Park of Ages: The Timeless Thrill of Conneaut Lake Park
Strolling along the cracked and crumbling asphalt that forms the thoroughfares of Conneaut Lake Park, one might find it hard to imagine the full splendor of the Pennsylvania amusement park at the height of its glory in the late 1920’s.
By then, the park and adjoining grounds consisted of 10 hotels, a 5,000-seat music hall, a 1,600-seat auditorium, a half-mile racing track with grandstands, a lengthy midway, one of the largest dancing pavilions this side of the Mississippi, a buffet of eating establishments, a bowling alley, a bath bathing pavilion, a boating pavilion, baseball field, golf course, camping area, and fairgrounds. Add to this an assortment of rides that included a carousel, a Ferris wheel, and two roller coasters, all brought to life by a flood of people arriving by train, trolley, steamboat, and automobile!
What it must have been like to experience the park in its heyday—to smell the roasted peanuts and hot dogs sandwiches while walking along the midway surrounded by the delighted screams of adventurous souls being tossed to and fro by thrill rides—to bask under the dome of glowing lights that pressed against the summer’s twilight above stylish young couples as they waltzed to Esee Mushrushes’s Rippling waves of Conneaut Lake at the Dreamland Dancing Pavilion. Dreamland would be an apt description of the park in its entirety, providing the perfect backdrop in conceiving so many sentimental memories for those who frequent its grounds throughout time.
But dreams of a resort along the lake’s cool waters actually date as far back as 1858, when T. W. Kennard, an English engineer supervising construction of the nearby Atlantic an Great Western railroad, purchased land near the southwest shores intent on building a hotel and racetrack. Dreams, however, would not become a reality until 1877, when Aaron Lynce established Lynce’s Landing.
Within a few years, this lovely spot offered amenities such as a dance hall and roller rink, drawing in visitors from the hundreds. Many would travel by train to the newly-built Evansburg (today Conneaut Lake) Station where they then boarded a steamer or side-wheel paddle boat for a placid ride across the lake to the increasingly popular picnic site. An account from July 4th, 1881, reported crowds so large that the steamers were constantly getting stuck in the mud under the collective weight of their passengers. Concessions were sold out before afternoon’s end, and the bars in Evansburg were quickly closed to avoid public disorder!
Yet, despite such success, Lynce eventually sold the property to a buyer who had a grand vision. On a colder-than-usual day in April of 1892, Colonel Frank Mantor along with other investors, formally created the Conneaut Lake Exposition Company. Within a month, work began on what would become Exposition Park. The following year, visitors were greeted by a bowling alley, an auditorium, several eateries, and the luxurious (for its day) Exposition Hotel.
Exposition Park continued to grow; however, Colonel Mantor’s Chautauqua vision of the part as a center for learning and exhibition died with him a short while later. By early into the next century Exposition Park began modeling itself after another amusement parks like Coney Island and added rides like the Carousel and impressive Three-way Figure 8 Toboggan.
Bolstered by a leasing agreement arrangement with the Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad and the addition of interurban trolley service, Exposition Park became “Queen of Summer Resorts,” hosting crowds in the thousands from both far and near.
Officially renamed in the 1920’s, Conneaut Lake Park roared and prospered along with the rest of the country, but as the decade neared its end, the first signs of trouble began to surface. In September 1929, a month before the stock market crash, the park went into receivership. Financial difficulties and frequent management changes would become a common theme, plaguing the park in the years to come. Even so, various periods of growth in the modern era resulted in new rides and attractions, such as the famous Blue Streak and the magical Fairyland Forest. In recent years the park has benefited from concerts, Pumpkin Fest, and Halloween’s Ghost Lake while still managing to keep a fleet of aging but classic rides operational.
Fire has also left an indelible mark on the park. In the frigid morning hours of December 1908, flames consumed the original dance pavilion, four hotels, the bowling alley, and the Midway. Flames destroyed half of the hotel Conneaut in 1943, keeping it closed for two seasons. Three years later, the Temple of Music burned down, before an arson claimed the Dreamland in 2008. Sadly, the most recent blaze occurred in August 2013, ravaging the popular Beach Club.
Despite such setbacks, Conneaut Lake Park has continued to remain open when many similar amusement parks have long since folded thanks to community support and new management. For so many, past setbacks have failed to put a damper on their fondness for the iconic park.
Even today, people will brag about the number of times they once rode the Blue Streak in a single afternoon. For others, mentioning the park brings back on a sudden craving for thick, salty fries doused in vinegar. There’s a comfort in knowing that such rides as the Flying Scooters, Tumble Bug, and Devil’s Den are still around, linking those carefree summer afternoons of their past to the present.
As this generation returns the park, there’s still that nostalgic excitement they once felt. Poet and former resident, Marion Kent who frequented the park as a youth, captures this best in her poem, Thrill Ride.
you raised your arms and let go,
Barreling like a Blue Streak,
heart in your throat.
You learned how it feels to give yourself over.
From its Inception, Conneaut Lake Park’s resilience has always been fueled by the love and cherished memories of people who, to this day, refuse to let the park’s summer lights fade Into dusk. It’s this spirit that has made Conneaut Lake Park a park of ages.