Wenona Beach Amusement Park (1887-1964)
Location: Bangor Township, end of Patterson road, along Saginaw Bay
|Wenona Beach ...|
Join us in making this section a memorable experience for all to enjoy. If you have old photos and memories of the park, contact us and we'll include them in this section.
Once the most popular entertainment spot in Bay County, this special family destination closed in 1964. Today, a trailer park occupies this land along the shores of the Saginaw Bay. However, Wenona Park lives on as a fond memory with those who were able to the experience of going there before it's closing.
The development of this area near the mouth of the Saginaw River dates back to the 1870s. In Leslie Arndt's book, "The Bay County Story - Footpaths to Freeways", he cites the written account of historian Mrs. Odeal Sharp regarding this early history:
Bay County people didn't think of taking a swim in Saginaw Bay until 1876. A Saginaw firm, Root and Midler, had built a large side-wheeler steamer called the Wellington R. Burn, named for a leading Saginaw lumberman. On Sundays excursions were run on the river as well as on the bay."
Suddenly, the idea came to Root and Midler to open a summer resort at the mouth of the Kawkawlin River. The Saginaw firm then built a frame structure two stories high, with dining room, ballroom and bar. The resort with its sandy beach opened in the summer of 1876, and for years, later operating under the name O-at-ka Beach, proved a popular spot for people from miles around.
In 1882 Reservation Beach was establish by Richard Armstrong, who then operated the Handy Boy line of steamers, on the bay shore near the present lighthouse. And in 1887 came the more popular 40-acre Wenona Beach entertainment center, founded by lumber barons Spencer O. Fisher, Henry H. (Tip) Aplin, Theodore F. Shepard and others."
Augustus H. Gansser, in his book on the History of Bay County, Michigan, wrote in 1905:
"Wenona Beach is the "Coney Island" of the Lakes." An immense casino, with continuous vaudeville performances all seasons, with boating, bathing, dancing and all the other attractions that to to cheer the heated term of summer, are here within the reach of every one, the care faire for the roung trip of 12 miles beng but 15 cents. It is the delight of the people who cannot afford the time or expense of visiting more expensive, even it not more attractive, summer resorts on distant shores."
In the book "Wenona Beach" publish in 1988 and written by James R. Watson, he references the work of Fisher, Aplin and Shepard along with others that formed a company to build the Wenona Beach Entertainment Center. They also built a railway line from the west side of Bay City that led to the park at the mouth of the Saginaw River which looped by the Kawkawlin River. They were confident that the park would become a major attraction. This same group owned the Bay City Street Car Company. They contracted John Rabidor to design a park and his plan called for a huge pavilion for recreation and amusement as the park's focal point, and a large pier stretching out onto the bay.
1917: Layout of Park's Features.
Specific features of the park changed over the years of its operation. Some of the original features such as those constructed on the shoreline of the bay, fell victim to severe ice damage and were eventually discarded. However, the basic features endured:
- 40 acres along the Saginaw Bay shoreline with dock facilities and sandy beach for swimming.
- Variety of amusement rides and entertainment for kids and adults.
- Casino restaurant with adult entertainment and several small food establishments.
- Ballroom for dancing and roller skating.
The amusment park was operated by the Bay City Traction and Electric Company during the first half or so of the 20th Centery. J. Carpenter, who was one of the park's early managers ended up ended up in court on charges that he was operating a theater in the park without license required by an ordinance passed on June 6, 1906, by the Bangor Township Board. The court proceedings stated he set up a theatre inside the casino for which patrons were charged an admission to enter the casino, and another charge for entering the theater. In later years there was no admission to get inside the park, but the casino continued to charge a fee whenever they had professional entertainers.
By the early 1900s and 1920s, the park had become a hot spot not only for people of Bay County, but those living in the surrounding counties. The beach setting of the park was truly beautiful during the warm weather months. However, during the cold winter months the park was constantly threaten by ice flows that broke up from the bay and caused damaged numerous times to the pier and buildings close to the shoreline. Eventually, these fell into disrepair and were ultimately abandoned.
The park had much to offer in the way of entertainment for both children and adults. Both were thrilled by a variety of different rides that were up dated with the passing of time. Some of the early rides included Circular Swings and Joy Wheel on the shoreline, a Steam Carousel and Roller Coaster. Later on there was the Jack Rabbit (roller coaster), the Bullet (a centrifical force ride that had a long bar to which two bullet shaped cylinders were attached), electric Bump-em cars, a full size Carousel, the Ferris wheel with its sky-high view of the bay, and a variety of carnival games.
The park included a huge hall for dancing and roller skating, and a Casino where live entertainment performances regularly took place. Comedian Harry Jarkey was a local favorite at the Casino for over three decades. Harry hailed from Detroit where he would performed during the week and on weekends in Bay City. [Learn More] There were plenty of food concessions besides the Casino's restaurant. Probably the best French fries ever made were came from a small stand at the north end of the park. These fries were long, thin, and well salted. Unlike fast food fries of today, the inside was not hollow, but solid potato deliciously tender and tasty encased in crispy outer layer.
It must have been a fun ride to the park for folks during the early days when an electric trolley made regular trips to the park from the city. Motorized coaches (buses) eventually replaced the trolley system making the experience of getting there much different. The buses were probably an amusement for earlier on, but that most likely didn't last long before riders were longing for the joy of riding trolley. Ride a trolley or bus didn't change the excitement rides felt in heading out to the park.
The park was the scene of many large social events that gathered at the park taking advantage of it's large picnic area. Family reunions and business outings help fill the park taking advantage of parks accomodations and the cool breeze off the bay.
The best fireworks during these early years was at the park. The 4th of July fire works was attended by a capacity crowd that filled the park and the surrounding area within view of the display. While the number of fire works discharged were less than today's popular exhibit held in Veterans Memorial Park, they were certainly spectacular for their day. An advantage at the park was having the Saginaw Bay serving as a spectacular back drop. What exploded in the sky was reflected out over the bay mirroring what took place in the sky.
James Watson who grew up near the park, wrote a book, "Wenona Beach", that captures what the early years of the park, and provides many early photos from that time.
Like many, I wish that the Beach was still there; that my children could hear the roar of the Jackrabbit plunging down the first, steep hill; the rider's screams fading as they're swept around the corner. I wish they could hear the chugging Wenona Beach Limited threading its way on the rails through the picnic grounds. I know they would come to love the sound of Harry Jarkey's voice echoing out of the Casino on a warm summer night, and the chorus of laughter his jokes brought. And there was a special, almost overwhelming thrill as you approached the park on a busy day: the Winchesters cracking from the Shooting Gallery and the ring of the High Striker followed by some bellowing "Give that man a cigar!"
The park was a major part of Bay County's history for nearly 90 years. Had the park been able to survive the hard economic times of it's last decade, it may still be thrilling the current generation, and maybe even greater than before. Since its closing, large amusements parks have become very popular. People are traveling longs distances to partake in a day or two of fun. Wenona Beach may not have become as large as Cedar Point or the Disney parks, but it would have been a fun destination and only a few minutes away. Down the road of time, the opportunity may present itself for a new Wenona Beach Amusement Park that will rival the fun experienced by our ancestors on this shoreline by the bay.
Browse the "Wenona Documents" link for more information, including the names of many of the people that were a part of this history.
Mary (Martin) Cooley, Nov. 7, 2010
-- I am currently a resident of California, but I grew up on Aplin Beach and so many of my best memories of growing up are the "park." My parents, Abe and Cleo Martin, were concessionaires there during the summer. My dad ran the bumper cars, and my mom operated the photo booth. I am 64 years old and to this day I tell people that I had the best childhood imaginable living at the beach. As a matter of fact, my brother and I still own the family home on the bay and I will probably be relocating back to Bay City in 2011. I have been going through old photos today and have run across some taken at the photo booth. I can still remember the old cut outs, (the dog house), where you would stick your face in and have your picture taken. I remember the roller skating rink, the Penney Arcade, and the infamous "jackrabbit." It seemed so rickety, we were always convinced we might make front page news when the thing collapsed and sent us hurtling to the ground! I remember going down to the park on Mondays when the park was closed, with kitchen strainers to strain the sand under the "Bullet;" looking for coins that might have fallen from people's pockets. And the French Fries--they were the best ever, never have had any as good since. For a long time I know that booth sat outside the Bay View Bar. So many memories--Mrs. Mingus and the duck pond. The kiddie rides, the merry-go-round, the train, I can still see in my mind the exact location of all the concessions. All of us kids who grew up at the beach remember the park as a big part of our young lives, a lot of our parents worked there making extra income during the summer, and then the children would work there. Jimmy Watson's father, LeRoy, ran the Lupo plane and the Jackrabbit, and he would sometimes let us "sneak" on if "mean ole Frank Cliff" (one time manager) wasn't in the vicinity. Oh, those were pretty heady times indeed! I would not have even thought to google Wenonah Beach, if I had not run across those pictures today. Many thanks to whomever started this web site. I'm getting really nostalgic now!
Contact Bay-Journal to add your own memories about this subject.