Kaleidoscope: Tired old Conneaut Lake Park facing uncertain future; visit was nostalgic

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Despite financial difficulties, many changes in rides and attractions, several devastating fires and even shutdowns for entire summers, Conneaut Lake Park is a survivor in an era when mega-amusement parks reign.

The park is on the northwest side of Conneaut Lake -- Pennsylvania's largest glacier lake -- in Crawford County, about 10 miles from the Ohio border and Pymatuning Reservoir. It's not too far of a drive from Aurora.

At 122 years old, it has surpassed the lifetime of Geauga Lake Park by two years. For three or four years in the 1990s and early 2000s, the park was closed because of a lack of operating funds. Loans and donations from banks and businesses allowed it to open some seasons.

But the park's future is cloudy. Financial losses have mounted, and local governments are calling for a delinquent tax sale.

The not-for-profit corporation's board of trustees has been a revolving door, and recently a new group called the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County proposed a plan to pay the taxes owed and upgrade the park.

Whether it survives or goes the way of Northeast Ohio's Geauga Lake, Euclid Beach, Meyer's Lake, Chippewa Lake and Idora is anyone's guess at this point.

A few years ago, Aurora Councilman Jim Vaca and I walked the old Chippewa Lake Park grounds south of Medina, where rides still existed despite nature taking over the land.

Plans were to remove the rides and structures, and turn the land into a lakeside community. Some rides, including the Big Dipper roller coaster, and buildings were demolished, but since the project never got off the ground, I'm told some are still there.

About 50 years ago -- in the early 1960s -- my folks and I visited Conneaut Lake Park and the adjacent Fairyland Forest, which opened in 1960. I don't remember a lot about that trip, except for feeding the animals at Fairyland Forest and playing miniature golf.

With the fate of the park teetering on thin ice, I decided to revisit the site just after the July 4 holiday. Although somewhat rundown, it was nostalgic to walk the grounds.

WHAT'S THERE NOW

The park's oldest ride is the 1910 Muller-Harton carousel, which features three rows of jumping and standing horses, a dozen menagerie animals and two chariots.

A few original Muller wooden horses remain, but most were replaced in 1989 by ones made at Carousel Works in Mansfield. An Artizan XA-2 band organ dating to the 1920s provides the music.

The other old rides still operating are the 1925 Tumble Bug, 1937 Blue Streak wooden out-and-back roller coaster and 1949 Tilt-A-Whirl. The coaster was not operating the day I visited, and I learned it often is shut down. There hasn't been a Ferris wheel on the grounds for several years.

The Tumble Bug is one of only two full-sized versions still operating in the U.S.; the other is at Kennywood near Pittsburgh. Chippewa Lake Park also had a Tumble Bug, and in my archives is a photo of Vaca sitting in one of its cars when we explored that park.

The Blue Streak is an American Coaster Enthusiasts classic. It was designed by Ed Vettel and rambles for 2,900 feet. Only one other Vettel "shallow coaster" (long, gradual incline) still operates in the U.S. -- the Cyclone at Lakeside Amusement Park in Denver.

Some newer rides are the Paratrooper, Flying Scooters, Trabant, Devil's Den, bumpers cars and Witch's Stew. The Hostile Hostel walk-through dark ride opened last year. There also are 13 kiddie rides, including a 1950s era Little Dipper.

The Toboggan, a portable coaster-type ride, the 1923 Bessemer Railway and Music Express are standing but not operating, while water attractions, including a slide and Lazy River, also are idle.

There are a gift shop, game booths and amphitheater for live music on the grounds.

LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

In 1892, Col. Frank Mantor founded Exposition Park as a fairgrounds and exposition center for livestock, machinery and industrial products from western Pennsylvania. The site was renamed Conneaut Lake Park in 1920.

Like many early amusement parks, visitors could reach the site only via boats or a trolley line known as the Pittsburgh & Shenango Valley Railroad. The latter owned the park for a few years in the early 1900s.

Early structures included a dance hall and convention hall, and after a few years a number of hotels popped up around the lake. At one time, there were a dozen. Now only the Hotel Conneaut remains.

Some other attractions in the park's early years were a figure-8 coaster, bowling alley, Scenic Railway coaster, Wild Mouse, Ferris wheel, Dodgem cars, Temple of Music and ballroom.

The bowling alley and ballroom burned down in 1908. The Dreamland Ballroom was built in 1909, but was destroyed by fire in 2008. The Beach Club was built on the lake in 1935, but also perished in a fire last summer. A second bowling alley collapsed in 2008 after many years of neglect.

FAIRYLAND FOREST

This attraction, just across the road from the park, was one of several storybook-themed parks which sprouted across the nation in the 1950s and 1960s. It was very popular in its early years.

There were many large fiberglass and concrete sculptures on the landscape such as a turtle, frog, penguin in the pond and whale, plus scenes from nursery

rhymes such as Humpty Dumpty, Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Jonah and the Whale and Noah's Ark.

There also were live animals to pet and feed, and visitors exited the grounds through a windmill-shaped building that housed a gift shop.

With the sculptures getting shabby because of a lack of maintenance and attendance declining, Fairyland Forest closed in 1985 and was replaced by Camperland, an RV park. A concrete whale's open mouth along the pond's shore and the windmill-shaped building are about all that remain from the old attraction.

A similar attraction called Storybook Forest still exists at Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pa., southeast of Pittsburgh.

THE HOTEL CONNEAUT

I enjoyed staying a night in this historic facility. It was especially relaxing sitting on the veranda at dusk and watching a full moon glow over the lake. That is, until the bugs got the best of me!

The Exposition Hotel was built on the lake in 1893. Much of it was demolished in 1902, but one wing was incorporated into the new Hotel Conneaut, which boasted 150 rooms. It cost $1 a night to stay there, and meals were 35 cents.

In 1925, the hotel was enlarged to 300 rooms, and the Crystal Ballroom and a huge dining area were added. In 1943, the hotel was struck by lighting and part of it had to be torn down, but the remodeled part contained 150 rooms.

In the last several years, private investors started a renovation process which has upgraded many rooms. However, some portions are a bit rough, and its full-service restaurant is not operating this year. But it's a popular venue for wedding receptions.

It's a beautiful building, and quite a throwback to the old days of lakeside resorts. There once were a dozen hotels around Conneaut Lake.

The Conneaut Hotel once was known as "The Crown Jewel of Conneaut Lake." Famous personalities who've stayed there include the Beach Boys, Sharon Stone, Doris Day and Max Schmeling.

In the 1930s, singer Perry Como cut hair in the hotel barber shop during the day before heading over to the Dreamland Ballroom to sing in the evenings. The wood frame hotel is believed to be the last one nationwide located inside an amusement park.

AN HISTORICAL MUSEUM

The Conneaut Lake Area Historical Society maintains a wonderful little museum on the south side of the lake, which features hundreds of photos -- some of famous personalities who visited the area -- and artifacts from Conneaut Lake Park.

It is in the former Conneaut Lake Borough community hall, which once boasted a gymnasium. A basketball backboard and goal and court markings on the floor are still visible. The borough boasts a population of about 650.

Some items are an old box used to ship taffy made near the lake, an old game from the park, a player piano once part of the park's shooting gallery, postcards, a chandelier wheel once part of the Crystal Ballroom, the original showcase which held posters advertising Dreamland Ballroom events, Fairyland Forest items and photos and a video of the fire which destroyed the ballroom.

There also are nonpark-related items, the grandest of which is Liberty the Second, a speed boat which sank in Conneaut Lake in the 1920s and was recovered more than 60 years later and restored. It was powered by an airplane engine.

There are a 1940s era kitchen, military photos, fire department memorabilia, an exhibit focusing on all the hotels once around the lake, old town directories and photos of visitors such as Presidents William McKinley and James A. Garfield and author Mark Twain.

A colorful 8-by-36-foot mural on the outside of the building depicts local history from Native Americans until today. It was painted in 2005 by Nancy Helmreich and Earl Gross.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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