Remembering Conneaut Lake Park

Battered by time, this northwestern PA amusement park was like no other.

After+decades+of+hard+times%2C+Conneaut+Lake+Park+has+come+to+its+end+as+an+amusement+park.

Andrew McLaughlin

After decades of hard times, Conneaut Lake Park has come to its end as an amusement park.

Andrew McLaughlin, Staff Writer

In 2013, my family made the 90-minute drive north to Conneaut Lake Park (CLP) for the first time. Pulling into the parking lot, we were startled at what we saw. A charred building was to the left, and we seemed to be the only ones in the parking lot, which fronted a line of boarded-up buildings. Considering it was a chilly day in September, we expected that crowds would be light, but this was beyond empty; it was complete desolation. As we walked down the midway, we noticed a few signs of life — the cheerful music of the carousel and the unmistakable sound of a wooden roller coaster. 

Stopping into the gift shop, we purchased our tickets, which were a mere $5. Even with such a low price, the park was clearly struggling for visitors. First up was the ride that drew us to Conneaut Lake: the Blue Streak roller coaster. Walking up to the station felt almost like a dream. My family filled the front car, but we were the only ones on the train. The operator unceremoniously pulled the lever to release the brakes, and we were off. Unlike most coasters, the Blue Streak began with a long, winding tunnel, the darkness only interrupted by a few holes in the roof. 

The Blue Streak’s condition gave some reason to feel uneasy. The lap bars were covered in duct tape, and the track showed signs of wear, undulating from side-to-side on the lift hill. But once we hurled down the drop, all worries were forgotten. Even at 75 years old, the Blue Streak was a wonderful old-fashioned coaster. There were more than a few bumps in the track, but its wooded setting only made the coaster’s steep drops more thrilling. The Blue Streak was on its own, buried in the woods… and as you plunged down from the treetops, it felt like you were a mile away from civilization.

With the removal of the 1925 Tumble Bug, Kennywood’s Turtle is the last ride of its kind in the world. (Andrew McLaughlin)

Exiting the Blue Streak, we heard the unmistakable humming of a Turtle-style ride. Across the midway from the Blue Streak was the Tumble Bug, built in 1925. Kennywood’s Turtle slides you around a little, but the Tumble Bug was cranked up to a different level. With hard-backed seats, every hill would send you flying around the car.

The park’s final notable ride, the Devil’s Den haunted house, had a unique method of power. Ride operators used their own physical strength to push cars onto a chain lift. After a dip in its track, the car then had the momentum to race past the dimly lit spooks with no external power source.

The entrance to Kiddieland was inspired by another era. (The black curtains had been added for Halloween.) (Andrew McLaughlin)

Although the home of some great classic rides, it was easy to see that CLP was struggling. Tree roots were fighting to escape from the aged pavement of the midway, and more than a few of the buildings looked desperately in need of a coat of paint. During our first few visits, there were perhaps less than 100 people in the park, and the charred building that we had parked next to — known as the Beach Club — had caught on fire just a few weeks earlier. But this was by no means the first difficulty the park had endured.

More than 85 years ago, CLP avoided closure during the Great Depression. After 60 years of relative prosperity, the park saw a return to hard times in the 1990s, surviving an auction that had aimed to liquidate the park and remove its rides. The park then struggled for a decade until 2006, when financial problems forced its closure. Following the loss of the century-old Dreamland Ballroom to arson in 2008, many thought that the fate of CLP was sealed.

Amazingly, the park opened in 2009 after three years of sitting dormant. A bold fundraising effort reopened the Blue Streak in 2010, but CLP still had a long way to go in its recovery. After yet another brush with death — avoiding a sheriff’s sale in 2014 by declaring bankruptcy — the park turned a corner in paying back a mountain of debt.

If only this story could have had a happy ending…

Any positive momentum (including important bankruptcy payments) was halted in 2020, but fans of the park hoped that it would cheat death one more time. CLP had endured longer closures in the past, but this time, it needed to be sold in whole for it to survive. So after decades of local ownership, the park was sold to a private owner, with the hope that he would update the park while retaining its historic rides. 

The Conneaut Lake Park Carousel was built in 1910, though most of its original horses were auctioned in 1989. (Andrew McLaughlin)

Sadly, the new owner has failed to recognize Conneaut Lake Park’s potential as a historic entertainment facility, and with the exception of a few rides, everything that made Conneaut Lake Park unique has been removed.

New ownership has refused to work with the residents surrounding the park, whose passion comes from years of volunteering time and money to repair it.  With one move, however, those decades of progress in restoring Conneaut Lake Park were lost. The new owner’s intentions for the land are still uncertain, but it is clear that CLP’s days of being an amusement park are soon to be over.

Although its demolition is a sad ending to a storied park, we should be happy that Conneaut Lake Park survived as long as it did. Those who visited the park during its 130 years of existence may remember it as a struggling survivor, but they will also remember it as a place where for a day, time seemed to stand still. Its nine lives have finally run out, but the memories will always remain of the quirky amusement park on Conneaut Lake.

The Conneaut Lake Park carousel now stands alone among the park’s historic rides. (Andrew McLaughlin)