Lotus Isle, Oregon’s most surreal amusement park, was a shakedown gone wrong
For a small group of Portland-area businessmen in 1929, opportunity was knocking - or so they thought.
Jantzen Beach, the legendary swim-and-play amusement park on Hayden Island in the Columbia River, had opened in 1928 to vast sell-out crowds, and was doing very well there.
It was backed by some deep pockets, and was a showplace for the Jantzen brand of swimwear.
And the businessmen happened to own a large piece of real estate on the other side of the island - the easternmost tip of it, in fact. Why not announce plans to develop a huge amusement park there, and get the rich backers of Jantzen Beach to buy them out? Easy money, right?
The businessmen got busy working on Operation Shakedown. They called it “Lotus Isle.”
The trouble was, they had to spend some money to make the Jantzen Beach people think they were serious. They did. But in mid-1929, Jantzen Beach called their bluff, saying jovially that there was plenty of room for all and the competition was welcome.
So the would-be bilkers were more or less forced to open their park up after all. And thus was born a theme park that seems, today, remarkably like a setting for a David Lynch movie. Lotus Isle was, when it opened, Oregon’s biggest theme park. It was also, hands down, the most surreal - ever. The roof of the bumper cars ride was shaped like a giant hairless bulldog, complete with fangs protruding from a menacing frown, crouched down as if preparing to pounce on a small child. At its entrance was a 100-foot tall neon sign in the shape of the Eiffel Tower in Paris; this massive work of gaudy randomness could be seen from miles away, on both sides of the river. The windows of its mammoth dance hall, the Peacock Ballroom, were screened with chicken wire hooked to an electric-fence charger; this was apparently to keep non-paying guests from getting in, but it’s not hard to imagine where a good horror-film screenwriter might go with that little detail.
Even the name seemed like an obscure joke dreamed up by an opium smoker with a master’s degree in classics. Who wants to go play on the Island of the Lotus Eaters, really?
Still, as it turned out, the Jantzen Beach people were right. There really was business enough for both parks. When the plan to get bought out by Jantzen Beach failed, investor Edwin Platt had stepped up with enough money to do it right. There were 40 different attractions and rides and concessions, a 5,000-car parking lot and space for 15,000 picnickers. When Lotus Isle opened for the first time in June 1930, it was an instant hit, and for two months it looked like a real winner.
But everything changed late in August - almost exactly two months after the place opened. An 11-year-old boy was riding the park’s roller coaster when he flew out of the car, fell into the Columbia River and drowned.
The next day, apparently stricken with grief and guilt, Edwin Platt killed himself.
This, naturally, cast an awful pall over Lotus Isle for the rest of the 1930 season.
Over that fall and winter, new management came in and tried to reorganize the place to give it a go in 1931.
As part of that plan, Al Painter, a colorful promoter with a checkered past and sketchy business associations, came to Lotus Isle. Al was rumored to have been running from some creditors when he came to Portland. He certainly was running from some when he left.
One of the first things Painter did was to partner with Portland radio station KEX for a promotion he called the “Dance-a-thon,” held in the cavernous Peacock Ballroom (capacity 6,600 dancers). It was well received, and for most of the season all was well and Lotus Isle was thriving again.
But late August seemed to hold a special jinx for Lotus Isle. On Aug. 24, 1931, the Peacock Ballroom caught fire and burned to the ground in one of the more spectacular structure fires of Portland history. Folks in Vancouver at the time could feel the heat of the blaze, from 700 feet away on the other side of the river. The word on the street was that the fire was arson - and that it was intended to hurt Al Painter.
Which it certainly did. Al had, three months before, purchased an elephant - the biggest elephant in captivity, a 12-foot-tall, 20,000-pound circus veteran named Tusko. Tusko had acquired a reputation as the bad boy of 10-ton elephants when he reacted poorly to a beating by tossing his tormentor across the room and going on a rampage through downtown Sedro-Wooley, Wash., wrecking several cars and a number of houses and causing a riot in a dance hall before stomping off into the countryside and trashing a logging camp. (One account says Tusko was drunk at the time. And indeed, a 1931 newspaper article describing the joy with which he reacted to a gift of ten gallons of moonshine, prescribed to help him fight off a cold, suggests that the poor animal was no stranger to the bottle.)
Painter first tried to give Tusko to the Portland zoo, but after hearing about the Sedro-Wooley incident, the city demurred, and Tusko ended up becoming part of the exhibit at Lotus Isle.
After the fire, Painter brought Tusko down to Salem for the Oregon State Fair and then disappeared, leaving the state with a ten-ton elephant to feed. Nothing was heard from him until December, when someone spotted an article in a New Orleans newspaper, which reported that he’d launched his Dance-A-Thon promotion there, run up large debts and skipped on them.
Tusko eventually went on a rampage bad enough to require the services of the 186th Infantry, doing substantial damage to what was left of Lotus Isle. He almost certainly frightened away as many people as he attracted to the park. Eventually Tusko was moved to a Seattle zoo, where he died in 1933 of what appears to have been a deep-vein thrombosis (although one source says he was actually given the “black bottle,” that is, euthanized with poison). His enormous skeleton was donated to the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
After Tusko’s departure, there wasn’t much left of Lotus Isle. It hung on through the 1932 season, but early in 1933 everything was liquidated in a bankruptcy proceeding.
Today, all that’s left is Lotus Isle City Park, on the south side of the island, and a row of rotting pilings heading out across the Columbia River where the streetcar trestle used to be.
(Sources: Klooster, Karl. Round the Roses. Portland: Klooster Promotions, 1987; Moore, Mark. “Lotus Isle,” www.pdxhistory.com. Portland Morning Oregonian, 1929-1931 issues. Pintarich, Dick & al. Great and Minor Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon, 2009)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
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