On the west side of the Spokane River at the end of West Boone, a mobile home park has existed since the late 1960s. For the prior seven decades, the area was known as Natatorium Park and boasted amusement for all ages and housed Spokane’s famous Looff Carrousel. The youth spent days courting, men and women enjoyed swimming and picnicking, while children and the young at heart experienced the thrill of rides.
The Early Years
Long before any developments at the end of West Boone, Ingersoll Park was known to draw crowds for picnics. As noted in “Spokane’s Amusement Park: Natatorium Park,” the picnicking would soon be met with new cable trolleys in 1890, from downtown across the Monroe Street bridge to the end of West Boone. It was renamed Twickenham Park for the local neighborhood called the Twickenham addition.
During the first two years, this park had a small casino, bar and baseball stadium. The popularity of the park was evident, and the park was purchased by the Spokane Street Railway. Soon after, to create a site like Coney Island, a natatorium, an indoor swimming pool with changing rooms, was added. The pool was heated river water. Renamed Natatorium Park in 1892, the popularity continued to grow along with the amusements offered.
One of the first popular rides started in 1905, Ye Old Mill, was akin to a tunnel of love. In this indoor boat ride spanning 825 feet, visitors would see several scenes like a Japanese flower garden, Niagara Falls, or the Great Wall of China. Animated menagerie animals fitting each scene would shake and move their heads, which was quite lifelike in the dark. Scenes would change annually to keep visitors interested in the ride. The centerpiece was a small orchestra heard throughout the ride.
Sixty Years of New Rides and Entertainment
In 1909 when Charles I. D. Looff was initially rejected by the $20,000 cost, he gifted it to his daughter, Emma, and her husband Louis Vogel as a wedding present. Mr. Looff had already built the famous Coney Island Carrousel in 1876. The hand-carved horses and menagerie took over two years to carve and were beautifully painted. The Looff Carrousel became a cherished ride at the park. Along with the carrousel, owners added a greenhouse, three acres of lawn, and landscaping to the park, which had lovingly been nicknamed ‘Nat Park.’
The original pool was replaced in 1910 with a heated Olympic-sized pool, with a depth from two to 12 feet. The astounding part was the 300 individual changing rooms, which each sported its window. The next few years were met with the addition of exciting, curvy, wild rides. First came the Joy Wheel, a giant spinning wheel, where you would eventually roll off the edge onto the stable platform. Next came the Dragon Slide. This long, curvy, wooden slide ended with flying through the dragon’s mouth onto a landing area. Both rides ended with splinters, friction burns, laughter and smiles. While the former sounds painful, it was too much fun to miss much like any childhood rite of passage. A decade later, the most popular ride, the Jack Rabbit Roller Coaster, was installed and did not come with friction burns or splinters.
When the Vogel’s purchased Nat Park in 1929, they started an annual tradition of adding new attractions. Some memorable rides included Custer Speedway, the Octopus Ride, Rock-O-Plane, and Shoot the Chutes. The park featured zoo animals, and famous guests were brought in for entertainment, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bing Crosby, The Grand Ole Opry and Fats Domino. It was prime time for Nat Park, with crowds up to 50,000 strong.
An End of An Era
The trolley line was discontinued in 1939, which may have been the start of the park’s demise. The baseball stadium was damaged by fire and replaced by a racetrack in 1939, only to fizzle out in the 1950s. In 1952, a final addition of a 16-gauge train called Golden Spike helped breathe a bit of life back into the park. When the Vogel’s were divorcing and realized crowds were waning, Nat Park was sold to the Shriners in 1962. For several reasons, the park remained closed in 1963. Tragedy struck a new employee, who died while riding the Jack Rabbit in 1965. Ongoing problems at the park, lack of improvements, and lack of customers led to the dismantling of rides in 1968.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Many Spokanites have fond memories of Nat Park. Thankfully, through the foresight of previous owners and the local Spokane community support, the Looff Carrousel remains with us today in Riverfront Park. For several decades it was housed in the Expo ’74 German Beer Garden building. With the redevelopment of Riverside Park over the past several years, the Looff Carrousel has a new, fantastic home for generations to come. If you’d like to learn more about Nat Park, be sure to watch the KSPS 1996 Documentary “Remember When: Nat Park,” a 59-minute journey into the past.