Remembering Wildwood Amusement Park

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2012 - 6:20 PM

A program by the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society recalls the glory days of the famed lakeside amusement park.

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Wildwood Amusement Park postcard

As executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society, Sara Markoe Hanson gets lots of questions from people who want to know more about the history of communities in the northeast metro.

But rarely does a week go by without somebody inquiring about the exact location of the once-booming Wildwood Amusement Park on the southern shore of White Bear Lake.

There, the world's largest roller coaster once rattled along its tracks. It's also where the Tilt-A-Whirl made its debut.

Hanson attributes the recent surge in interest in the theme park, which closed more than 80 years ago, to current low water levels on the lake. "People with metal detectors want to go out and see what they can find, treasures from a historical standpoint or something of monetary value," Hanson said. "Really, almost nothing remains that indicates that there ever was an amusement park there."

Although few artifacts survived when Wildwood was torn down in the 1930s, historic photographs and newspaper ads recount the glory days of the 20-acre park.

Hanson shared some of them last week during a program titled "Where Exactly was the Wildwood Amusement Park?" Her presentation drew an overflow crowd to the Ramsey County Library's White Bear Lake branch. She will present the same program again at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Wildwood Library in Mahtomedi.

Images of the Toboggan slide, which whisked daredevils down a steep incline and into the lake, and the sprawling pavilion where visitors could check out rowboats, brought back memories for some in the crowd, and raised questions for others.

Gene Alstatt surmised that large spikes he has run across in a pond near Hwy. 244 and Birchwood Road might have been used to anchor the Pippen 500-foot roller coaster, one of Wildwood's signature attractions. Chan Donahower, 66, said he has a few old Coke bottles and an aluminum tag that might have designated a locker in the bathhouse where guests could rent swimsuits for 25 cents.

While the park has spawned a few books and a video produced by the Minnesota Historical Society, it left behind precious few pieces of verifiable memorabilia. Only lore -- and photographs of what it was like -- have survived as proof that Wildwood was a big attraction.

"Nobody did much to preserve anything," Hanson said. "Occasionally, a token will pop up, but that's few and far between. It would be fun to have a piece of what was there. Unfortunately, not a lot has made its way to our collection. It would be nice to have that tangible piece of evidence."

A row of stately houses now stands where big-name artists such as Guy Lombardo and Fats Waller played in the park's majestic pavilion and games of chance brought in more than $1,000 in coins a day. Those are facts that even some with ties to the park find enlightening.

"I've heard bits and pieces, but it was fun to hear the whole presentation," said Stephanie Goodman, whose parents bought a house that was built on the Wildwood property in 1958.

Wildwood opened as a picnic ground in the 1880s, but morphed into an amusement park under the auspices of the Twin City Rail Transit company.

The streetcar line charged riders 10 to 15 cents to transport people to the park, but did not charge admission. Guests paid 5 to 25 cents per attraction, which included dance spectacles, steamboat rides and an assortment of thrill rides such as a Ferris Wheel and, in 1926, the first Tilt-A-Whirl made by the Sellner Company of Faribault, Minn.

"It was the Valleyfair of the day," said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. "This put Mahtomedi on the map. It was one of those places that the public could spend the day and go home. They didn't have to travel very far."

Throngs did. In its heyday, an estimated 1,000 people a day on weekends and 400 to 500 daily during the week rode trains to the theme park.

Wildwood survived a 1908 fire that destroyed many of its original buildings and attractions, but it could not overcome the advent of the automobile. With more freedom, people didn't have to rely as much on the streetcar and ventured to other places.

That, combined with the onset of the Depression, spelled financial difficulties for Wildwood. The park closed in 1932. Its buildings were razed, and the rollercoaster was moved to the former Excelsior Amusement Park. The streetcars still ran to Mahtomedi until 1951.

"There is so much more to Mahtomedi as a whole," Hanson said. "But there is a lot of lore about Wildwood and how fun it would have been to be there 100 years ago."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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