I’m on quite a roll this summer recalling a Duluth that doesn’t exist anymore — call it history. Recent columns about the old Lyceum Theater and the former foghorn have elicited interesting responses from readers; so today we’ll take another trip down memory lane before summer wanes.
We’ll drive over the Aerial Lift Bridge all the way to the Park Point recreation area, where today’s recreation is quite different from what it was in the past.
Today’s volleyball courts, at the base of the hillside leading to the beach house, are the site of what was once a small summertime amusement park
with many of the typical rides — merry-go-round, flying chairs and others including my favorite — bumper cars.
There also was a miniature steam-powered train on tracks wending their way around the park, younger kids riding atop the cars pulled by the steam-spewing diminutive locomotive. And of course treat concessions — ice cream and hot dogs along with a penny arcade.
Plenty of what you’d want at such a place, and it was popular. So popular that years later when it was closed by the city some backers threatened to recall the then-mayor. More on that later.
The Park Point carnival area was the site of the annual “police boy” picnic. School crossing guards in those days were called police boys (and they were all boys). They carried yellow metal hand-held stop signs to halt oncoming traffic and chip away at nearby wooden power poles.
Anyway, the Duluth Police Department annually hosted police boys from throughout the city at the end of each school year, engaging buses to cart them down to Park Point. I got to go once, very excited to be going to the Park Point “midway” as a recent fifth-grade graduate.
We had free reign on the rides and a nice hot-dog lunch at noontime, secured with a ticket handed out beforehand at the schools. I forgot to bring my meal ticket, though, and felt, well, desperate.
I sought out an official-looking cop resplendent in his blue uniform, badge shining in the sun, and told him my plight— forgot my meal ticket. He looked me over, obviously saw an interloper, and declared, “You don’t want to eat, kid.” That was news to me.
Even though I was a police boy, I was not too old to well up inside at such a snub by the cops. All’s well that ends well, though, when my Lincoln Elementary police boy captain vouched for me and they let me have my hot dog. That was when I got stung by a bee.
But it turned out OK despite all of this adversity, and the fun of being at the Park Point carnival area was a great reward.
By that age, having outgrown the merry-go-round and steam train, my favorite ride was the bumper cars. Do they exist anywhere anymore? Just for the record, they were little red vehicles powered by electricity on a hard floor in a large open shed, the electrical current running down a pole at the back of each car from the ceiling.
Riders would scurry around and try to bump each other or just circle the place, happy to be operating a vehicle with a steering wheel. I loved it.
One time, the guy in charge of operating the bumper car concession turned out to be an older neighbor from the West End known as Junior. I was impressed and proud to be recognized by Junior as I mounted the bumper car ramp. “Hi, Junior,” I greeted. “Hello there,” he responded. I’ve been known as “There” a lot in life.
Wow, I thought, Junior has really done well in this world, finding a profession operating bumper cars. I figured he was set for life. (Remember, I was 10 years old.)
I don’t know what became of Junior but the entire midway was closed down in 1964, some 15 years after Junior and the police boys and the hot dog and the bee, and when I was working as a reporter for this newspaper.
Duluth’s mayor at the time was George D. Johnson (not to be confused with George W. Johnson, whom George D. had defeated) and he and other city officials decided the Park Point recreation area should be more “natural” and not have a tawdry carnival. It was attracting a crowd of youth wearing black jackets, they feared. Oh, the horror.
The closure didn’t sit well with some Duluthians, though, and there was even talk of recalling Johnson that never went anywhere.
But the rides and concessions did go somewhere, never to return.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.