Playland -- Seattle's Amusement Park (1930-1961)

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 9/14/2001
  • Essay 3562
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Hailed by its three owners as a place "to banish jaded nerves, nagging thoughts and worries, and to apply instead wholesome recreation and relaxation," Playland, a 12-acre "million dollar pleasure resort," opened with a flourish on May 24, 1930, along the shores of Bitter Lake, north of the Seattle city limits. The Dipper was its grand attraction, a state-of-the-art roller coaster soaring 85 feet into the air with 3,400 feet of track filled with reverse curves, 60-degree banks, and one virtual somersault. The new pleasure spot boasted being the biggest and finest amusement park in the whole of the Pacific Northwest. Playland thrilled park goers for 30 years until its demise in 1961.

Amusements in Old Seattle

Amusement parks were not new to Seattleites in the early part of the twentieth century. Leschi Park Gambling Casino operated on the shores of Lake Washington from 1888-1909. Farther up the lake, Madison Park's White City sat at the terminus of an electric trolley line from 1888-1911. And Luna Amusement Park at Duwamish Head in West Seattle entertained the citizenry from 1907 until it burned down in 1913.

On the eve of the Great Depression and after an exhaustive, two-year study of West Coast cities, Leo F. Smith, president of the Washington Amusement Company, and co-investor, W. A. Logus, perceived that Seattle was ripe for a new amusement park. The entrepreneurs had long experience catering to the amusement-loving public, and earlier had collaborated in building amusement parks at Columbia Beach in Portland and at nearby Jantzen Beach.

Well Located for Thrill Seekers

They built Seattle's Playland, located north of the city line at N 130th Street, at a cost of $750,000, including $75,000 for the Dipper. After seven months of construction at the south shore of Bitter Lake, which earlier visionaries had cleared of stumps and brush for just such a project, Playland was ready for business at the onset of summer vacation in 1930.

Playland was well located for thrill seekers coming from the north and the south. It was easily reached by electric streetcar and the Interurban trolley. Seattleites could take the Phinney Avenue line to the city limits, at N 85th Street and transfer to the Interurban. The 25 cent round trip fair on the Interurban included admission to the park. By now, however, the automobile was well established in American culture, and Playland, sandwiched between Greenwood Avenue and Woodland Park Avenue (Aurora Avenue), made motoring north from downtown Seattle and south from Everett a simple matter. The opening of the Aurora Bridge in 1932 made travel from Seattle even easier. As a result, land adjacent to the park was denuded to provide free parking for 12,000 cars.

Playing at Playland

Playland was poised for profitability. Rides were immediately plentiful and diverse, providing entertainment for patrons seeking all levels of excitement. For the more adventurous there was the Giant Whirl, with its 85-foot steel chains connecting 30 cars to a giant Maypole; the quarter-mile long Red Bug Speedway; and a fleet of Dodgems that permitted outlets for aggression by all age groups.

For patrons with queasy stomachs there was the Penny Arcade and Shooting Gallery, and the Fun House with its trick mirrors and a revolving barrel best negotiated by crawling on all fours. There was a Merry-Go-Round and a miniature scenic railroad that ran along the shore of Bitter Lake. The Canals of Venice led boats through 1,200 feet of mysterious "underground" dark and exotic passages, providing the opportunity for many adolescents to steal first kisses. Finally, Bill Darby's Playland Dance Band performed daily in a 9,600 square foot hardwood floor dance pavilion.

Although Playland was well planned out with its variety of rides, quality concessions, and efficient public relations, for Playland's owners the opening was ill timed. The country was about to free-fall into an economic depression that would last more than a decade. The under-capitalized Washington Amusement Company failed after only a year of operation. Playland, itself, survived, thanks to Carl E. Phare, builder of roller coasters, including the Dipper, who lived in the Pacific Northwest and came to the rescue. He took over the lease of the park and operated Playland with a succession of partners for the next 30 years.

A Builder of Fast and Thrilling Rides

Carl E. Phare was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1885. The youngest of three children, he left school in fourth grade to help support the family. An early job found him at a local amusement park taking tickets at a fast ride on a circular track, thought to be the most exciting attraction there. He stayed on with the company, learning every mechanical facet of the rides. At 19 he went off to company headquarters in Coney Island, New York. He rose quickly in the business, eventually becoming a building and construction foreman. While there he learned to build roller coasters.

In 1913, he was sent west to San Francisco to construct the Thompson Scenic Railway line for the 1914 Panama Pacific Exposition. He returned to Coney Island, but soon moved permenently to the West Coast where he not only constructed roller coasters, but started designing them.

With his home base in Portland, he traveled extensively designing and building wooden roller coasters throughout the West. Amusement park owners from Portland to Long Beach, California, boasted they had the fastest and most thrilling roller coasters in the country. In 1928, Phare invented and patented a swivel coupling for coaster cars that allowed more daring curves, greater flexibility, strength, and versatility. In Seattle he put this invention to use on The Dipper, which he completed in time for Playland's opening.

The life of amusement parks was in Phare's blood, so when the opportunity came to take over ownership of Playland in 1931, he welcomed the opportunity. And the price was no doubt to his liking.

Thrills Were Cheap

Amusement parks and movie theaters are where the public went during the Great Depression to help forget their woes for a few hours. Thrills were cheap at Playland where the entrance fee was a dime for anyone over 12, and rides were 10 cents each. Fun could also be had for free once inside the turnstiles. Flagpole sitting and dance marathons were the fads of the day, and Phare promoted them as he did his first love, the Dipper.

On opening day 1931, seven men crawled up tiny poles for flagpole a sitting contest. Locals challenged the nation's champion sitter, Richard Blandy, for more than a week. He lasted 35 days on the sitters' pole. Americans were still in the dance craze, and public dances could be found at many municipal parks throughout the region, including Playland. Here marathons went on endlessly until the survivors won a few dollars.

Phare put on plenty of other promotions, including fireworks shows he named the "Battle of Jutland" and the "Battle of Shanghai"; special nights for children, for city workers, and for employees of various businesses; and a Memorial Day balloon launching.

In 1932 park owners constructed an automobile race course called the Aurora Speedway. Its site was on the vast parking lot to the east of Playland across the Interurban tracks and fronting on Aurora Avenue. The oval track and large wooden grandstand covered ground between N 130th and N 135th Streets.

Pleasures and Dangers

World War II brought an influx of war workers and soldiers into Seattle. Many remained or returned after war, settling into new homes built in suburbia. In the post war years Playland thrived. People now had money, and families were looking for a good time. Importantly, television had not yet become incorporated into the American dream. Despite all this, Playland's days were numbered.

The thrills often brought spills. Injuries began to result in lawsuits in the late 1940s. A boy had been killed on the Dipper in 1933, but that was a different age, and no one was willing to close the park then because of the death. After World War II, however, injuries seemed to strike a sour note with many people, and courts began to award damage verdicts against the park owners.


On December 15th, 1950, the Aurora Palladium dancehall, not part of Playland but a nearby neighbor, burned to the ground. Two weeks later Playland's Aurora Stadium Speedway grandstand was destroyed by fire. The Grandstand was later rebuilt. Then, on August 18, 1953, parts of Playland itself burned in a fire so spectacular that many who saw it remembered it erroneously as having destroyed the entire park. The fire began about noon when the park was closed. Old Mill (Tunnel of Love) caught fire from an errant weed-burning machine. Playland's icon, the all-timbered Dipper, visible from the south end of the Aurora Bridge, was ablaze.

Phare's office, containing business records and the archives of the park, burned, as did the concession building. Fifteen fire trucks responded from volunteer fire departments north of the Seattle city line. The blaze was extinguished quickly with losses only reaching $50,000, and the park opened the next evening with only three rides out of commission. The west end of the roller coaster was quickly repaired and the ride was soon back in commission. During the off-season the Mystery House was rebuilt and two new features, the Laff Factory walk-through attraction and the Phantom Ride, were added.

But by now interest in the amusement park was fading. It stopped being a novelty, as there were now many other things to do. It was easy to drive somewhere and go for a boat ride or a picnic in the woods. Television had arrived. More importantly, the rural area that once surrounded Playland was now being developed as a residential neighborhood.

In 1954, the area out to N 145th Street was annexed by Seattle, bringing new infrastructure to the area and more homes. Local residents began to complain about drainage problems relating to the park and the nearby lake. The speedway adjacent to Playland was now perceived as a menace, and parents became skeptical of the safety of the rides.

Cheap Thrills Condemned

With the Broadview/Bitter Lake neighborhood in need of new schools and conventional parks, in 1960 the park and school boards acquired the south and west portions of Playland. Playland was officially condemned, and neighbors sighed with relief. An aging Phare considered fighting the decision, but illness prevented him from undertaking the effort.

At the end of the 1961 season, the rides were removed and their foundations covered with fill dirt to raise the level of the play field above the flood plane. The R. H. Thomson Junior High School was constructed at the west end. The Bitter Lake community center and adjacent grassy fields were eventually built near the site of the Dipper. The Speedway site became incorporated into a shopping center, on which the Gov-Mart store was built.

On August 24, 1962, Carl Phare, roller coaster builder and amusement park owner, died in the wake of the demise of his beloved Playland.

Although Playland has totally disappeared from the physical landscape, it did leave a successor. The Fun Forest, currently (2001) operating on the grounds of the Seattle Center, began as an amusement park developed for the Seattle World's Fair that opened in April 1962. Thus, Seattle's cotton-candy thrill seekers have enjoyed an unbroken string of high rides for the past 71 seasons.


Bruce Olson, "A Million Dollars of Fun for only a Dime," Today, August 4, 1976; Hallmark Galleries, Fall/Winter 1992, 14-16; Don Sherwood, "Playland," in "Interpretive Essays of the Histories of Seattle's Parks and Playfields," Handwritten bound manuscript dated 1977, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library; The Seattle Times, May 22, 1930; Ibid, August 26, 1962; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 23, 1930, Ibid, August 19, 1953; Kay Schlegel and Victoria Stiles, Once Upon A Time In Playland (Shoreline, WA: Shoreline Historical Museum, 2005); Victoria Stiles email to Paula Becker, June 28, 2005, in possession of Paula Becker. Note: This essay was corrected on July 11, 2005.

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