On the shores of White Bear Lake, Wildwood Amusement Park offered a dance pavilion, swimming, fishing, boating, picnic areas, amusement park rides, and carnival games. For only the cost of the streetcar fare, Twin Cities’ residents could spend summer days at this park owned and operated by the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Corporation.
First built by the St. Paul and White Bear Railroad in 1889, Wildwood Amusement Park was designed to attract visitors to take the newly built line to White Bear Lake. At that point, Wildwood was a popular picnic spot, but the amusement park did not have many rides or other attractions. This initial venture was not a success, and the economic depression of the mid-1890s forced the closure of the St. Paul and White Bear Railroad. After the failure of the original management, Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company acquired the line in 1898, and the new owners decided to improve the amusement park. They hoped to make money both through concessions at the park and by charging fares to and from St. Paul. Admission to the park itself was free.
For more than three decades, men, women, and children could catch a streetcar in St. Paul, pay ten to fifteen cents, and ride to White Bear Lake from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Traveling at speeds greater than sixty miles per hour, they arrived at Wildwood about forty-five minutes after they left the city. After exiting the streetcar, guests took steps down from the depot, went through a tunnel, and emerged at the entrance to Wildwood Amusement Park.
Once there, visitors found a roller coaster, fun house, Katzenjammer Castle (a children’s play house), penny arcade, shooting gallery, and other carnival games. In 1927, the park welcomed the first ever Tilt-a-Whirl, designed and built by Herbert Sellner of Faribault. Also on the amusement park grounds was a beach with large bathhouses where park goers could rent bathing suits. From there, they could swim in the lake or, if they were more adventurous, take a toboggan slide that deposited swimmers out into the lake. Also available for small fees were fishing boats, fishing gear, motor boat rides around the lake, and, occasionally, hot air balloon rides. Nearby were picnic grounds and concession stands where visitors could purchase refreshments. Companies from the Twin Cities often held employee picnics out at Wildwood.
In the evenings, the park hosted large dances in its dance hall pavilion. Nationally famous bands and orchestras would play in the pavilion. Fats Waller, Red Nichols, Glen Gray, and Guy Lombardo put on shows at Wildwood. Dancers could stay until 11:00 pm, when the park closed. They had to take the last streetcar back to St. Paul, or they would be stuck at the park for the night. Every July 4 the management put on a fireworks display in the evening.
At the height of its popularity, Wildwood Amusement Park welcomed thousands of visitors a week. However, after a few decades and the widespread adoption of the automobile, the streetcar company could no longer afford to keep the park running. In 1932, the amusement park closed, though the dance pavilion remained open until 1937. The next year, the transit company tore down the park and sold the land to developers.
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