CONNEAUT LAKE — Small groups of people stood in stunned silence at Conneaut Lake Park late Friday morning, watching smoke and smoldering embers from a fire that just hours before had destroyed the historic Dreamland Ballroom. The 116-year-old amusement park’s ballroom and some nearby midway buildings fell victim to the blaze that had begun in the middle of the night.

George Glancy, a 16-year-employee of the park who lives in a home inside its boundaries, heard about the fire on an emergency radio scanner and immediately went the short distance to help. He said while he smelled the smoke and saw a small fire, the scene seemed quiet — but “all of sudden she (the fire) just took off.”

The fire was discovered about 2:15 a.m. by two emergency medical technicians on their way home to Conneautville.

Park manager George Deshner was home when he received a pre-dawn call Friday, with the caller indicating Hotel Conneaut, also in the park, was on fire. Deshner called Crawford County’s 911 center to verify the information and was advised it was true.

But while driving to the park from his Meadville home, Deshner received another call saying it was Dreamland Ballroom, not the hotel, that was on fire.

He said when he drove through Conneaut Lake Borough, three miles south of the park, he could see the flames shooting 50 to 60 feet in the air.

Nobody knows for certain what started the fire. It’s under investigation by Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Dana Beckwith. Although he did preliminary inspections Friday, Beckwith’s probe was hampered by smoke and by some “hot spots,” said Deshner. Beckwith is to return to the scene Monday morning for further investigation before making a ruling on the cause.

“At this point, it’s undetermined,” said Deshner.

The fire spread through Dreamland Ballroom, into a maintenance building, and down one side of the amusement park’s midway games area, stopping at the Skee Ball stand about halfway down before it was brought under control, said Deshner.

The midway is a row of connected, more-than-century-old, wood-frame structures that house many of the park’s games and food stands. Behind the midway facades are storage areas for rides, as well as repair shops where amusement-ride cars are fixed, stored and receive maintenance.

The Skee Ball building was destroyed, but the games inside were saved. Deshner said the fire department planned to knock down the Skee Ball stand Friday, but that was delayed until the fire marshal’s investigation is complete.

Also destroyed were restrooms, a former jail area, and storage places with equipment for such things as pizza, taffy, cotton candy, soft pretzels and the funnel cake operations.

Also in the building were personal tools of some employees, including those of Jerry Smith, a park maintenance worker. Smith said Friday he hopes to salvage some of them when all the debris is cleared. Smith, who lives in nearby Harmonsburg, is a volunteer firefighter and joined others to fight the blaze.

Gig King, chief of Summit Township Volunteer Fire Department, the lead department, said 10 other departments were called to assist. He believes the fire was smoldering for about an hour and a half before it was noticed.

“I think it all started on the second floor,” said King, noting firefighters were pleased with the initial attack. However, about 15 minutes later, “all of a sudden it flew up,” he said of the fire.

He was pleased that the firefighters were able to save several nearby buildings.

“Look at it as an opportunity for a new beginning,” said Steve Felik of Conneaut Lake, another spectator at the after-fire scene late Friday morning.

“What a tragedy,” said Greg Sutterlin, who coordinated a campaign last summer to raise $60,000 to allow the Beach Club to open; the financially-troubled park itself didn’t open last season. “What a terrible loss. It was a piece of history that can never be rebuilt,” he said, referring to the Dreamland Ballroom.

Sutterlin, who lives on the east side of Conneaut Lake, said a friend called him and told him about the fire. “I saw the flames from across the lake. I drove over to see if I could help out (when the fire was burning),” he said. He soon realized that he, like others, couldn’t do much.

Glancy recalled vivid memories of the school dances he attended in the huge ballroom as he joined about five others who stood under the roof of the nearby office facing the ballroom. All shared similar memories. One even recalled a night he spent in the “corner” of the bottom of the building — the former park jail.

By noon Friday most of the more than 60 firefighters from 10 departments who battled the blaze had left, with only a few keeping watch at the scene and putting up bright yellow police tape to keep intruders from getting too close.

It was just more than 100 years ago that a fire at Conneaut Lake Park destroyed the park’s first dance hall — in December 1908, a fact mentioned by several others gathered at the site Friday.

It’s unknown what it may cost to rebuild the structure; however, there was no fire insurance on the buildings so, at this point, park officials said there is no money to rebuild it.

Deshner said fire insurance was in effect in 2006 and until mid- or later summer of 2007. Jack Moyers, chairman of the board of Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, agreed, saying the trustees had no money and so allowed the policy to lapse. The trustees assumed control of daily operations in July of last year.

Deshner said the premium would have been an initial installment of between $6,000 and $7,000 and then monthly payments of between $1,700 and $1,800.

“I hope this is not the fatal blow,” said Dick Chaney, who lives near the park.

Joining Summit VFD were firefighters from Conneaut Lake Park, Conneaut Lake Borough, Linesville, Vernon Central, Vernon Volunteers, East Fallowfield, North Shenango, Greenwood, Springboro and Conneautville, as well as Conneaut Lake Area Ambulance Service.

Moyers praised the work of the fire departments who battled windy weather in freezing rain. He said the building only had enough of an electrical supply to maintain the phone system.

Nobody was in any of the buildings at the time of the fire. Deshner said Bob Morrow of the park’s maintenance staff was in the building daily and had been there on Thursday.

Jean Shanley and Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370.

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