just now found these websites about my grandfather, Elmer Thornton and my dad, Robert(BOB). I have the picture of the 25th anniversary of Thornton’s Kiddieland, and alot of others, too. Talked to Robbie today about it, and will do my best to straighten out this “who did what” situation! I was there from the early beginnings of our family business, Park Point, Fairmount Park,and Daddy’s love of children and insistence on total honesty! The only people we answered to were the city of Duluth and Mr. Barnes, down in the office there. I have the picture of the bear and my folks that 25th anniversary day. That,and an awful lot more.I sold tickets to the train when I was so little I had to stand on a stool!The folks who are in these comments probably ran into me in the fine scheme of things! All I can say is, “Hi again!”

  4. Matthew Waterhouse says:

    Also Robbie could I get your email or phone please?

    Mine is matthew.d.waterhouse@gmail.com

    I am working on a large book about the history of the zoo, very neat stuff!

  5. Matthew Waterhouse says:

    Robbie Thornton Bailey: I have a partial article about the 25th anniversary from July 6th, 1964. Great article but I didn’t see the bear/parent picture you are describing, if I have time I’ll hunt it down on my next library visit.—MW

  6. Robbie bailey says:

    The tribune had a large write up on thorntons kiddielands 25th anniversary. It had a great picture of my parents with the huge Bear that had the name on it. I cant find the article and I don’t remember exactly when it was. It had a lot of history in it. I really appreciate the effort to get it right! I am glad I could be of help. Thanks

  7. Tony Dierckins says:

    Thanks for these updates, Robbie! That helps fit the pieces together.

  8. Robbie Thornton Bailey says:

    Daddy started out with the train at Park Point before going to the zoo.

  9. Robbie Thornton Bailey says:

    Bert Onsgard’s Rides were across Grand Avenue from the zoo. My parents were the only ones who had a miniture train at the zoo across the parking lot. I was there for the 25th Anniversary which was celebrated in the early 60′s. Thank you for the picture. My parents would be proud. They prided themselves on a clean and well maintained place for the little kids and kids of all ages on the train. Ours were specifically for very young kids. Daddy didn’ get ours Merry-go-round until a year or two before he died. Bert had a merry-go-round across Grande Avenue and his rides were for teens

  10. Tony Dierckins says:

    Jim, I grew up in St.Paul, circa later than you, and we school crossing guards—both boys and girls—were rewarded with a trip to the Como Park Zoo, which had similar rides. Do you remember what time of year George D. announced his plan? I’d like to dig into that controversy a little closer.

  11. The history of the Park Point amusement park (circa 1940-1964) spanned the first 25 years of my life (circa). I had many magical times there as a child — rode that steam train and merry-go-round — and couldn’t wait to be old enough to drive the dodgem cars, which we called bumper cars. You had to be circa 12. Each year for many years the Duluth Police Department treated the city’s school crossing guards (called “police boys”; there were no girls) to a picnic there in June, with free rides and a pop, hot dog and potato chip lunch. And each boy got a jackknife with “Duluth Police Department” inscribed on the handle. I still have one. I was a reporter on the Duluth paper when Mayor George D. Johnson shut it down. Some Duluthians were outraged, and the controversy roiled for weeks. But the area had become pretty seedy, and I think George D. made the right decision.

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