By Darin Z. Krogh
Above, the original Jack Rabbit cars, installed in 1929. These were eventually replaced with more streamlined, “modern” rollercoaster cars. Photo courtesy of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
Back in the 1960s, when someone said, “the rabbit died,” it was in reference to an old time pregnancy test. It meant that the test was positive and a baby was on the way. But in 1967, when the rabbit died at Spokane’s Natatorium Park, it meant the death of the last and greatest ride at the amusement park and the end of an era. The king of all the Nat rides, the Jack Rabbit roller coaster was torn down a year later. The park gates never swung open again.
The big roller coaster track was more than 2,000 feet in length, laid out in a kind of double figure eight pattern. The first hill was the “Big Drop,” touted to hurtle mortified riders at a rate of 70 miles per hour down to the bottom before the next succession of smaller dips and climbs. A warning sign in front of the ride read, “Hold your hats and don’t stand up!”
Local amusement ride designer and expert, Mark Blumhagen, doubts that the roller coaster ever made it to 70 mph. I, however, rode the Jack Rabbit hundreds of times as a youth and will testify that I felt it was traveling faster than 100 miles per when we hit the bottom of the “big drop.”
Kent Richard Simonson III was one of the Jack Rabbit operators during its last couple of years in service. Simonson, who used the moniker “Pancho” in his carnie life, punched in for work each morning and then headed for the roller coaster to do maintenance before the park gates opened.
A narrow catwalk with a rickety two by four inch handrail was located at the side of the track throughout the course. Each day, Pancho walked that entire catwalk as deftly as a man standing well over six feet and 250 pounds could manage. Pancho had some ballroom dance instruction in his youth but claimed that it was of no value as he negotiated that daily route on the catwalk.
His main concern on those inspection walks was to spot the large screw heads sticking up above the track surface. These long screws backed out daily due to pressure, vibration, failed threads, and rotting wood. When he spotted such a screw, he would hammer it down flush because the hurtling roller coaster cars either bent the upraised screw or even pulled them from the track altogether. The bottoms of the roller coaster cars were fit with protective rollers for such a situation.
If my mother had known about those loose screws, she would have never let us visit Nat Park. Instead, she would have probably moved us far and away from Spokane just to be safe. This was the same mother who forbade me to read Boys Life, the Boy Scout magazine, because it inspired too much adventure in a young man.
On July 5th, 1965, Al Naccarato started work at Nat Park. He had just graduated from Rogers High School when he started the job. Al was still employed at Nat Park for the final closing in the autumn of 1967, two years later.
In fact, Al worked with the crew who took down the framework of the Jack Rabbit in 1968. The big, single, electrical motor that operated the track was removed. Next, sawing the wood at strategic locations weakened the old wood frame structure. Then, cables and ropes were strung from the track to a truck down below. The crew drove the truck that pulled the framework down into a heap on the ground.
Al reported that the Jack Rabbit “did not go down easy.” He remembers being alarmed when the “pull-down” truck that he drove was pulled back towards the Jack Rabbit. The stubborn wood construction was trying to bend back upright to its former, lofty grandeur. Finally, the framework of the roller coaster surrendered and toppled down. The dead rabbit was burned at the place where it had thrilled riders for 45 years with its “ups and downs.”