Silver Beach Amusement Park
Below the high bluffs of downtown St. Joseph, hugging both the Lake Michigan shoreline and the St. Joseph River lies an area where carnival music was once heard, merry-go-round carousel horses galloped in place, a roller coaster roared and Charleston dancers strutted their stuff.
The Silver Beach Amusement Park that graced the shores of St. Joseph, Michigan from 1891-1971 meant something special to every one of its millions of patrons through the years—regardless of age. To some the Silver Beach Amusement Park meant an afternoon of carnival rides, snacks, and games of chance and skill. To others it meant a family picnic, a swim in the big lake, or just a moonlight stroll along the boardwalk. Still others saw Silver Beach Amusement Park as a way of life. These were the people who so faithfully worked there, summer after summer, most of them for periods of twenty years or more. The workers needed no union, the management required no leases, and terms of business were generally settled with a friendly handshake.
"The whole idea was to have fun," said one St. Joseph resident who worked at the Silver Beach Amusement Park. "Mr. Drake insisted on honesty from all of us, that's all, and we loved working there. He didn't want anyone cheated out of having a good time."
Logan Drake, one of five children from a St. Joseph family, was a man of many talents, and deserves the credit for establishing the 20+ acre park. Born April 22, 1863, Drake began his schooling in Kalamazoo and continued it in Muskegon and St. Joseph. At the age of sixteen, Drake traveled to Chicago, where he and his younger brother Fred operated a confectionary store on 31st Street. A year later the elder Drake returned to St. Joseph where he purchased land from the Pere Marquette Railroad and established a boat livery on the St. Joseph River. Drake also bought 22 acres of sand dunes from local Indians along the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan.1 Giving them a year to move off the land, he began building.
Louis D. Wallace, one of thirteen children, was born November 25, 1864 in Chicago, and came to southwestern Michigan at the age of two when his father, John, opened the Wallace Lumber Yard in St. Joseph.2 Wallace went to work for Drake's boat livery in 1885 and the two became friends. Together they formed Drake and Wallace. The men would later become brothers-in-law when they married the Schlenker sisters, Maude and Laura.
Drake and his bride-to-be, Maude Schlenker, spent part of their courtship walking on the beach. It was she who coined the name "Silver Beach", because the moon path on the water "shimmered like silver". Their boat construction business would build canoes and rowboats. In their first year of business, the firm of Drake and Wallace reported total profits of $6.50. With the boat business running well, the partners turned their attention to the Lake Michigan beach frontage with the intention of giving tourists more to do in St. Joseph. Soon after Drake established the Silver Beach Amusement and Realty Company in 1891, Wallace was granted co-ownership. The two built ten cottages along the beach, renting them to vacationers. Eventually, 80 cottages in all were available.
Along with the canoes and rowboats, Drake and Wallace also began building sidepaddler steamers and launches. The first launch was called the "Wolverine" after Michigan's state animal; The second was the "Buckeye" the third the "Tourist" and the fourth, launched in 1915 and powered by gasoline, was a 65 footer named the "Milton D." after Drake's son. The launches were open on the sides like trolley cars, and seated 60-100 people, with benches on the sides and down the center. Powered first by steam and then by gasoline engines, the four launches cruised the St. Joseph River every hour on the hour from 1 pm to midnight for 50 cents round trip from 1890 to 1924.
People would come by horse and buggy, and spend all day on the riverboats, which would provide scenic tours from St. Joseph to Berrien Springs. The tours reached as far as Mott's Landing and King's Landing, often carrying capacity crowds. Box lunches and souvenirs were made locally by Drake's restaurant and souvenir factory and available at the river docks.
The next step for the infant company was easy. The beach needed something to make it more popular, so the pair invited local concessionaires to sell novelties. These early concessions sold everything from swimming caps to lemonade in a barrel. Soon games of chance sprang up and later an early photographic studio emerged where couples could have their portraits taken.
Various structures were hurriedly constructed to house the ever-growing offerings of Silver Beach. By 1896, an ice cream parlor, souvenir shop, and a pavilion were erected ... everything from wooden stands to tents saw use on the sands. The Silver Beach Amusement Park was up and running!
The first Silver Beach pavilion was an open-ended hall that hosted dancing and big band music, as well as many other activities. Silver Beach was really starting to take shape. In addition to these attractions on the beach, there were attractions in the water. Toward the end of the 1800s, a couple of water slides were anchored in shallow water for children. Photographs depict children in full bathing costume—leggings, bloomers, water wings, shirts and hats as their parents watched from under their umbrellas. Around the turn of the century, activity on the water was not the only excitement at Silver Beach. Augustus Moore Herring, a St. Joseph resident, manned and flew a primitive airplane over the sand; in a historic flight that predated the famous 1903 Wright Brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, by nearly five years. Herring, a graduate mechanical engineer with an interest in manned air flight, built a biplane with a compressed air motor in his home workshop. In mid-October 1898, Herring brought his heavier than air flying machine to Silver Beach, started the motor, and held on. Local newspapers stated that Herring and his machine were airborne for about eight to ten seconds.
Silver Beach became the scene of another famous airplane flight in 1913 when Logan A. "Jack" Vilas flew his double-wing open-cockpit airboat from the St. Joseph beach to Chicago, Illinois. It marked the first successful crossing of Lake Michigan by air, and Vilas covered the 62-mile distance in one hour and forty minutes. A remarkable event since airplanes were still considered unsafe contraptions in 1913.
During the decade and a half between the famous airborne activities on the beach, the park area was engaged in a massive uplift. Three large wooden buildings and a boardwalk, which survived for over seventy years, were erected. The boardwalk, originally made of wood, was elevated above the sand to allow the lake water to rush underneath. As the beach "grew", sand was filled in but the boardwalk, later replaced with cement, remained. It was common in the early days of the park for courting couples to promenade along the boardwalk at night.
The first of the aforementioned three buildings was the bathhouse and swimming pool. Drake wanted to give the park bathers a choice of swimming in the lake or the large indoor pool, an extreme rarity of its time. The pool used lake water that was heated by a steam furnace. Large skylights let sun in for additional heat and light. The bathhouse, or Natorium, built about 1904, was 210 x 70 feet and 24 feet tall, and was constructed for approximately $3,000. Early twentieth century swimmers could rent an entire swimming outfit, "complete with stockings, bloomers and blouse, along with matching hat and umbrella."
Lockers for women were upstairs, men's lockers were downstairs, and both offered full bathing suits and towels for rent. Lock boxes were issued with pin-on keys for securing valuables. "Water wings" were also on hand for non-swimmers.
In 1904-5, the "Chase through the Clouds", or, more informally, the "Figure 8" roller coaster was built. It was Logan Drake's crowning achievement to that point. The park's first rollercoaster however, was not at all like those monsters of amusement parks today. It was not linked like a snake, but utilized several separate one or two-person capacity cars.3 The speeds attained on the track were less than half of those obtained on similar rides today, and the track was shorter and less dangerous looking. But the ride was unique in the area and it caught on fast. And it was safe too. Everyday the operator inspected the entire track; while every spring, before any paying customers were allowed to ride, the park owners and some of the employees took the season's first test trips.4 The "Figure 8" was a staple of the amusement park until it was torn down in 1923, to make way for the "Velvet" roller coaster.
In 1905, the second building erected by the Silver Beach Amusement and Realty Company was an open-ended roller skating rink north of the Natorium. The rink was thought to be the first in the area. Roller skates as they exist today were unheard of, and the rented skates were attached to the shoes with leather straps. In 1906 Louis Wallace added southwestern Michigan's first pipe organ to the rink.5 The wooden rink enjoyed great success as the local newspaper noted that the rink was often "crowded with enthusiastic skaters."
In the summer of 1905, Boxing matches were held at the Silver Beach Amusement Park, pitting some of the best fighters of the Midwest against each other. Tommy Ryan (Ryan, considered by many as the best Middleweight ever, was a smart, good boxer and a hard-hitter. Ryan worked with many fighters to improve their technique. Ryan was elected to the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1958.), who had been a middleweight champion and is now a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, organized the pugilist matches. These Boxing exhibitions were extremely popular, sometimes drawing crowds of over 3,000, but were discontinued when St. Joseph city officials deemed the matches too brutal.
Around the turn of the century there was a pressing need for a big dance hall in the twin city area of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. Drake and Wallace capitalized on this need and in 1906-7 constructed a dance pavilion & casino at the south end of their land. The hall featured two stages for the bands, one at the rear and one on the side of the building. With this setup the "battle of the bands" grew popular in the pavilion. Drake later added an ice cream parlor inside the building.
These activities, along with the penny arcade and concession stands, drew huge crowds of tourists from Michigan as well as those from Illinois and Wisconsin. Drake and Wallace responded by adding the "House of Mysteries" amusement a forerunner of a modern spookhouse or mirror maze, in 1907.
The Silver Beach Amusement Park grew in popularity. Although many factors contributed to the park's early success, none were ever more important than lake transportation. The park's ideal location at the mouth of the St. Joseph River on Lake Michigan gave tourists an eyeful of fun before they even stepped off the boats. Located in the Twin Cities was the famous Graham and Morton boat line, with passenger and freight ships making daily runs to Chicago and Milwaukee. Shipping was a profitable business as well as the best means of long-distance transportation. The G & M line offered several fine upper cabin propeller steamers, which contributed greatly to the success of Silver Beach Amusement Park. Two of these were named "City of Benton Harbor" and "City of Chicago". The crossing took about 5 hours bringing thousands of tourists to St. Joseph and Benton Harbor. It was possible for Chicago citizens to leave on the morning boats, spend a day at Silver Beach Amusement Park, and return on the evening boats or stay the night in one of the many nearby hotels. A moving stairway was installed to carry people from the foot of the bluff at Vine Street to Lake Boulevard where some early hotels were located and where the Maids of the Mist fountain at the Whitcomb tower stands today.
While the boats continuously brought in more and more visitors, the Silver Beach Amusement Company had to supply their new arrivals with more things to do. Around 1910 Drake established the "dog-ride" where children sat in miniature carriages or Conestoga wagons and were pulled around a turnstile by a team of dogs.
For the adults, Drake and Wallace added a variety of amusements. An airplane ride, in honor of the first American airplane flight on Silver Beach in 1898, was established behind their buildings about a hundred yards from the lake. The ride consisted of six airplanes of pre-World War I design suspended on steel cables from a motorized revolving top. Drake also added an enclosed picnic area for those who wished to bring a sack lunch or basket to the park.
The beachside park was very popular by now. So popular that a 1913 postcard of an artist's "birds eye view" of the area shows several small private souvenir or refreshment stands strung along a half-mile stretch on the banks of the St. Joseph River. Patrons would walk along the river and concessions on their way to the lake.
During the pre-war years the lake began doing something strange. The waters of Lake Michigan were constantly pushing up more and more sand each season, making a much larger beach. When the Silver Beach Amusement Company began building in 1902 the waves would flow up to the boardwalk, but in the next two decades more than fifty yards would separate the two.
With the extra beachland caused by the vanishing waters, another attraction was added.9 The merry-go-round carousel was catching on fast in Europe during the early twentieth century and when it first appeared in St. Joseph it proved to be an instant success. The merry-go-round carousel and organ imported from Germany, with hand carved horses wearing jeweled saddles and real horsehair tails was operating at the Silver Beach Amusement Park by 1916. Famous merry-go-round carousel builder Fred Dolle of North Bergen, NJ constructed the ride using horses carved by Charles Carmel of Brooklyn, NY. Dolle operated the merry-go-round carousel at Silver Beach until 1930 when Logan Drake bought the ride outright.
The merry-go-round carousel had 3 rows consisting of 44 horses. Originally, there were no jumping horses. But, in the 1920s it was sent back to the factory and 16 jumpers were placed on the machine. The original standers that were replaced were returned with the machine (later stacked up and burned in 1948). M.D. Borelli and his wife, also a builder of merry-go-round carousels, added the jewels to the horses in 1924.
Although the horses were the chief asset of the ride, most of the children wanted to know where the beautiful music came from. The carousel organ was enormous to the eyes of a child. It stood 8' x 8' and was stationed above the motor pit in the center of the huge ride. At the top was a fascinating ornamental predicament that pictured a figure of a reclining Italian woman, while below her on a stage were several smaller figures, each about two-feet high that danced when the organ played.
The entirely hand-carved organ delighted children with its gay music until the mid-1930s when it was replaced by two Wurlitzer organs. The massive although mute structure remained with the park as a decoration until the park's final days in 1971. A unique feature of the merry-go-round carousel was the elusive gold ring. The ring dangled from a post outside the circumference of the ride and any youngster skillful enough to snatch it would receive a free ride.
The Benton Harbor News Palladium noted, "the people who flock to the park on weekends via the riverboats and barges love the gay music and ponies that move."11 A new Silver Beach Amusement Park structure was built around 1917, housing a new attraction. Louis Wallace had just opened a bowling alley in South Bend, Indiana, that was rapidly becoming successful. The thought of starting the business at the beach seemed profitable, too. The park was currently operating a ten pin alley, which was similar to bowling but with smaller balls, pins and lanes. Drake decided to remove the small version of the game and replace it with the real thing. Eight bowling lanes were set up into position, as were twelve billiard tables and a soda fountain. The Twin Cities had their first bowling alley with Frank Lewis, a renowned bowler from Detroit, as its manager.
Bowling was different in the 1920s than it is today. There were no mass-produced score sheets, so the score was kept on blackboards behind the bowlers. In the early days at Silver Beach Amusement Park, women were not allowed to bowl or shoot pool and the only woman likely to be seen in the "man's den" was the manager's wife. There were no automatic pinsetters either, but the problem was alleviated by hiring young ambitious schoolboys to set pins. Bowling found a spot in the hearts of the people of southwestern Michigan, a couple of leagues sprang up at the park, and even major league bowlers were often at the lanes. While an immediate success, the bowling alley was closed in 1928 because indoor bowling proved far too warm for Michigan summers.
If the twenties were indeed "roaring", then Silver Beach Amusement Park was one of the loudest lions around. One thing happened after another in the park. The dance hall was filled to capacity nearly every weekend. And when there was no band, the couples could pay five cents a ticket and dance to organ music. When there was a band or two at the pavilion it seemed like the entire Twin Cities attended. Among the bands appearing in the dance hall were medical students, and brothers Billy and Eddie Goodhart. Stein, who played sax and clarinet, with Billy on piano and Eddie on bass horn, performed at the Silver Beach dance hall for five seasons with their 12 piece orchestra to support their tuition. Seeing the success of the growing amusement park, Jules Stein and Billy Goodhart talked to Logan Drake about an idea they had. Drake encouraged the young medical students to "become the first and best booking agents in the country". They went on to form the Music Corp. of America, or MCA for short, around 1920. MCA would become the number one booking agency and record company in the world.3 Other bands followed including Charleston bands such as the Ted Weems group, and the local favorite Wayne King, the Waltz King.
The Silver Beach Amusement Park was reaching its peak. As its popularity grew, so did Drake's ideas. Though prosperous in the 1920s, the park still lacked something: a big attraction, a landmark ride. Drake and Wallace found that attraction and in the off-season of 1923-24, Drake and Wallace replaced the "Figure 8" rollercoaster with the "Velvet" rollercoaster. Anyone standing on the bluff in St. Joseph could immediately recognize it above any of the other rides. As a symbol of every amusement park in the land, the runaway snake flew over the tracks high above the ground, emitting children's screams of horror at every breathtaking plunge or turn!
Several event days also found their way to Silver Beach Amusement Park in the 1920s. In 1924 four to five thousand Twin Cities' inhabitants witnessed their first all-male bathing beauty contest, held on the dance pavilion floor.
Besides the bathing beauty contest there were other special events. A watermelon-eating race was held each summer with prizes going to the quickest, biggest and sloppiest eaters. There were also occasional exhibitions of Charleston dancing as Drake himself brought in professional dancers, and local dancers were allowed who had "mastered the new terpsichorean feat." Enormous crowds were generally seen at any well-publicized Silver Beach Amusement Park event, including tug-of-wars and football games.
In 1925 another bright idea was initiated. Declaring Tuesday "Kiddies Day", moms could take their children to the park and ride at discount prices.6 Kiddies Day became very popular with local families during the depression of the 30's. They took picnic lunches and ate at tables at the roofed pavilion. This discount day remained a policy until the park closed in 1971, although the price had inflated up from three cents to a dime a ride.
The last of the improvements was the building of the Shadowland Ballroom in May 1927. The older pavilion at the south end of the park was doing well, but ballroom dancing was very popular and the cry went up for a new building.
Drake and Wallace selected a more romantic location, near the river for the new ballroom. The rotund wooden structure was build by John A. Miller, from Homewood, Illinois. Miller gained fame in the amusement park industry as a rollercoaster designer, having invented several safety features that became industry standards. Shadowland Ballroom took almost a full year to build, but when completed it was one of the finest dance facilities in the entire country.
Free carnations were given to the ladies on opening night. The Shadowland Ballroom was elegantly decorated with 5,000 yards of silk pongee stretched between the arches and had indirect lighting throughout. In the mid 1930s, it was redecorated in a modern style. As the Big Band Era came into fashion, Shadowland Ballroom drew musicians such as Lawrence Welk, Kay Kyser, Oliver Naylor, George Olsen, Jan Garber, Woody Herman, and Victor Young. Ballroom dances were held 7 days a week, with Sunday matinees. Jim Miller of Benton Harbor remembers some of the local bands that played at Shadowland. He sometimes sat in on drums with groups led by Del-Pino and Bob Lewis. "It didn't cost anything to get into the Shadowland Ballroom other than on big band nights," Miller recalls. "Dance tickets were 10 cents each or 3 for a quarter, 8 for 50 cents, 20 for a dollar. A Coke and a bag of chips were a nickel apiece. We danced to such romantic tunes as Red sails in the Sunset, Slow Boat to China, Hands Across the Table, Stars Fell on Alabama, and Cocktails for Two."
The emergence of Shadowland only slightly preceded the big band era. It wasn't uncommon to have over a thousand dancers on any one evening. In the 1930s marathon dances were a fad and Silver Beach Amusement Park staged at least one of its own. One Herald Press story from 1930 said that the Michigan State Department of Labor tried "to halt the fallen-arch derby." But a postponement was obtained, allowing the weary dancers to finish.
Soon after the Shadowland Ballroom had been built, the old dance hall was renovated into the "Fun House" : Image 1 / Image 2. One stage was removed and a 35-foot handcrafted Maplewood slide was installed and said to be the tallest in the state at the time it was built.7 Children sat on pieces of carpeting to slide down the loops to the bottom. Then they would make the seemingly endless climb up the stairs to the top for another turn. Other additions included a revolving barrel, spinning saucer, sugar bowl, and a haunted house.
The revolving barrel, which offered many seasons of fun, was a huge eight-foot diameter barrel spun on its side with both ends open, allowing people to try to walk inside it. The spinning saucer and the sugar bowl were electrically operated every forty-five minutes. The saucer was a huge endless tile wheel on the floor, which spun with increasing velocity. The closer a person sat to the edge the more likely he would be thrown off. Like the saucer, the sugar bowl increased in speed, but all the riders remained inside the huge bowl the entire ride. The ride's velocity pinned its passengers to the sides of the bowl, making it impossible to move a limb. When either of these rides were about to begin, a mad rush would take place for a chosen spot. Next to the Fun House, further down the Midway, stood the "Mirror Maze". When the Fun House was set up, the Mirror Maze was placed under the same roof, and the ice cream parlor was removed. The maze was very much like the mirror mazes of today. The patron would try to find his way to the back of the maze where he could look at himself in distorted mirrors; then he had to find his way out again. A trick used by many children was to look at the floor and not at their own reflection as they walked through the maze.
Further down the boardwalk near Shadowland on the river was a children's ride called the "Caterpillar". It resembled a giant caterpillar and ran along a circular track filled with dips, making the same motion as its namesake. A cover painted in a caterpillar design enclosed the connecting cars as the big "bug" circled the tracks. Logan Drake's philosophy was to change the amusement park to keep the attractions interesting and up-to-date. He supervised much of the construction himself with his knowledge of boat building, and was able to make the renovations less costly.
Many celebrities came to the Silver Beach Amusement Park over the years. Actors Joe E. Brown (One of comedian Joe E. Brown's proudest claims was that he was perhaps the only kid whose parents encouraged him to run away with the circus. In 1928, he began his movie career, uncharacteristically appearing in turgid melodramas until he was signed by Warner Bros. in 1929. In his popular Warners vehicles, Brown alternated between playing naive young men who made good despite impossible odds, or brash braggarts who had to be taken down a peg or two.) and Ben Blue (From age 15 he was on the New York stage and in Vaudeville, then beginning in 1926 he appeared in a series of silent short subjects for Warner Brothers, Hal Roach, and other studios. One story has it that comedian Red Skelton, after being upstaged by Blue, had a clause put in his contract stating that he would never appear with Blue again.), both of Benton Harbor; fighters Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis; actresses Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Janet Gaynor and Jean Harlow (With her soft come-hither body, platinum blonde hair, and keen sense of humor, is recognized as one of the most gifted and blatantly sensual stars of the 1930s. Harlow demonstrated that she was not only extremely sexy and funny, she was also a first-rate actress and a bonafide star playing opposite some of the industry's most popular men, including Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.) were among the visitors.
The Depression that struck America in the 1930s did not bypass Silver Beach Amusement Park. People still came for outings at the park; only they did not come as often or spend as much money. The G & M and other boat lines that still traveled from Chicago to St. Joseph, while not as plentiful nor as full of passengers, helped the Silver Beach Amusement Park survive the Depression. During this time, the Grigsby-Grunow Co. of Chicago brought 2,000 of its employees to the amusement park for a Friday outing. They were transported by "The Alabama" and the "City of Holland", two Goodrich transport steamers. Though the pace had been slowed, it didn't stop Drake from expanding the park. The "Whip" made its debut with the park in the early 1930s and caught on fast. Consisting of several coaches rolling along on oval track that would whip the rider around a turn at high speeds, the "Whip" was placed south of the merry-go-round carousel on the beach. Bertha Hopp, employed as a Silver Beach Amusement Park cashier for many years, would often offer to hold the babies of couples so they too could enjoy a ride like The Whip.
Also added in the early 1930s was a 12-14 "bumper cars" attraction called "The Scooter". Housed in a new building with a steel floor, the first cars, though too small for adults, were powered by an electric current from the inside roof of the building to the accelerator of the car. The object was to drive the car around the track smashing whomever the driver happened to come in contact with. But it was soon realized that the original cars were not meant for "bumping" purposes at all, but were to be used as recreational vehicles. New cars were purchased and the bumper car ride remained a crowd pleaser until the park closed.
The 1930s also saw the slanted veranda-type boardwalk replaced by a cement walkway that increased pedestrian traffic along the games and concessions.2 In 1933 a commodity came to Silver Beach Amusement Park that had never been there before—beer. Peter Bizanes, St. Joseph concessionaire, constructed a beautiful beer garden at the south entrance of the park, "equipped with chairs, tables, and the most up-to-date bar equipment in this part of the state."3 Drake had successfully prevented a saloon from opening in the beach area, but with the end of prohibition, Bizanes received permission to operate the garden.
The beer garden served sandwiches along with its brew and was a favorite lunch center with the park's employees. Friendly card games often formed in the garden and lasted all afternoon, although gambling was not permitted. Bizanes's beer garden slowly lost favor with the park officials as public drunkenness began to appear at Silver Beach Amusement Park. Most of the patrons enjoyed the garden but a few, who couldn't handle their beer, ruined the atmosphere. Bizanes's license ran out before the decade ended and was never renewed.
Silver Beach Amusement Park had just about everything in its favor in the 1930s. A fine beach, sheltered picnic area, exciting rides, concessions, games of skill and chance, and a healthy attitude toward recreation. So there is little wonder why the area's pride in the park continued to grow.
The Gar Wood, a high-powered speedboat, made its debut at Sliver Beach in the mid-1930s and patrons stood in long lines for fast rides down the river to the lake and back again. Speedboats were a relatively uncommon luxury in those days and many of the park's customers had never experienced a ride over the water at such a speed. The Gar Wood continued servicing the park until the mid-1940s when it was permanently sidelined for costly repairs.
Wrestling was one of the big sideshows in the late thirties at Silver Beach Amusement Park, and its popularity carried on into the early forties. An outdoor ring was set up across from the rollercoaster and area wrestlers would conduct challenge matches for the audience. One of the more aggressive wrestlers was a former Notre Dame football player, 'Jumpin' Joe Savoldi, from nearby Three Oaks.6 (In 1931, Notre Dame's famous football coach Knute Rockne described Savoldi as "The best attacking fullback I ever saw!")
Logan Drake had begun Silver Beach Amusement Park more than forty years earlier and, with the help of his brother-in-law, Louis Wallace, elevated the stature of the park to the finest asset of the City of St. Joseph. But Drake was not a young man anymore, and neither was Louis Wallace. By the late 1930s, Louis Wallace sold his share of the park to Drake. Drake needed to find a responsible man to assume his duties and found a willing volunteer in his soon to be son-in-law, Horace "Chief" Terrill, who was courting his daughter, Roberta. Terrill had moved to the St. Joseph area as a boy in 1922 from Denver, Colorado, and soon became acquainted with Roberta and the lakeside park. Terrill appeared to be just the man for the park; he enjoyed seeing people laugh and was full of ideas that would enhance the park's attraction.
His first idea ... more customers off the big passenger ships from Chicago. As the ships pulled into Central Docks, located almost a mile up the river, destination busses greeted them. Most of the buses belonged to Benton Harbor's House of David, while only one belonged to Silver Beach Amusement Park. Although the tourists had passed the park on their way in from the lake, many were swayed to the grounds of the House of David.
As the boats came up the river to the docks, Terrill thought the passengers wanting to stop directly at the park should be able to do so. He constructed a landing to allow beach tourists to disembark from their ships before docking at Central Docks. This way Silver Beach Amusement Park would have the first chance at persuading the customers. Though his landing was quite successful, with the advent of better roads and more automobiles, passenger boats rapidly vanished.
Another critical period hit Silver Beach Amusement Park; only it wasn't the fault of good roads or automobiles. World War II dramatically slowed the pace at the park and at the Shadowland Ballroom. Slowed yes, but a time fondly remembered by such local residents as Betty (Gast) Gaunder of St. Joseph, "Shadowland was the place to be." She sang with the Bob Lewis Band for a year and a half, and met her husband, George who was a lifeguard at the Silver Beach Amusement Park. "Girls in pleated skirts and saddle shoes, and servicemen in uniform were a part of the scene," she recalls. "Gas rationing was in effect, so we shared the ride and came by the carload." Though the park continued to function during the day, albeit slower, the nightlife Silver Beach Amusement Park had enjoyed before the war all but vanished. And after the war, Shadowland never quite regained all the dancing feet it had only a few years before.
During the war years two more attractions were added. The Ferris wheel, essential to every good amusement park today, was installed near the center of the park across from the midway. Two years later, it was moved to a more advantageous position parallel to the river. From the top of the Ferris wheel the rider could view the entire park to his left, Lake Michigan straight ahead, and the St. Joseph River and other Twin Cities beaches to the right. In 1945 a miniature diesel train called "The Century Flyer" was built. The one-mile track began across from the Fun House and traveled between the Midway and the beach, circled the parking lot, and returned along a section of concessions. Though this five minute ride gained popularity by the mid-fifties, the growing problem of sand on the tracks and excessive repairs forced its removal.
The 1940s also had its fair share of promotional gimmicks. In 1942 the park staged a Wild West Show in the back lot. Silver Beach Amusement Park also hosted strawberry festivals in June and even fireworks festivals on the Fourth of July. Perhaps the biggest promotional gimmick was the origin of "Economy Night" during the 1945 season. Every Thursday night adults could enjoy any ride in the park for just 15 cents.2 Like the Kiddies Day policy initiated 20 years earlier, Economy Night remained with the park until it closed.
Terrill saw another possibility for improving the park. The old indoor heated swimming pool had begun to show its age, and needed constant upkeep and repair. And with the beach about a hundred yards away, it was infrequently used. The park already had a popular penny arcade, but Terrill believed that the arcade would pick up more business located closer to the park's center. So he filled in the pool, brought the portable machines from the old arcade, and bought a number of new machines to fill the larger building. The arcade was renamed the "Play Drome Arcade" : Image 1 / Image 2 and featured several pinball machines, rifle shooting games, candy machines, picture postcard machines, love-meters, miniature bowling games, and the like.
Terrill made another change, roller-skating had outlived its use as an amusement. Rarely was the rink more than one-third full, so it was replaced by the "Pretzel" ride, a haunted house ride, later renamed "Laff in the Dark". The individual sat in an open car and traveled on a track through a pair of old creaky doors into a world of darkness. As the car maneuvered over certain points in the track, haunting devices attempted to scare its occupants. At the end of the ride a realistic-looking six-foot Frankenstein monster hovered over the car, sometimes touching a rider.
By the late 1940s the park had assumed the look that would be its final face until it shut down three decades later. The Velvet Rollercoaster (later renamed "The Comet" : Image 1 / Image 2), Fun House, Mirror Maze, penny arcade, merry-go-round carousel, bumper cars, Laff in the Dark, Whip and many of the various concessions, all remained apart of the carnival atmosphere to the end.
Drake, Wallace and more recently Terrill, gave Silver Beach Amusement Park the fine reputation for excitement it held in the 1940s, but only Terrill could extend that reputation into the 1950s. Wallace, although not directly associated with the park anymore, died July 5, 1945, at the age of 80. Two years later, on September 27, 1947, the park's 83 year old co-founder, Logan Drake, died. In death, as in life, these two almost inseparatable lifelong friends and business partners were buried in the same section of St. Joseph's Lakeview Cemetery, a mere fifteen feet apart. With their deaths, Terrill and his wife Roberta, Drake's daughter, assumed full ownership as the park entered the 1950s.
By the 1950s, Silver Beach Amusement Park was well acquainted with the young people in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan areas. The parking lot was often filled with busses bringing students to the park for school outings, class picnics and field trips. Buses from as many as ten or twelve different schools clogged the parking lot daily.
Constantly searching for new ways to further expand the park, Terrill created "Kiddieland". The new section was an amusement center in itself, only smaller. Each ride was customized for children too small to enjoy the larger rides. Kiddieland consisted of a boat ride; wooden boats revolving on a turnstile in a pool of water; an airplane ride which was a smaller rendition of its predecessor; miniature merry-go-round carousels that not only had ponies, but cars, buggies and fire engines; and a miniature train on a very small track that was half the size of the one that ran a few years earlier. A "tyke size" fence and a welcome arch that spelled "Kiddieland" surrounded all of these rides.
Capitalizing on a new family fad, Drake added a miniature golf course in 1951. Located between Shadowland and the merry-go-round carousel, the course was a duplicate of the Vendei Hotel course at St. Petersburg, Florida, and consisted of 18 holes winding in and out of trees and shrubs, including a number of trick holes.3 Although the course was finely built and fun to play, it did not last very long. Compared to its faster counterparts, golf was just too slow a game to be profitable. The course was removed after approximately five years and a "guess your weight" station and a "ring the bell" strongman-type concession was added.
Lee Sies built the "River Queen" excursion boat in 1955. A 65-foot stern-wheeler riverboat, Sies operated it up the river from St. Joseph for 10 years on the St. Joseph River and for 5 years in Grand Haven. In 1961 the favorite hobby among teenagers was the go-kart, a low-leveled frame vehicle independently steered and driven by a low horsepowered motor. Continuing its tradition of offering customers new and exciting entertainment, a 350-foot banked oval cement track was laid and six new go-karts were purchased.
Other additions included the "Swingin' Gym", an enclosed wire cage in which the rider would swing, using his own strength through the air on a circular axis. The "Rock-O-Plane", a "stomach sickness" ride, in which the rider would find himself traveling through the air and spinning upside down in two different directions; the "Tarantula", with all its twisting arms; and the "Tilt-A-Whirl", featuring an umbrella-type coach spinning on a twisting, dipping circular platform, found Silver Beach Amusement Park a welcome home. All in all, so many rides and amusements appeared at the park that it would be difficult to remember them all. Many only stayed a season or two and then moved on.
When old man winter came to southwestern Michigan, Silver Beach Amusement Park was dealt its fair share of the snow. The park often received so much snow that it had to be plowed away from the buildings or the spring thaw would leave the grounds too wet and delay the opening of the park. Occasionally too much snow would accumulate on the flat midway rooftop, causing it to collapse. This happened in 1967.5 But springtime always appeared and Silver Beach Amusement Park was ready to please its crowds.
Silver Beach Amusement Park began to change during the late 1960s. The crime rate at the park rose significantly as theft; purse snatching and fights became more frequent. Much of the blame was placed upon visiting out-of-town youths who ruined the park's congenial atmosphere.
The violence culminated on a particularly crowded Independence Day in 1969. As thousands milled through the park, a group of about 40 or 50 teenagers attempted to jump on the rollercoaster without paying. A sixty-year-old security guard tried to stop the youths, but was struck from behind and his revolver stolen. The throng moved toward the ticket booth, struck the ticketeer, grabbed $125 and an undetermined number of ride tickets, and fled.6 The violence continued the following year and on August 10, 1970, local police closed the park.
Silver Beach Amusement Park fought to stay alive with the hope that the crime and violence in the old park would cease the coming season. But the park was nearly devoid of the thousands who had popularized it in the past decades. Teen gangs shuffled along the midway, spent little money and terrorized customers. In 1971 the concessionaires suffered one of their worst financial years ever. Another factor weighing against the park was its age. At least three of the wooden buildings were seventy years old and demanded extensive repair. In addition, St. Joseph's chief safety inspector, Carl Conklin, estimated that $50,000 in electrical wiring & plumbing improvements was needed for the park to open in 1972.
Terrill did not want to close the park, but felt that more than $50,000 was needed. It was old now, almost too old, and so were the people involved with it. By 1972 there were too many factors against Silver Beach Amusement Park. Left with no other choice, Terrill closed the park.
"We began preparing in the Fall of 1971 for the coming season," stated John Wenzlaff, one of the many concessionaires at the Park. "I drove into Chicago to buy souvenirs and trinkets from wholesale companies just as I had done in previous years. While things had certainly worsened at the Park, you just don't presume that something in operation for decades would suddenly cease to exist." Wenzlaff continued, "When the announcement came to close the Park, I was shocked and stuck with thousands of dollars worth of supplies."
Apparently all of the offers to buy the site either fell through or were too low to suit Terrill, but amusement companies were interested in purchasing some of the rides. The Fun House equipment was sold to a company in Fremont, Indiana; another Indiana firm purchased the Ferris wheel; and Laff in the Dark went to an amusement park in San Antonio, Texas. The merry-go-round carousel attracted the most buyers, including many of the people who had sought to purchase the huge organ years earlier. The historic ride was finally sold to Marianne Stevens of Roswell, New Mexico for a reported $50,000. Stevens warehoused the merry-go-round carousel where it sat, never having been completely reassembled, since it left Silver Beach. The band organ was sold to a dealer in Virginia. The remainder of the park was left abandoned for three years in hopes that a kind person with money would rescue it, but no one did.
In a 1976 interview, Mrs. Terrill, daughter of the park's founder, recalled, "we knew it was going to die, we just didn't want to believe it. In the early sixties this place was a dreamer's delight, but nothing lasts forever." Terrill added, "you could sense it in the people working here. Age was finally catching up with us."
The once busy structures stood from 1972 to 1975, quiet except for the imagined sounds brought back from memories of earlier years. The clanging bells on the boats from Kiddieland, the carnival music from the old organ at the merry-go-round carousel, the roar of the go-kart engines, screams from the Whip, rollercoaster, and Laff in the Dark, the sound of wheels rolling over tracks, the clanging of the pinball machines in the penny arcade, and the bark of concessionaires. A walk down the boardwalk was like a walk down memory lane, everything was there if the person thought it was.
Terrill made plans to destroy the park when the city had declared the abandoned buildings a health and fire hazard. The wooden structures fell slowly. The rollercoaster was the first to go and the Fun House and midway soon followed. Though the area was roped off and "no trespassing" signs were posted, it didn't stop a multitude of people from witnessing the destruction. Even then, after the workers had left, couples walked hand-in-hand, like their parents and grandparents had done during the previous decades, only this time it was along ruins.
Every building had a story to tell ...
The Shadowland Ballroom bucked the unfortunate demise of the rest of the Silver Beach Amusement Park by continuing to entertain visitors until the mid seventies. Shadowland Ballroom hosted several famous bands during the late period of its existence. The Turtles, who recorded "Happy Together", played at Shadowland, and in one glorious 2-week period, The Hollies with Graham Nash (Oct. 2nd 1966) and The Kingsmen (Oct. 16th 1966) played the Shadowland Ballroom. The Hollies had just reached their highest plateau on the charts with "Bus Stop", which reached #5 literally a week before they played the show. The Kingsmen were crowd favorites hitting #2 on the Billboard charts with a remake of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie".
Side Note: The Kingsmen thought their 1963 recording of "Louie Louie" was horrible, in fact, what they had thought was merely a rehearsal recording turned out to be the one and only take of the song. Originally recorded as a demo to land a job on a cruise liner—which they didn't land, was plagued by several factors: singer Jack Ely had strained his voice the night before learning the song and was singing with braces on his teeth. To make matters worse, the boom microphone in the recording studio was too high for Ely, who had to stand on tiptoe and sing up into the mike. The end result were lyrics that were literally unintelligible.
Early in 1964, sales of "Louie Louie" shot through the roof after Indiana Governor Matthew Welch proposed a ban of the song due to its allegedly "dirty" lyrics. Even the FBI became involved spending two years investigating the lyrics on the Kingsmen's recording before declaring that it wasn't obscene and that it was "unintelligible at any speed." In the 1980s there was actually a movement in the state of Washington (started by KING-TV, a Seattle television channel) to change the official state song from "Washington, My Home" to "Louie, Louie," although state lawmakers were reluctant, it came very close. So close in fact, that today the "unofficial" state song is indeed "Louie, Louie" and posted on the state of Washington website. The state of Oregon also tried to make "Louie Louie" their state song.
In May 2005, the song made national headlines once again, after Benton Harbor, Michigan Schools Superintendent Paula Dawning banned the McCord Middle School from performing "Louie Louie" in the Blossomtime Festival Parade.
Scenes from the 1958 Blossom Parade: Image 1 / Image 2 / Image 3 / Image 4 Ms. Dawning cited what she said were the song's raunchy lyrics as her reasoning. The ban was covered by the Associated Press, CNN, FOX, and countless other new agencies. Ms. Dawning's actions were even spoofed on the Rush Limbaugh radio show as well as Saturday Night Live: Saturday Night Live (Season 30, Episode 18): "A school superintendent in Michigan banned the McCord Middle School Band from performing the song 'Louie, Louie,' because of its allegedly raunchy lyrics. The superintendent has also banned the clarinet, because it 'just don’t look right.'"
Superintendent Dawning finally relented, just in time for students to perform "Louie Louie" at the parade.
In the summer of 1973, Tommy Shaw—who once lived in Niles, Michigan and who would later go on to fame in the rock bands Styx and Damn Yankees, played the Shadowland Ballroom in a Chicago-based rock band called "M.S. Funk".
LECO Corporation of St. Joseph purchased the Silver Beach property on November 22, 1977 and several years later, sold it to Berrien County on December 14, 1990. Silver Beach continues to thrive today as the place to go on warm sunny afternoons. There are many summer events and activities taking place where the Silver Beach Amusement Park once stood. Silver Beach was also host to one of the most popular festivals in all of Michigan—The Venetian Festival. This four-day annual event, held in late July, brings crowds in excess of 200,000. Venetian Festival events include: lighted boat parade, classic car show, fireworks, and live entertainment with such top-flight musical acts as The Guess Who, Pat Benatar, Survivor, Kansas, Eddie Money, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, Doobie Brothers, Grand Funk Railroad, Peter Frampton, and many others.
Sadly in September 2011, festival organizers decided to cancel the Venetian Festival. City officials cited the large crowds, street closures, and lack of ample parking as insurmountable obstacles for organizers to overcome in order to continue what had become a summer staple for more than 30 years.
Tommy James & the Shondells also performed at Shadowland. Tommy James, like Tommy Shaw of Styx fame, was also once a Niles, Michigan resident and in the case of James, was a local native. His group is best known for its 1960's singles "Hanky Panky," "Mony Mony," and "Crimson and Clover." "Hanky Panky", Tommy's first million-seller, was recorded in 1964 at the WNIL radio studios in Niles, Michigan. Two years later, "Hanky Panky" burned up the charts becoming the #1 song in the country. Tommy went on to have 23 gold singles, 9 gold and platinum albums, and has sold well over 100 million records worldwide. Today, the Shadowland Pavilion, constructed in honor of the Shadowland Ballroom and Silver Beach Amusement Park, along the St. Joseph River, is close to where the Ferris wheel and the Shadowland Ballroom once stood.
The St. Joseph 4 July fireworks is displayed near Silver Beach each year.
In June 5, 1997, an attempt was begun by a St. Joseph organization, the Silver Beach Carousel Society, to purchase the merry-go-round carousel—returning it to St. Joseph, but the deal unfortunately fell-through. Instead, the historic merry-go-round carousel was sold to an organization in Washington state.
After nearly six years of various fundraisers, the Silver Beach Carousel Society had raised $200,000, with commitments for additional funds, but that wasn't enough to meet what Marianne Stevens was asking for the merry-go-round carousel. Finally in March 2003, Stevens decided to sell the carousel to the Three Rivers Carousel Foundation of Kennewick, Washington.
"My first choice was to send it back to St. Joseph, Michigan," Marianne Stevens told The Herald-Palladium, a St. Joseph / Benton Harbor area newspaper, "I had given them every opportunity." Stevens declined to say how much she received for the carousel but The Tri-City Herald, a Kennewick area newspaper, reported that it sold for more than $750,000.
The Kennewick organization expects to spend $1.1 million to acquire the carousel, finish the restoration and rework the mechanical system to make it serviceable on a daily basis. It will take another $1 million to build a structure to properly house and display it.
The Silver Beach merry-go-round is among the country's 150 carousels that still exist from the approximately 7,000 built during the first half of the 20th century.
Silver Beach Carousel
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In 1997, the Silver Beach Carousel Society was founded with the goal of returning the original carousel to its location at Silver Beach, but they were unable to secure funding before the carousel was sold to a group of businessmen in Washington State.
The society determined to build a new carousel near Silver Beach County Park, and in 2010, the new Silver Beach Carousel opened its doors. The new carousel is accompanied by exhibits from the Silver Beach Amusement Park, a Kid's Discovery Zone hosted by St. Joseph's Curious Kids Museum, the Whirlpool Compass Fountain and the Shadowland Ballroom, which hosts wedding receptions and other special occasions.
"Silver Beach Amusement Park History". Southwest Michigan Business & Tourism Directory. Retrieved 2009-09-16.
Silver Beach Amusement Park History Page 6 of 6 (Silver Beach Amusement Park History) http://www.swmidirectory.org/History_of_Silver_Beach_Amusement_Park6.html
Remembering Silver Beach Amusement Park, St. Joseph, Michigan (Remembering Silver Beach Amusement Park, St. Joseph, Michigan) http://www.rememberingsilverbeach.com/
Schlender, Daryl T. (2008). Silver Sands and Golden Memories: The History of Silver Beach Amusement Park. Self-published. ISBN 1-60725-466-2.