Conneaut Lake Park celebrates 125 years of fun

Blue Streak builder designed Idora Park’s Jack Rabbit

CONNEAUT LAKE, Pa. — Benjamin Harrison was the president of the United States, Ellis Island began accommodating immigrants to the United States, and ladies and gentlemen of the region were given a new destination for fun and relaxation.

Conneaut Lake Park — about an hour’s drive from downtown Warren — 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 during the last 125 years, the roar of the coaster nearly drowned out Bill Bragg, chairman of the Trustees of Conneaut Lake Park, a nonprofit corporation, as he thanked visitors to the park last month during an anniversary celebration.

The Blue Streak, built in 1937, is the 17th-oldest wooden roller coaster in the United States, and it is one of two shallow coasters designed by Ed Vettel and still operating. The Blue Streak at Conneaut first opened in 1938.

Vettel is the builder of the Jack Rabbit wooden roller coaster that was a feature at Idora Park in Youngstown from 1914 until the park closed in 1984.

Members of the National Amusement Park Historical Association, based in Lombard, Ill., 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.

Bob MacCallum of Akron 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.”

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.

Vicki Leap presented Bragg with a citation recognizing the 125th anniversary on behalf of Pennsylvania state Rep. Parke Wentling, who represents the 17th Legislative District.

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 in Linesville, Pa. — not to be confused with Conneaut High School in Conneaut, Ohio — got her first summer job as a ride operator in the park’s Kiddie Land.

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.

“It’s been really busy, and I get tired, but I like it,” Fisher 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.

Lax said he 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 Area 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.”