These days, anyone in the Bay Area seeking fairground thrills and spills needs to travel to Vallejo or Santa Clara to get ’em. But in the days before Six Flags, Great America and, well, regular people owning cars, the amusements mostly stayed close to Oakland and San Francisco to maximize visitor numbers. And that’s not all that was on offer... Here are five old East Bay attractions that should’ve been saved from the scrap pile.
It’s a fairly anonymous patch of Oakland now—residential homes, freeway underpasses, parking lots and such—but for 25 years, the plot of land between 56th, 58th, Telegraph and Shattuck was a glorious amusement ground. Idora Park opened in 1904 and was originally conceived as a “trolley park”—an attraction specifically designed to get people to ride public transportation on the weekends. But, oh boy, did the park offer ample incentives for visitors to flock there.
Idora featured beautiful gardens, a giant roller-skating rink, a zoo, racetrack, archery range, dance hall, miniature railway, amphitheater with grand outdoor stage, bandstand, Japanese garden and ostrich farm. All for an entry fee of 10 cents (about three dollars in 2022 money). Plus—there’s more!—peppered throughout the park were roller coasters and a variety of fairground attractions including a mountain slide, circular swing, penny arcade and whatever Shooting the Rapids, the Tickler and the Social Whirl were.
The City of Oakland’s maiden voyage happened on Aug. 14, 1909. Surrounded by throngs of people, the balloon took off from 14th and Webster in Oakland. Its 40-foot diameter narrowly avoided a collision with the spires of the First Presbyterian Church, almost drifted out to sea, and eventually plunged to the ground three hours later when 50-mile-per-hour winds hit. Balloon pilots (or “aeronauts” as they were known), Professor A. Van der Naillen Jr. and P. A. Van Tassel, were dragged for half a mile across the floor of a rocky canyon—and through two barbed wire fences!—before the balloon came to a stop.
“During the half mile of dragging we experienced, the basket turned completely over once and I am still wondering how we kept from falling out,” Van der Naillen later told the San Francisco Chronicle. Regardless, the voyage was considered a success, with the City of Oakland reaching its optimum altitude of 5,000 feet.
For the next year, the City of Oakland went out, up and down the coast, again and again, winning races and giving The Town’s residents a boost of pride. In October 1909, the balloon won a race against the Queen of the Pacific—a newsworthy event because both were piloted by women. The following month, the balloon beat a City of San Francisco vessel in a race that started on 11th and Market in San Francisco.
Which all begs the question: Why is this thing not on permanent display somewhere?
You know the Whole Foods currently standing at Bay Place and Vernon Street? Just up the street from Fairyland and Lake Merritt? Well, that site used to be home to a luxurious and sprawling bathhouse and spa.
Founded in 1890, Piedmont Baths provided Victorians with “20 different kinds of baths” (including Turkish and Russian), hot tubs (salt or fresh water), massages, plus a café and candy stand for snack time. It also housed a stunning 70-foot-by-120-foot swimming pool, complete with springboards and a trapeze. The saltwater was drawn from Lake Merritt using a Worthington pump (which could supply 500 gallons per minute) and a circular pump. The water was heated by waste steam from a nearby cable car power plant owned by the Oakland Transit Company.
An ad in the Oakland Tribune, placed Sept. 10, 1900, confidently stated: “People who have visited all the principal baths in this country and Europe all agree that the Piedmont Baths are the most complete in detail and are finished and furnished the best of any baths they have seen in their tour around the world.” The promotion added: “Doctors recommend swimming in tepid saltwater as the very best kind of exercise for young and old, sick and well.”
Tompkins Park Roller Coaster
Picture it: West Oakland, 1915. A bunch of streetwise children spend a lot of free time hanging out in Tompkins Park. Directly opposite is an infamous vacant lot that’s known as the “dumps” on account of how much junk and trash gets discarded there. One day, local kids Vincent Carvalho and Raymond Antwiler notice a set of rails and part of a miniature railway have joined the junk pile. So they decide to build themselves a roller coaster. When word spreads of the project, five more enterprising kids—Joey Gomez, Marion Cabral, Ben Viera, Joe Swartz and Frank Dominguez—step up to assist. And, within two weeks, against the odds (insert inspiring montage here), the ragtag crew actually succeeds.
On March 27, 1915, the Oakland Tribune reported on the structure which was set up on a path through and over refuse in the dumps. The gravity railroad-style ride was apparently held up—and propelled—by a large boiler at the top, followed by "a trestle of wood blocks, and driftwood from the beach." The boys even added some novel customizations.
“There was a switch in the system,” the Tribune reported, “and a side tracking a sharp curve between an old concrete mixer and a discarded boiler ... About 200 feet of track in all was laid and a swift trip, though one perhaps somewhat lacking in scenic attractions, was provided for the throngs of young ones that clamored for the privilege.”
There are many legends about Neptune Beach. This Alameda water and amusement park is where the popsicle, snow cone and Kewpie doll all apparently made their debuts! Open between 1917 and 1939 where Crab Cove is today, Neptune Park had two outdoor pools (one was Olympic-sized), a dance hall, barbecue pits and rentable vacation cottages. Non-swimmers could amuse themselves on the massive roller coaster, Ferris wheel and a carousel that was hand-carved by Philadelphia’s Dentzel Company. Entry to the park was just a dime.
Attendance slowed down during the Great Depression, and hit a major slump after the Bay Bridge opened in 1936. By 1939, the park was in deep debt. That year, the Central Bank of Oakland foreclosed and, in 1940, the once-hallowed contents of Neptune Beach were sold off at auction for a pittance. Today, the last remaining sign that it was ever there are the Neptune Court Apartments, built in the 1920s by Robert Strehlow, who was a co-founder of the park. You can currently rent a one-bedroom there for $2,200 and up.
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