Beloved, and huge, Jantzen Beach Carousel gets a new home

Sep 24, 2023, 3:52 PM | Updated: 5:17 pm

Image: The Jantzen Beach carousel was installed in June 1928 at the amusement park that once stood ...

The Jantzen Beach carousel was installed in June 1928 at the amusement park that once stood on Hayden Island, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, near where the 1917 bridge connects Washington and Oregon. (Photo: C.W. Parker Archives, Barbara Fahs Charles Collection via Restore Oregon)

(Photo: C.W. Parker Archives, Barbara Fahs Charles Collection via Restore Oregon)

It went ’round and ’round in circles for nearly a century, and then it went into storage. Now, a beloved Portland, Oregon-area landmark – a vintage carousel from the 1920s – is hitting the trail for points east.

The Jantzen Beach Carousel was originally built by the C.W. Parker Company in Kansas in 1924 for an amusement park in Venice, California. But park operators in the Golden State couldn’t afford to keep up with the payments, so the manufacturer took it back, disassembled it, and put it into storage in a nearby warehouse.

A few years later, the Portland-based garment manufacturer Jantzen, which became famous for its swimsuits and iconic swimmer logo, decided to build an amusement park at a spot on Hayden Island in the Columbia River, where the main highway crosses south from Washington via the 1917 Bridge. They called the spot, and the amusement park, Jantzen Beach.

In 1928, park operators bought the four-year-old Venice carousel and had the pieces shipped north by freight train from Southern California to Portland. The carousel was reassembled at Jantzen Beach and it debuted that year.

For the next 40 years, the amusement park and the carousel were fixtures in the Portland area. But tastes and recreational pursuits changed. Not long after Labor Day 1970, the park shut down for good and the aging amusement park was torn down and replaced with a mall. The mall became new home to the carousel, and that’s where it lived until 2012 when the mall owners put the whole thing, once again, back into storage.

In both of its Jantzen Beach homes, the carousel enchanted multiple generations of countless Rose City families. In storage, it did little other than gather dust and take up space.

All that changed in 2017. That was when the mall owners donated the carousel to the non-profit statewide historic preservation group called Restore Oregon.

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Stephanie Brown works for Restore Oregon, where her title is “Director of Carousel Planning and Education.” She has lived and breathed the Jantzen Beach Carousel, and searched for a permanent home for it in the Beaver State, for six years.

More on what is a huge carousel

Brown says the Jantzen Beach Carousel is not the same size as a regular amusement park carousel that most people might be familiar with.

“The carousel is absolutely enormous,” Brown told KIRO Newsradio. “It’s almost three stories tall and 67 feet across. And it has 72 horses.”

“Most carousels have maybe 36 horses or so,” Brown continued. “So, it’s about twice the size of a regular carousel, and it weighs 20 tons.”

Brown says the manufacturer made only four carousels of this enormous size, including the Jantzen Beach specimen, and the Jantzen Beach Carousel is now the only surviving example. For a regional size comparison, the Looff Carousel in Spokane’s Riverfront Park measures 54 feet across.

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The carousel’s new home

Brown says Restore Oregon almost secured a permanent home and steward for the carousel in Portland in early 2020, right before the pandemic, but then that deal fell through. They started looking again earlier this year. A competitive process was recently completed, and Restore Oregon announced a few weeks ago that the carousel will be soon be moved to the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Oregon.

In an email, museum founder David Benko explained why his organization was eager to become home to the vintage amusement park ride.

“The Jantzen Beach Carousel was an important and significant icon in the Northwest,” Benko wrote. “It was a sad day when the Jantzen Beach Mall chose to shut it down. So many children, including our own, have fond memories related to that carousel.”

“It was my wife Kirsten, who first heard that its future was in question,” Benko continued. “As we moved forward with the idea, we pulled in not only the new mayor (of The Dalles), but two former mayors, as well as prominent business people, including our board members.”

Restore Oregon’s Brown says The Dalles museum, though its focus is neon, is the perfect home for the carousel.

Plans are to construct a new building at the National Neon Museum to house the carousel. In addition, a significant amount of restoration work will be required, but Brown said the museum already has space and expertise to do the painting and gold-leafing necessary to restore the horses and other parts of the carousel – which is one of the reasons they were selected from about a dozen groups who expressed interest in becoming home to the carousel.

Connecting the carousel to neon signs

Benko sees a direct connection between neon signs and the carousel.

“As neon was just arriving in the United States, the carousel arrived in Venice, California,” Benko wrote. “Just prior to the stock market crash, the carousel arrived as a new attraction at the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park in Portland.”

“Neon was exploding across the United States” around that same time, Benko added.

Since Brown, in her role as “Director of Carousel Planning and Education,” has been working on the carousel full-time for six years, what will she do once the carousel is moved to The Dalles in a few months and it’s no longer her responsibility to worry about finding a home for it?

“You know, I kind of never thought this day would come and I need to sort of figure out what’s next for me,” Brown said. “But I’m honestly just so delighted that that we did it. It was not easy.”

“But I’m so delighted with the partners that we found,” Brown continued. “I think they’re going to be just spectacular caretakers for the carousel.”

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Plans are to have Jantzen Beach Carousel restored and in operating condition in the National Neon Sign Museum by the summer 2028, in time for the centennial of its 1928 arrival in Oregon. The museum is already a major tourist attraction in The Dalles, and a favorite among the many Columbia River cruise ship passengers who regularly visit the town.

“Even though it’ll be moving” from the Portland area, Stephanie Brown said, “it’ll still basically be right on the banks of the Columbia as it always has been since the 20s.”

“Its future is dazzling again” for the vintage carousel, David Benko added. “And (it’s) getting brighter.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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