Sunday, February 03, 2008

From the files-- Remembering Conneaut

I wrote the following in the summer of 2000 after a return visit to Conneaut Lake Park. I have many fond memories of the place--an early iteration of the Bully Hill Brass used to have a regular Saturday night gig at the park (if you have a copy of the park history, you'll find a picture of my brother in a candystripe vest and plastic boater crouched down and playing trumpet for some small tyke). But by the turn of the millennium, things were looking pretty bad for the park. The recent fire that took the ballroom and the maintenance shed, where most of the machinery from the functioning rides had been stored-- well, that conflagration probably marks the end of things for good. It's too bad.

(News-Herald, July 2000) I love a good amusement park. Heck, I even love a bad amusement park. Amusement parks never pretended to any lofty purpose. The great parks from the turn of the century share the same pedigree with our own Monarch Park in Venango County. Monarch Park was started by the trolley company as a way to increase business-- if you give people a destination, they'll use your transit system.

Conneaut Lake, Waldameer, Cedar Point-- most all of the pre-Disney biggies were started the same way by a trolley or train company. They were full family parks, parks that served as a gathering spot for the surrounding communities. In the early 1900s, most picnics, reunions, and gatherings were held at Monarch Park. On holidays such as the Fourth of July, Franklin and oil City were empty, all of the citizens at the park, enjoying concerts, bowling, dancing, the carousel, the roller coaster, or at night the spectacle of the light-covered electric tower.

I'm partial to the old traditional parks. Waldameer is still a turn-of-the-century park at heart, with picnic pavilions and classic rides, but with a neat new water park on the side. Cedar Point has a beautiful setting and many, many great rides. A well-built ride is a work of art all its own. I know that seems like strong praise for a roller coaster, but heck, we ooh and ahh over structures like the ancient pyramids that are engineering marvels built to attest to the glory of individuals. Why shouldn't we be impressed by engineering marvels that exist to make thousands of people happy every day? That seems as worthwhile a purpose as any.

Cedar Point has always been my favorite, but I've always had a special affection for Conneat lake Park. A few of us used to play on the midway there every Saturday night for money and food. The park had a delightfully cheesy array of rides and the usual assortment of park eats including superior fries. It also offered uniqe period charm (including a ballroom once billed as "the largest uninterrupted dance floor between NYC and Chicago").

I was at Conneaut lake Park a few weeks ago, and it was painful, like finding an old friend wasted on Skid Row. I always felt Conneaut lake lost its way years ago when management put a fence around it and charged admission even to walk through. They removed many of the old rides and replaced them with "newer" rides, like their half-hearted attempt at a water park. They also tried to promote it as a concert venue (remember when Bob Dylan played there?), but rain got in the way. It all seemed wrong to me.

Part of the park's charm was that it was part park, part neighborhood. In the old days, the park blended into the cottages and homes around it. Now you can stroll for free again, but the damage seems done. The edges of the park seem empty, like the places where weeds have started to encroach on a flower garden. The grand old hotel and the beach club restaurant/lounge are still there, but rather empty and forlorn. Big chunks of buildings have been razed. The Wild Mouse has gone, and nothing has replaced it but a vacant lot.

The attendants have the relaxed attitudes of folks who spend a lot of time doing nothing. The bench seats have been refitted to make do with three slats instead of four, so you can't set your food down beside you. The park closes at 7.

I don't mean to be hard on management; I'm not sure there is a way to make money with a park like this in a small, modern market. Many parks folded in the '20s. Conventional wisdom says that Monarch Park was killed off by the destruction of the Franklin trolley bridge by ice, but the newspaper record shows that Monarch Park was already struggling by the time the bridge went down. But the automobile meant that families no longer traveled to the park toegther. Each family, and even each family member, could choose a separate destination and activity. Monarch Park was doomed.

So maybe it's just a miracle that Conneaut lake Park is still there at all. But it's still a beautiful setting, and I left thinking that it would be fun to stay a weekend at the hotel. And while I was ruminating about its faded glory, Junior Park Tester Caleb (age 7) was running excitedly from ride to ride, pleading with his mother for the opportunity to ride th Blue Streak just fifty times more.

It helps me remember that while a sense of history is nice, sometimes it's better to just hush and let folks enjoy what they find now and remain blissfully unaware fo what's been lost.

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