When rumour becomes fact

One would think that turning rumour into fact is a convoluted process, but in reality it’s not an overly complicated accomplishment. What becomes difficult is separating fact from rumour, which invariably requires a lengthy investigation, since a rumour often has tidbits of fact that have over time become embedded in local folklore. It’s also nothing to be ashamed of, since everybody occasionally does it.

Such a situation arose when writing the Heritage Highlights article (see pages 4 to 6) on the history of Winnipeg Beach, which was originally founded by Canadian Pacific Railway executive William Whyte as “Winnipeg’s new summer resort.”

While researching the article, I ran across a long-standing rumour that the Beach roller coaster was dismantled and shipped off to an amusement park in the United States. In fact, a friend told me he saw the “Beach” coaster in San Diego during a trip to California some years ago. 

But the reality is less romantic — the famous “Giant” coaster at the Beach was demolished in 1967, and its wood and metal sold off. Val Werier, a long-time Winnipeg Beach summer resident — 75 years — and Free Press columnist, told me he has a few of the former coaster’s timbers at his cottage.

It is easy to understand why many people want to believe the coaster, like Elvis, still exists somewhere; after all, the “Giant” provided many cherished memories for countless visitors to the Beach. My father told me that as a youth he and his friends from the North End took the Moonlight Special to the Beach specifically for the amusement park rides, including the roller coaster.

The wooden roller coaster at the Beach was built around the same time as the coaster in San Diego. The “Giant Dipper Roller Coaster” (one of only two existing wooden coasters in California — the other is at Santa Cruz) opened at the Mission Beach Amusement Center along the San Diego oceanfront on July 4, 1925 (the Winnipeg Beach coaster opened in 1919). The amusement park in San Diego was renamed Belmont Park in the 1950s. 

As was the case in Winnipeg Beach, Belmont Park began experiencing financial difficulties in the 1960s, resulting in the park’s closure in December 1976. The abandoned coaster fell into disrepair, but a Save the Coaster Committee was formed and through its efforts the Giant Dipper was resurrected. On August 11, 1990, the newly-restored historic roller coaster was reopened to the public. Today, the Giant Dipper is operated by the San Diego Seaside Coaster Company.

The Giant Dipper was designated a National Historic Landmark (the Santa Cruz coaster is similarly designated) by the U.S. government and a plaque was installed which gives the history of the ride originally in the amusement park called Mission Beach that was  later renamed Belmont Park. It was this plaque that was seen by my friend, and the fact it mentions the Giant Dipper was originally in a park with the name “Beach” may have led to associating the coaster with the “Beach” in Manitoba. What may have sealed the association is that both coasters were of wood construction with steel rails. 

But there has only been one wooden roller coaster in San Diego, and it was built in 1925, long before the Winnipeg Beach “Giant” was demolished in 1967.  It’s unfortunate that a committee had not been established to save the Winnipeg Beach coaster. Instead, the Manitoba government took the lead and purchased the land and rides, and then decided that the “Giant” had to go.

Surprisingly, the former “Deep Dipper” wooden roller coaster at River Park in Winnipeg has been the subject of similar rumours. Dismantled in June 1942, the River Park coaster was also rumoured to have been — like the Winnipeg Beach “Giant — shipped to San Diego. (The city purchased River Park’s riverfront property and turned it into Churchill Drive Park, while the remainder of the property was purchased by Simonite Construction Ltd. which developed the site as residential housing.)

A March 2, 1979, Winnipeg Tribune article, called San Diego has a Problem over a Winnipeg Coaster, perpetrated the false rumour, saying River Park’s coaster was sold to “San Diego interests” and as of 1979 sat in Belmont Park.

Surprisingly, a little research into the same newspaper’s archives would have resulted in the discovery of a May 29, 1942, article entitled Park Amusements to be Wrecked. “Since no offers have been received for the purchase of the amusements as they stand, they will be wrecked and sold for whatever the material will bring,” according to the 1942 article. “Amusements owned by his company (R.H. Hamlin, president of Western Amusement Co. Ltd.) include: the roller coaster, the crazy house, the dodg’em, the small train and the bowling alley.”

The only thing shared by the San Diego and River Park coasters is one word in their respective names — “Dipper” — but the California coaster is the “Giant Dipper,” while the River Park coaster was the “Deep Dipper.”  Similarly, the Winnipeg Beach Coaster shared part of the San Diego coaster’s name — “Giant.”

Another rumour had the “Deep Dipper” shipped to Oklahoma. According to the souvenir booklet Fort Rouge Through the Years (published in 1974), “Those who got their thrills on the roller coaster will be glad to know that after it was dismantled, it was taken to Oklahoma City ... where it is believed to be still in use.”

One Winnipeg man  was reported as having seen the roller coaster cars in storage in a Riverview shed as a young child around 1947 or 1948, although he admitted his memory was somewhat vague and the items in storage may have been dodg’em cars or coaches for the miniature train. More likely the train coaches, he added.

It’s probable that the Winnipeg Beach “Giant” and River Park “Deep Dipper” over the years somehow became mixed together in the many rumours that have been circulating since the coasters were demolished, resulting in similar outcomes in local folklore — rumour combined with tiny tidbits of information and faint memories has an odd tendency to become fact.