Summertime Sadness

The Life and Death of Playland

Seattle's sprawling amusement park was once the city's "happiness center." Then it disappeared.

By Benjamin Cassidy August 18, 2022

Shoot the Chutes ride splashing at Playland

The Shoot the Chutes ride would be a great way to beat the heat.

A Seattle summer has everything. Well, almost everything.

It’s true that you don’t have to leave city limits to hike a trail, hit a beach, party on a boat, or stuff your face with all flavors of ice cream. But one thrill of warm July and August days elsewhere has long since disappeared from the city.

When Playland closed more than six decades ago, the rush of a 3,000-foot urban roller coaster ride and other amusements went with it. Fun Forest at Seattle Center later offered some of the same attractions. But the defunct theme park could never quite recapture the enchantment of its predecessor before shuttering in 2009.

Local attachment to what a documentary, Finding Playland, called Seattle’s “happiness center” remains fervent, spawning an ongoing exhibit at the Shoreline Historical Museum and a recent Seattle Channel short. “It’s still in the hearts of people,” says former Playland worker Hal Schlegel, who helped curate the display with his wife, Kay Schlegel.

Tucked in the corner of a drab yellow building off Aurora, the show documents a history as sinuous as the Dipper, the roller coaster created by eventual park owner Carl Phare. It’s a story threaded with intrigue and, naturally in this town, fire.

Playland grounds

In 1940, a group from Seattle's Junior Safety Patrol descend on Playland during their annual outing. They visited the Mystery House and rode the Dipper.

In 1927, a manufacturing bigwig, Bill Rainwater, and a trio of Parks brothers—“carnival men,” the exhibit notes—cleared the south end of Bitter Lake for a few rides and a dance hall. Seattle had already seen some amusement parks go up toward the start of the twentieth century. Located just north of the city, the Bitter Lake Amusement Park was a modest addition to the local entertainment landscape.

Two years later, a group of investors acquired the site and some other lots around the lake, touting a major expansion. Though they had to scale back their plans when the stock market crashed, the Washington Amusement Company poured $750,000 into what they’d rename Playland Amusement Park. They tapped Phare, who’d designed and constructed wooden roller coasters up and down the West Coast, to build the Dipper.

The park opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1930 to much acclaim. More than 100,000 people reportedly descended on Playland during its opening weekend, packing the dance pavilion and riding a coaster that reached as high as 85 feet in the air. Others rode around a speedway in little "Red Bug” cars powered by batteries. (Today one of the little locomotives sits in the garage at the Shoreline Historical Museum.)

But the hard times of the Great Depression caught up to Playland’s owners quickly. Phare agreed to take the park off their hands altogether in 1935.

He’d run Playland for nearly three decades, adding attractions with the casual formality of someone from the Old West: “His handshake was a contract,” recalled Nina Fraley, Phare’s daughter, in Finding Playland.

There would be drama along the way. In 1932, a promoter deserted an elephant at the park; “Tusko” would remain until a Woodland Park Zoo rescue mission. The next year, an arsonist burned down Playland’s Fun House. The police never found the culprit. Only a few carousel horses were casualties of the blaze, but a little boy died on the Dipper in a separate incident that year, per History Link.

Another fire would destroy the grandstand at Playland’s Aurora Stadium Speedway in the early 1950s. In 1953, flames stemming from a leaf pile razed a larger portion of the park, nearly taking down the Dipper.

Firefighters try to save the Mystery House at Playland.

Volunteer firefighters attempt to save the Mystery House on August 18, 1953. One of several fires at Playland over the years significantly damaged the park. But it did not permanently close.

The coaster and the rest of Playland survived, even if some don’t remember it that way—the exhibit stresses that the park did not burn down. Many of the damaged structures were even rebuilt.

Hal Schlegel would know. He didn’t start working at Playland until the late 1950s. Growing up in a house at Greenwoood Avenue and 133rd Street, his walk to the amusement park was about five minutes. His earliest memory is riding the carousel there. “I remember the sounds of Playland being part of my life, especially at night trying to go to sleep, with the screaming women on the roller coaster.”

The park ran promotions to draw more people to its grounds via the Interurban Trolley or, increasingly, by car over the nascent Aurora Bridge. School safety patrols and other groups of kids could visit for free during the summer. Schlegel rode the Dipper 19 times when he went with his crew.

He’d later run all different types of games at the park. For just a dime, visitors could splash-land on the Shoot the Chutes ride or literally shoot at moving targets with .22-caliber rifles. Dodgem bumper cars and plane rides also tickled the masses.

Some in the area, however, weren’t so thrilled with all the activity. The surrounding neighborhood was growing more valuable to prospective homeowners and businesses. Playland and its speedway made for noisy neighbors. 

The 1953 fire at Playland

A weed burning machine started the 1953 blaze. Nearly every ride was open the next day.

When Seattle annexed Playland and the surrounding blocks in 1954, it was the beginning of Playland's end. The city’s building codes were cumbersome for a freewheeling operation. By 1960, the site was forced to close.

The exhibit in Shoreline acknowledges that the cost to keep buildings up to code was one of the main reasons for the shutdown. But it also advances a more theoretical one: “Certain people thought Playland would be too much competition for the 1962 World’s Fair.”

Schlegel isn’t sure why Playland, beloved by so many, met its demise. But the former publishing industry vet is certain about its effect on him. “Playland was the best job I ever had,” he says, “the most fun I ever had.”

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