Habakkuk was a prophet, credited with the Book of Habakkuk, which in an early verse expresses the desire that the reader ``be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told''. I have such a Habakkuk for you, an amusement park stunning and unimaginable, a place whose existence I am still trying to quite understand even after being there, and photographing it inadequately --- nothing could be quite adequate --- and learning more about it in the days since that made the experience all the more amazing. A legendary amusement park is, in its soul, a bit of an impossible place. Conneaut Lake Park is impossible. It deserves to be legendary. Locally it must be; this should be world-renowned for its nature.
I am something of an exaggerator. I can't resist it. I love the form of the logical argument with the absurd premises. So I understand that some readers will figure I'm simply clowning around. I'm not. To the best of my ability I am writing without hyperbole, exaggeration, or comic absurdity of my part. It is simply that Conneaut Lake Park is really like this. (It's why also I'm not hiding this text behind a cut, because I want people to see this.)
bunny_hugger and I got there by absurd accident, the sort of thing that can't be rationally planned. Perhaps it is like entering Oz or Narnia, and can't be rationally discovered by outsiders. We had figured to start our tour of Pennsylvania parks with Waldameer, on a Monday, and learned at the last minute that this park was closed Mondays. Who closes an amusement park on Mondays in July? A Pennsylvania park does. So we reset it for the following Sunday, after we visited Idlewild, near Pittsburgh. When bunny_hugger discovered, in looking up how long one needed to see Waldameer properly, that we would be able to divert to Conneaut Lake Park easily, we did. If the trip had started as we planned it --- or if we'd planned to start at Waldameer on a Sunday instead of Monday --- we'd never have gone: it would have been absurd to divert to Conneaut Lake Park on the way from Lansing to Waldameer, and we would never have imagined leaving Waldameer early to visit some little park she had barely heard of and I never had. It was only that great stroke of misfortune that made it thinkable we might turn up there.
We got to the park, about two hours north of metro Pittsburgh and an hour short of Waldameer, just about 1 pm, its scheduled opening hour. The park has a lovely 60s-vintage sign giving its name, over the grass parking lot which had a sparse population of cars in front. The sign, guarding an abandoned little toll booth, read, ``WELCOME: Blue Streak Birthday Bash Saturday July 20 2013''. We were a week late to celebrate the 75th birthday of their wooden coaster, the Blue Streak. We could see the outer extent of the Blue Streak from the road, and the parking lot, and as we got out of the car heard the rattling of its lift chain. bunny_hugger ran delighted toward the sign, crying out how wonderful this was, which a bystander agreed with.
This is the setting, as we found it. We did some riding of things in the course of discovering it; but I wanted the reader to understand the whole of the place.
They had a bunch of banners celebrating Blue Streak's 75th anniversary, the sort of thing any proud amusement park might offer. We went past the nice Welcome To Conneaut Lake Park signs and to the entrance gates, which were ... dusty, battered. Abandoned. A little shabby. Signs in the windows said to buy tickets inside the park.
Through the gates the park was ... well, it had the asphalt walkways and grassy surroundings we're used to in this sort of thing. Past white picket fences, not all intact, were a couple of familiar and usual rides --- a Tilt-a-Whirl (with a decayed sign reading ``Sorry Out Of Order'' across the entry stairs), another Flying Scooters (we had thought this a rare ride, when we first found one in Hershey Park years ago), a ... couple empty spots where flat rides had been taken out. We turned down the ``Park Avenue'', down streets more cracked and shabbily paved, along lawns not so tidily kept, with some mud and puddles and sand and rocks merging space from grass to roadway, and went past the light blue ``No Trespassing'' barricades, behind a family which was walking towards the main midway.
Water parks, the amusement park world has discovered (as has the hotel world), are money factories, as sure a way to keep your attraction running as capitalism can possibly offer. We walked past the remains of a water park, dry, dirty, abandoned. How could you not sustain a water park? Conneaut Lake Park is on a lake, as the name suggests, but so is Cedar Point, so is Waldameer, so is Great Adventure for that matter, and Casino Pier is even on an ocean and all sustain (or are sustained by) a water park adjacent.
Our age finds it easy to throw around the term ``postapocalyptic''. I do not use it lightly. The park has a postapocalyptic feel, as if the end had come to Western Civilization, and the survivors had decided that survival required not just food and fire and books and beds, but also the soul-succor of a carnival. Imagine that they kept what they had, the rides and attractions and buildings, and chose to keep them going despite the impossibility of getting replacements, of being able to repave streets or fix cracked and uneven sidewalks, or do much for an overgrown tree but wait for it to fall over, of being able to restore a ride to full operating condition instead of just taping off the part that isn't quite safe enough anymore, of really repainting all of a ride platform or replacing the broken boards, of replacing the pay phone ripped out of the little receptacle or of taking the receptacle off the pole. This is the basic look of the park.
We passed a miniature golf course with, I believe, puddles on some of the greens. We passed an unnamed snack foods shack with damaged roof shingles and a menu sign written by hand. We passed the station for the Blue Streak roller coaster, a modest one with faded cyan and yellow roof, and a deeper blue launch platform, shabby but as neat as the survivors could make it. We passed the carousel building, the classic octagonal structure with a roof that looked slightly chewed up, with sun shades hanging a bit loosely, but bearing a sign that proudly reads ``WELCOME CHILDREN of all ages!'' We saw the outside of a dark ride, ``The Devil's Den''. And we found the little booth selling tickets, the anonymous ones you might buy on a roll from Staples, with a jar of gumballs offered for the infamous gum wall.
There was the Witch's Stew, which I don't remember ever seeing before --- a flat ride, with a long axis on the ends of which another pair of cars swing around; they're decorated and named Hansel and Gretel, with 50s-style figures of the fairy-tale characters on the outside. If I'm not mistaken bunny_hugger's brother once got horribly sick on this sort of ride at Coney Island. [Edit: I was mistaken. She saw a person not her brother get sick on this model ride, a Tempest, at Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinatti. But her brother did get sick on a Breakdance ride at Coney Island in Brooklyn.] We didn't get on it. There was a Kiddieland, with its own little entrance --- a neat proscenium with, again, a classic 50s-style clown head that obviously in the past, possibly the long-ago past, would turn as it greeted kids. Also clearly it wasn't running, might never run, might not have run in --- who could imagine?
And this runs along a street that ends with traffic barricades, wooden horses, that show where the public street finishes and the park begins. Apparently at one point the park had no separation from the outside community, and since then they've managed to put this token of separation between the worlds without and within. It would slow a conscientious driver from barrelling down the street and crashing into the amusement park patrons; that could hopefully be all that was needed.
Inside the Kiddieland, past the picket fences, some standing upright, was a pair of figures, animals dressed in blue drum-major/bell-captain outfits, one labelled Connie Otter and one labelled Conrad. The otters had holes in their faces for kids to poke their heads through and be photographed. The holes were in the noses of both Connie and Conrad, with the otters' eyes and, for Connie, her mouth still visible. We didn't take photographs of ourselves in this; the effect of a kid's face taking the place of an otter's nose must be one of long-staying power. But it did give us our first clear hint of how to correctly pronounce Conneaut Lake.
Inside the Kiddieland we could see the back of the roller coaster, and see how little held together the tunnel that starts the ride --- the broken plywood boards, the roof bowed in by trees, the garbage bags filling in for gaps in the structure. The support shack with the boards unpainted or missing, with the weed tree grown through. The wooden planter with three broken sides spilling dirt out but left to be as it was. The mysterious bridge leading back towards --- we couldn't guess; it was fenced off by placing the remnants of three different fences, nailing them together at one point with a white board apparently salvaged from the roller coaster, with a tree-overgrown bridge leading into, apparently, the deep woods. It was posted ``No Trespassing'', but was more effectively guarded by being simply what it looked like. The kiddies' ``Little Dipper'' roller coaster (which we would learn was one of the oldest steel roller coasters still in existence; had it not been limited to people no more than, I think, 48 inches tall, we'd have ridden it and been delighted).
There's also a Live Pony ride, horses ambling their way along an actually fairly substantial path, maybe the length of a football field, and wide enough that the horses could drift back and forth if they wished. Between the carousel, the roller coasters, and now the live horses, bunny_hugger said that if they had been near this park when she was a girl they'd never have been able to get her out of there.
There's the main midway, the buildings that clearly used to be attractions, now lacking signs, or names, or attractions. Some had the remains of prizes, but no attendants. All were in front of mossy puddles on the concrete. Among the games, we would learn later on, was a Fascination parlor which hadn't opened in years, but which they were keeping intact rather than sell off to the remaining Fascination parlors which must cannibalize the dwindling population of Fascination games, a sign of how the people running the park hope for better things. Most of the Midway and its attractions were missing light bulbs, where there were still light poles. There was the start of a building, a facade that I thought might have been an entrance point that was incompletely torn down; it was scarred by fire and grown-over with moss. Beyond the lawn were ... houses And an open tractor-trailer trailer with ``TOOL SHED'' spray-painted on the back. It used to be that every town had an amusement park; most of them died in the Great Depression and World War II, and those that didn't died in the 70s as regional parks came to prominence. Conneaut Lake Park, somehow, failed to catch its chance to die, and has carried on.
At the far end was another snack stand, the Midway Kitchen, with a nicely blue-painted building and a menu board (and name) written in dry-erase marker on such a board. And past that was a Toboggan roller coaster, just as we saw at Lakemont Park, but it was long-since broken, standing but not operating, not giving much evidence that it had ever operated. According to the Roller Coaster Database, it was installed in 2002. The park had been vibrant enough to bring in new rides not a dozen years ago.
Past that were bikers, many, perhaps over a hundred of them, attending a concert. We would learn later that if you're a biker in the northwestern Pennsylvania area, going to Conneaut Lake Park in the early Sunday afternoon is just the thing to do. When we were there --- we ate at the Midway Kitchen, getting fried pierogies (which came up neat and quickly and were a common thing at Pennsylvania parks) and French fries (which took surprisingly long to make) --- we overheard some of this concert put on for the bikers. The emcee asked if the bikers liked the music of Journey. No, it wasn't a Journey cover band the park had. It was a band that does covers of both Journey and John Mellencamp.
This is, as far as the adjective can apply to an unreal land, a normal weekend day at Conneaut Lake Park.
Trivia: United States amusement parks in 1905 included at least four Dreamlands, five Luna Parks, two Manhattan Beaches, four White Cities, seventeen Electric Parks, five Sans Souci parks, four Wonderlands, and one Fairyland. Source: The Kid Of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements, Woody Register.
Currently Reading: The Visioneers: How A Group Of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnology, and a Limitless Future, W Patrick McCray.