Saturday, February 2, 2008

Requiem for an Old Friend

At the end of the 19th century men cut the thick ice that formed on the surface of Conneaut Lake. Large blocks of ice were a valuable commodity with the advent of the home ice box, and the ice from this lake froze particularly thick. Hardy Crawford County Pa. men would cut the ice into blocks with huge ice saws, and then drag them to the railroad spur so that they could be shipped to ice houses in Cleveland or Pittsburgh. The ice trade was lucrative for these railroads when the lake was frozen, but when it melted they had a virtually unused rail line. This was not good business.

Being that the lake was the only draw that the railroad had to work with in 1892, they decided to build Exposition Park on the lakeside and bill it as a tourist haven. And people came, and bought railroad tickets in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. In the winter ice out, in the summer tourists in. A good money maker.

Well, the park grew and built hotels. They offered paddle steamer rides on the lake. They had Music Halls and convention centers, picnic areas and some early amusement rides. In 1908 a major fire destroyed a good portion of the park. They rebuilt quickly.

One of the new buildings was named the “Dreamland Ballroom”. A huge hardwood floor with room for large crowds, a balcony lining the whole of the second floor dance hall. A beautiful piece of work. It opened in 1909. In its heyday in the 30’s it drew the likes of Perry Como and Doris Day.

Amusement rides continued to be built, most notably a carousel in 1910, Dodgem cars in 1923 and the Blue Streak roller coaster in 1938. All of which are still there. The name was changed to Conneaut Lake Park. Looking back through the history of the park, fire and financial woes constantly haunted its grounds.

I spent a good amount of time at the park when I was a kid. We did not have a tremendous amount of time nor money, and a daytrip to Conneaut was a big deal for us. When I came back from two year army tour in Korea, one of the first things that I did was take my younger siblings to the park. It was that special.

The ever present money problems closed the park in 1995, its first such closure in 103 years. It reopened in 1996, but it got to a point where you wondered every spring if the park was going to open for the summer again. I took my kids there as much as possible, and they loved it. But it was not enough, the park did not open for 2007.

Some aggressive fundraising and deals with local business and government brightened the prospects for the summer of 2008. We looked forward to another season.

On the morning of February 1st, 2008 fire consumed the Dreamland Ballroom and many of the adjacent buildings and shops. This may very well be the death blow to our beloved park. While fighting the ever present financial problems, another fire may have ended it all. All that I feel is nostalgia and sadness.

Thank you for reading what will probably go down as my most long winded post ever.

The photograph above was shamelessly stolen from the best Conneaut Lake Park site on the net. Please visit them and offer my apologies.

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