SUMMIT TOWNSHIP — Benjamin Harrison was the president of the United States, Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the U.S., and ladies and gentlemen of the local area had a new destination for fun and relaxation.
Conneaut Lake Park got its start in 1892 as Exposition Park by Col. Frank Mantor as a permanent fairground and exposition for livestock, machinery and industrial products from western Pennsylvania.
While Conneaut Lake Park has experienced more peaks and valleys than its iconic wooden Blue Streak roller coaster, the roar of the coaster nearly drowned out Bill Bragg as he thanked visitors to the park for their continued support on Sunday. Bragg is the chairman of Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the amusement park.
The park marked its 125th anniversary on Sunday with cake, an official citation and the usual enjoyment. Vicki Leap presented Bragg with a citation recognizing the 125th anniversary on behalf of state Rep. Parke Wentling, who represents the 17th Legislative District.
While much has changed in 125 years, the park remains open to the public with improvements made annually. “Every year the park gets a little bigger,” Bragg said.
This is the park’s first full season with both its water park and amusement rides in operation in about seven years. Last year, the water park came back on line in stages, reaching full operation in early August.
More opportunities for amusement translates to more summer jobs. Running between the S.S. Waterotters and the Yo-Dude Dunebuggies has kept Hannah Fisher busy all summer. Fisher, an upcoming sophomore at Conneaut Area Senior High, got her first summer job as a ride operator in the park’s Kiddie Land.
On Sunday, Fisher watched as a little boy carefully steered a blue boat while two adventurous girls in a purple boat spun the steering wheel fast enough to make even a Tasmanian devil dizzy, if the steering wheel worked.
Once all the boat’s occupants had safely exited, Fisher headed straight over to the dune buggies to let the little sailors try to steer the dune buggies off the track.
Having played soccer since she was 2 years old, summer is a time for training, according to Fisher. “It’s been really busy, and I get tired, but I like it,” she said.
It wasn’t that long ago that Fisher enjoyed the rides in Kiddie Land herself. “My favorite was the Little Dipper,” she said. Fisher admitted to riding the kiddie coaster all day on at least one occasion.
When it comes to riding roller coasters all day, some experts were on hand Sunday. Members of the National Amusement Park Historical Association were at the park enjoying the rides. The group travels the country not so much to critique the rides at various amusement parks, but really just to enjoy them, according to Matthew Lax, a group member from Los Angeles.
“We do have our favorites,” Lax said. “I always prefer the smaller parks, so when someone asks for my favorite, it’s always some out-of-the-way destination they haven’t heard of.”
When asked about the Blue Streak roller coaster, Lax pointed out another member of the group who had ridden the coaster with him all night 20 years ago.
On Sunday, Bob MacCallum, of Akron, Ohio, was wearing the T-shirt he earned after riding the Blue Streak from sunset to sunrise on May 17, 1997. The shirt was a little faded, but his memory of the experience was crystal clear.
“It was cold,” MacCallum said. “It took a while to warm up after that.”
The Blue Streak, built in 1937, is the 17th oldest wooden roller coaster in the U.S., and it is one of two shallow coasters designed by Ed Vettel and still operating. The Blue Streak at Conneaut first opened in 1938.
Lax has seen his fair share of small amusement parks nationwide that have struggled. “I’m glad to see the Trustees have a vision to keep this park going,” he said.
In December 2014, Trustees filed for bankruptcy protection with about $3.8 million in debts including $1.3 million of that total in overdue real estate taxes, interest, fees and penalties. The $1.3 million in real estate tax debt dates to 1997 and is owed to Conneaut School District, Crawford County, and Summit and Sadsbury townships.
Trustees’ Chapter 11 reorganization plan, approved by bankruptcy court in September 2016, includes the sale of excess land, but any land sales have been subject to bankruptcy court approval.
Trustees have been selling off parcels of the former Flynn property, located north of Conneaut Lake Park’s midway/ former Beach Club site, to pay down its debt. The Flynn property, vacant land with about 330 feet of lakefront, is considered unnecessary to the amusement park’s long-term operation.
His visits to many parks have given Lax an idea of what contributes to the survival of a small amusement park. “Water parks seem to be crucial,” he said. “Every park I’ve seen that is able to survive has a water park.”
Another crucial component of maintaining a small park, according to Lax — the corporate picnic. “If people want a fast-paced exciting day, they go to the big parks, and that’s fine,” Lax said. “People who attend parks like this are looking for a gathering spot. They want to spend the day with others, picnicking and relaxing. You have to attract the big groups that are looking for a place to do that.”
Lorri Drumm can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.