The Jack Rabbit at Wonona Beach Amusement Park

Wenona Beach Amusement Park – The Coney Island of the Great Lakes 1887-1964

Nestled along the shore of Saginaw Bay, just a stone’s throw from Bay City, Wenona Beach Amusement Park was once a bustling hub of entertainment and leisure. Often dubbed the “Coney Island of the Great Lakes,” this iconic park has a story worth telling. Today, we’ll explore its history, explore its attractions, and delve into its ultimate downfall.

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First – What Does Wenona Mean

“Wenona” is also derived from Native American origins, specifically the Dakota and Sioux languages. It is often interpreted to mean “first-born daughter.” The name has been used in various places and contexts, often to honor Native American heritage or signify something important.

The name adds a layer of cultural and historical significance in the context of Bay City’s landmarks like the Wenona Hotel and Wenona Park. The name became very popular as a girl’s name in the 1920s, and American film actress Winona Ryder gave the name new popularity in the early 2000s.

Wonona Beach Park’s The Early Days

The crowds at Wenona Beach
The crowds at Wenona Beach – c1911

Believe it or not, Wenona Beach wasn’t always known by that name. In its infancy, it was called “O-at-ka Beach,” a moniker that lasted until 1876, when it transformed into Bay View Resort. During this period, the resort became the breeding ground for the legend of Paul Bunyan. Fabian Joe Fournier, considered the inspiration behind the Paul Bunyan character, had a memorable brawl here. Unfortunately, Fournier was later found dead near the steamboat dock.

In 1887, the resort underwent another name change, settling on Wenona Beach Amusement Park. The transformation was bankrolled by wealthy lumber magnates who saw the park’s potential. They invested heavily in infrastructure, ensuring the park had the best rides and attractions.

The Golden Era At Wenona Beach Park

Pavilion at Wenona Beach Park
Pavilion at Wenona Beach Park – Courtesy

The early 1900s and 1920s marked the park’s golden era. Visitors from various Michigan counties flocked to what became known as the “Coney Island of the Lakes.” Transportation was a breeze, with trolleys and buses making regular trips to and from the park.

Wenona Beach Amusement Park
The Board Walk at Wenona Beach – c1911

The list of attractions was extensive. Wenona Beach had everything from ballrooms and bathhouses to boardwalks and boating. Thrill-seekers could hop on the Bullet centrifugal force ride or the Jack Rabbit roller coaster. For those looking for a more laid-back experience, the park offered boating, roller skating, and even a steam carousel.

Map of Wenona Beach Amusement Park

But it wasn’t just about the rides. The park’s casino was a hotspot for entertainment, hosting some of the biggest names in showbiz at the time… Jack Benny, Perry Como, Bob Crosby, The Dorsey Brothers, Marie Dressler, W.C. Fields, Woody Herman, Isham Jones, Guy Lombardo, Ozzie and Harriet, the Marx Brothers, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Ted Weems—you name it, they performed there. The casino was more than just a venue; it was a cultural melting pot where people from all walks of life could come together and enjoy top-notch entertainment.

Getting To The Park

Bay City Street Car – Courtesy MLIVE

The owners, who also owned the Bay City Street Car Company, built a railway line looping by the Kawkawlin River and took passengers to the park from the west side of Bay City, Michigan. An electric trolley and later motor buses made regular trips to the park from the city.

Special Events and Records

Circular Swings and Boat House
Circular Swings and Boat House – c1911

In 1907, the park drew media attention for a speedboat race between the Arrow and W.J. Oulette’s Secret, setting a then-world record of 26.6 miles per hour. This event added another layer of allure to the park, attracting amusement seekers and sports enthusiasts.

The Downfall of Wenona Beach

The Bath House Wenonah Beach
The Bath House Wenona Beach – c1911

However, all good things must come to an end. In March 1947, a severe snowstorm swept through the country, hitting Michigan’s Thumb and Wenona Beach hard. Winds at 70 mph brought 40-foot-tall mounds of ice crashing into the bathhouse and roller coaster, causing extensive damage. This calamity marked the beginning of the end for the park. Attendance dwindled, and despite efforts to revive its former glory, the park closed its gates for good in 1964.

The park’s closure had a ripple effect on the community. Local businesses that relied on the influx of visitors during the summer months struggled to stay afloat. The trolley and bus services that ferried excited visitors to and from the park were discontinued, marking the end of an era.

Video: Wenona Beach The Good Ol’ Days

Wenona Beach The Good Ol' Days

The Aftermath – The Park Turns Into A Mobile Home Community

The following year, the area underwent yet another transformation into a mobile home park. While the amusement park is long gone, its legacy lives on in the memories of those who experienced its magic. The community and the state of Michigan lost a cultural icon, but the stories and experiences it provided will forever be a part of the state’s rich history.

Final Thoughts on The Wenona Beach Amusement Park

Wenona Beach Amusement Park was more than just a place for fun and games; it was a cultural and historical landmark that touched the lives of many. While we can’t turn back the clock and relive those moments, we can keep its memory alive by sharing stories and reflecting on its significance. Feel free to share your memories or thoughts about the park in the comments section below.


For more information, visit Wikipedia, Water Winter Wonderland, and 99WFMK.

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Michael Hardy

Mike Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. It started in 2009 as a fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

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