Category Archives: Dennis the Menace Park

Are the Kids in Monterey, California Getting Railroaded?

The Dennis the Menace Playground in Monterey, California is stirring up passions again and community action is building up steam. The old Southern Pacific Company’s engine #1285 donated to the City and installed in the playground in 1956 is at the centre of all the fuss. It has the hallmarks of another case of safety zealotry run amok.

Photo credit – D&S McSpadden. Creative Commons – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Is there a record of how many accidents have occurred since 1956? Has there been previous litigation against the City of Monterey? For over 50 years, kids have clambered, climbed, surefooted themselves across and over this workhorse from the days of steam.

Only two of ten switch engines made in the 1920s by Ohio’s Lima Locomotive Works for the Southern Pacific Company’s Pacific Lines have escaped the scrap yard. Only one, #1285, has brought so much joy, excitement and imagination powered adventure to so many kids. It has done so since the playground’s opening day but this could be about to change.

This YouTube video posted by the City to celebrate over 50 years of the Dennis the Menace Playground displays archival photos from the Monterey Public Library’s California History Room. The arrival and placement af steam locomotive #1285 was a key event back in the day.

Now the City Council is considering options which include a complete fencing off of #1285 so there is no access whatsoever for kids, or removal of the steam locomotive from the site altogether. Many in the community, and further afield, are up in arms and are organizing to keep the train in situ.

On August 23, the new Save The Train at Dennis The Menace Playground Facebook Page got up and running and continues to pick up speed with nearly 6,500 likes and almost 8,500 people ‘talking about’ the page.

In response to a letter from a citizen, the City Manager responded as follows.

Thank you for voicing your concerns regarding restricting public access to the steam engine at Dennis the Menace Park. I heartily agree that the train is a Monterey legacy and a favorite feature of the park enjoyed by generations of children.

Unfortunately, because there have been several incidences in which children have sustained injuries, we were compelled to review the safety aspects of retaining the train as a play structure. The result of the review is that the steam engine does not comply with current laws and regulations that have been established by the State of California. In other words, the play structure (steam engine) is not safe to play on. That fact can’t be disputed and is reinforced by the many comments we received that mentioned “mastering the climb on the steam engine without a fall” as something to be proud of. Frankly, falling from a 20′ high steam engine and getting severely injured is not something that this generation of parents and grandparents will tolerate.

Not only is the City obligated to comply with current mandatory play equipment standards, we also feel a strong responsibility to the public to do our very best to ensure their safety. We must seriously consider whether continuing the tradition of allowing access to the train outweighs the risk to the welfare of park visitors. After careful deliberation, staff is recommending to the City Council that erecting permanent fencing around the train is a solution that would allow us to keep the train as a historic feature of the park while ensuring that park visitors maintain a safe distance from the structure. Other options for the Council to decide among include keeping the steam engine accessible for future generations (and being liable for future claims stemming from falls of the engine) or, the Council could decide to remove the steam engine altogether and locate it elsewhere in our City or County, thus clearly distinguishing it as a historic monument and not a play structure.

These recommendations will be presented at the August 21, 2012 City Council meeting. No decision has been made as of yet. If you feel strongly that there is another solution to this issue, please come to the meeting to voice your opinion. We welcome any and all suggestions you may have.

Once again, thank you for your concern. I am very happy that you have enjoyed your visits to Dennis the Menace Park in the past and hope that you will continue to frequent our local parks.

Fred Meurer
City Manager

Dania King Ketcham Ranes, daughter of Dennis the Menace creator and playground benefactor, Hank Ketcham, has also posted her thoughts on the matter to Facebook.

To the Mayor and City Council,

My name is Dania Ketcham-Rhames and I am writing to ask that the train at Dennis the Menace park stay open for children to explore. The train has been there for the past 56 years, and now all of a sudden it’s going to become just a museum piece? I understand that this is a serious piece of equipment, but so are all the other play structures.

As children we learn how to play on these structures by climbing, sliding and exploring, I feel that the train is no different. My father was a very instrumental part of bringing this park together, the train being his idea, and it would be a sad day to see his vision fade away. The train, the bridge, the tunnels and the maze are the only original parts left of the park that I remember from my childhood.

Please don’t take this away. I know there have been accidents on the train but children fall and hurt themselves daily on bikes, skateboards, climbing trees etc… We all had to LEARN how to play on the train, and I believe it’s part of growing up in Monterey!

People come from all over to play at this park because it’s like no other, and I would really like it to stay that way. The train is an important piece of Monterey, and as a parent myself I want my child to be able to explore it when she is big enough. In the mean time I follow her on every piece of equipment there until I’m sure she can do it without me. It’s MY responsibility to make sure she is safe, as it should be of every parent. Dennis the Menace park is a special place to learn and grow for everyone, young and old.

Source: Save The Train at Dennis the Menace Playground Facebook Page

Traditional media are also weighing in as this editorial from Joseph W. Heston, KSBW President and General Manager illustrates.

Locomotive not loco parentis

We all know what a special place the Central Coast is to call home: rich with renowned beaches and “must see” family attractions, an international destination of unique activities and places to visit.

For over two generations now, one of those landmarks has been Monterey’s Dennis the Menace Park and the famous locomotive that was gifted to the city in the 1950s.

Over the years, that train engine’s served as a depot of sorts for the special memories built together by so many parents, grandparents, and children. But now, like Amtrak, that train’s in trouble!

You’ve likely seen or heard about the city’s temporary fence around the locomotive — and in September it will consider permanently sealing it off from the children with an iron fence like this one.

What a shame it is that we’ve come to this. To be fair, the city may be legally exposed because the locomotive doesn’t meet state minimum safety standards for playgrounds. Lawyers advise that signs cautioning parents of their need to supervise their children likely don’t go far enough.

But taking that to its logical conclusion, where do we draw the line? Do we chop down any and all trees in the park to keep little climbers from taking big falls? What about the climbing wall and monkey bars? Do we require all children who enter the park to wear a helmet to protect them from a child-endangering foul ball from that pesky baseball diamond next door? Of course not.

Bottom line: there’s no substitute for adult supervision, whether in the home or at the park. Ultimately that should be the solution. And we urge city leaders to find a creative and gutsy way to balance risk and benefit.

Don’t derail Monterey’s playground locomotive, simply hiding behind an argument that we want to keep children safe.

City Council is currently scheduled to have the train on the agenda for their October 2 meeting which begins at 7:00 p.m.

Southern Pacific’s old locomotive #1285 at The Dennis the Menace Playground is mobilizing public opinion about reasonable balance vis à vis safety issues. Let the kids play – have they changed that much since 1956 when the park was opened? It was a wilder, funner, more adrenalin charged place then. We could do with a bit more edge, more in keeping with the original type Dennis Playground and Europe’s Adventure Playgrounds and less with the bubblewrap, all contingencies covered, litigation free, antiseptic playspaces.

You may also be interested in reading:

Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis
Newsreel-Upside Down at Dennis The Menace Park
Dennis the Menace and Burning Man

For the story of California neighbours who reversed a City Hall decision, based partly on safety issues, to have a playground destroyed:

Monster Mash – Conservation Wins the Day in San Gabriel, California

Dennis the Menace and Burning Man

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading more and more about playgrounds for adults. This is a phenomenon that started out in Asia a few years ago. Since then, it has taken root in Europe and is now becoming au courant in North America.

Reports in The New York Times seem to be building up interest across the USA. In this vein, ‘adult playground’ is primarily about pumping up the fitness factor and providing outdoor exercise stations.

Halifax, Canada – PlayGroundology’s home – is perhaps a little ahead of the curve in relation to other North American cities. That’s one of the side benefits of an outdoor equipment manufacturer setting up shop here in Nova Scotia. Green Gym installations are popping up all over our city.

This is all well and fine. I mean it’s hard to argue the value of helping to realign the ABSI, usurper of the Body Mass Index that has served as an indicator of healthiness or lack thereof in recent years.

Now there’s no doubt that the majority of us adults in North America could use a tune-up, or an outright makeover. I know that in terms of the rotundity factor, I’ve got too much going on for my own good. In Canada, ParticipACTION has got a lot to offer on the matter of physical activity.

But what about the fun, thrill, adrenalin quotients? Exercise is great but even us adults should have access to a broader canvas. This is where I introduce exhibits ‘A’ and ‘B’, Dennis the Menace and Burning Man respectively.

Dennis was Hank Ketchum’s inspiration to build Monterey, California’s Dennis the Menace Playground back in the 1950s. I’ve written about this playground like no other previously in PlayGroundology.

Its custom designed equipment created many a hair raising experience for kids and parents. The present day Dennis playground is a pale shadow of the original and many who experienced its glory days as kids lament its passing. And who can blame them when there was excitement like the helicopter spinny thing of death which closes out the video segment below.

So yes, there should be a bit of an edge à la Dennis for adult playgrounds and where better to seek inspiration in modern times than Burning Man. This is where you can find adult playgrounds with a twist as the photos and video that follow attest.

Klimax by Michael Christian – Burning Man, 2003. Source

Temple of Gravity – Burning Man, 2003. Source

The Darwin Dome – Burning Man, 2009. Photo credit – Scott Haefner

Industrial See-Saw – Burning Man. Source

Now imagine that instead of a coffee and danish at break you were able to limber up on this customized Burning Man special.

Somewhere on the Dennis the Menace – Burning Man continuum there is a place that speaks to fitness and fun, risk and reward. It’s good to see that big kids can benefit from a little undirected play too.

Newsreel – Upside Down at Dennis the Menace Park

Back when PlayGroundology was a baby in early 2010, I ran across a great Facebook page called, I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived! The intrigue was too much for me to resist. I quickly got in touch with page administrator and creator, Daniel Annereau to find out more about one of America’s first ‘extreme’ playgrounds. You can read that story here.

Imagine my excitement yesterday when I came across this film footage featuring the ‘helicopter’ ride, aka spinny thing of death. The 36 second clip starts pretty innocuously but the last 10 seconds or so pack a real punch with risky behaviour galore.

This is the playground that I would have loved to visit as a kid. I can imagine myself hanging upside down although I’m not sure I would have had the guts of the upside downer kid in the film.

Dennis the Menace Park in Monterey, California was an early example of a destination playground. Designer Arch Garner outdid himself on this project conceived by Dennis creator Hank Ketchum. Kids couldn’t get enough of it and who could blame them.

Dennis is Dead, Long Live Dennis

Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace isn’t really dead. That lovable imp’s mischievous adventures are immortalized in syndicated comic strips around the world.

There’s a Facebook paean to a Monterey, California playground that bears his name – I played at Dennis the Menace Park and lived! Nearly 7,000 members extoll the heart pounding excitement and traces of terror they associate with this unique and creative play space that opened in 1956. Through photos, discussion groups and the wall, they share their memories of fun, fear and folly. (Note: October, 2018 – the Facebook Page has been shut down)

Daniel Annereau created the Facebook group after some some childhood reminiscing at the playground during a visit home over Christmas 2008. He was in mourning at the passing of virtually all of the playground’s original, read ‘fun’ play structures. They had been removed and replaced with more anodyne fare.

After asking his mother and a quick Google failed to turn up much in the way of visual images of the playground’s heyday, he put the Facebook group together with a call to action:

Does your mother have a shoebox in the attic with pictures of those terrible contraptions that have been removed and are probably now in some Monterey City Official’s backyard?

Yes? Then this group is for you!

Find those photos! Scan them! Post them! Show the world how EXTREME your childhood was!”

The playground has inspired a loyal and devoted fan base that spans three generations. For the kids of Monterey and envrions, this was the playground. It was synonymous with derring-do, high jinks and a dash of danger. “It was a scene,” recalls Daniel who grew up in nearby Pacific Grove . “It was kind of like a theme park. Right next to it there was a ball field and there was a snack shack with things like hot dogs, nachos and snow cones. It was the place to be all summer long.”

It was a playscape like no other. What set it apart was the customized equipment and Arch Garner’s design. Like its namesake it had a bit of an edge – let’s call it that Dennis je ne sais quoi factor. If someone were looking for a blueprint for an extreme playground, this one, in its original state, would have been a good model.

“My parents took me all the time,” remembers Daniel. “We’d have birthdays there. It was a treat, like a personal amusement park. There were quite a few places where you really could hurt yourself too. There was an element of danger. I kind of respect my parents just for taking me and letting me figure out the physics of it all.”

The adrenalin charged ‘helicopter’ ride gets frequent mentions on the Facebook page. From all accounts it was not for the faint of heart. The pulse quickening ride that fueled narrow brushes with bodily injury was a favourite for many of Dennis’ acolytes.

“…the one that spun around on an axis as fast as the big kids could make it go, & to catch a ride you had to be able to jump up way high & grab a metal bar of some kind while ducking the numerous arms, legs, heads, & various other body parts (mostly still attached) of successful riders holding on for dear life– that was sposed to be a helicopter ?? ….Whatever it was, god it was irresistible; I know I left more’n a drop or two of my own blood at its feet, & couldn’t wait to go back for more punishment….”

Marie Dubois

There were other pieces of equipment – like the roller slide – that might look more at home on a factory production line. Whether they were hair raising, or just a little tamer, this is the kind of stuff that most kids can only dream of playing on.

In addition to uncovering some photos of the playground with its original play structures, Daniel was interested in making some social commentary on the changing nature of play. “There’s an element of learning for kids to understand their limits and a responsibility for parents to make sure the kids are okay while still giving them that freedom to learn. It seems now that there is a lot of litigiousness in our society with parents suing over things that are just life,” says Daniel. “I’m sure that one of the driving forces for taking out all the equipment was for the city to feel protected, so they can’t be sued.”

Daniel, is one of tens of thousands who have fond and vibrant memories of the Dennis the Menace playground that was. He laments the fact that kids today don’t have the same kind of opportunities for play. “I learned so much about my limits from that park. I was just as scared of getting hurt as anyone. I didn’t feel invincible or anything. It’s great for kids to play like that. I thank my parents for taking me.”

Winding up our conversation, Daniel asks if there are any movements afoot to provide kids with more creative opportunities for play, He’s happy to hear about Adventure Playgrounds and Imagination Playgrounds and recalls hearing about an Adventure Playground in the San Franciso Bay Area where he currently lives.

As I’m writing this post it dawns on me that I’ve forgotten to ask Daniel about his favourite play structure and his most terrifying moment in the old playground. So Daniel, how about it, were you another ride of death aficionado? Post a comment and let us know.

Thanks to Daniel, Dennis, Hank Ketcham and Arch, I now know that there’s been a lot more happening in Monterey than John Steinbeck.

The Dennis the Menace Playground is still a going concern run and operated by the City of Monterey. According to those who lived and breathed the excitement of the original play structures, the current version is a pale comparison. For kids who never knew the original, they’re sure to have a lot of fun even if it’s less edgy. The city put together a YouTube presentation for the Prak’s 55th anniversary in 2012 that can be viewed here.

Image sources

Top image

    • – The official website for Hank Ketchum’s Dennis the Menace

Bottom image

    • – City of Monterey website

All other images

    – I Played at the Dennis the Menace Park and Lived Facebook

All materials, unless otherwise attributed or credited, copyright ⓒ 2010 Alex Smith.

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