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Silver Beach Amusement Park History
    Page 1 of 6    Page 2

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Silver Beach Amusement Park
Logan Drake
Louis D. Wallace
Drake and Wallace
Vacation Cottages
Photographic Studio
From Wooden Stands to Tents
Water Slides
Full Bathing Costume
Jack Vilas
Double-Wing Open-Cockpit Airboat
Unsafe Contraptions
Buildings and Boardwalk

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 rollercoaster 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 1924.3

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.4

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 1800's, 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.5

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 1913.6

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.7


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1 Citizen's Historical Association bibliography, No. 2-020 E11 F68 HML/BDK. Found in the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library, St. Joseph, Michigan.   [ Back ]

2 Benton Harbor News Palladium, July 6, 1945.   [ Back ]

3 Interview with Roberta Drake Terrill, February 1976.   [ Back ]

4 Interview with Horace "Chief" Terrill, December 1975.   [ Back ]

5 Niles Daily Star, November 25, 1967.   [ Back ]

6 The South Bend Tribune, March 2, 1975.   [ Back ]

7 Interview with Horace "Chief" Terrill, December 1975.   [ Back ]


We credit Alan Schultz, Jeff Terrill, John Wenzlaff & Michigan History Magazine for the materials necessary to create this chapter in SW Michigan History.

To subscribe, click Michigan History Magazine.

 


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