Conneaut Lake Park: An Antique Amusement Park Finds Its Identity As A Nostalgia Trip
Conneaut Lake Park, a small amusement park near the shores of Conneaut Lake, just south of Erie, is a little rough around the edges.
At 127 years old, its age is showing. Chipped paint, old wood and cracked cement are visible on some of the structures. While it’s not in the same shape it was in its mid-century heyday, it is a place full of memories for many who grew up in western Pennsylvania.
“I remember Kiddieland,” says Sandra Crisafi. “I can see myself in the boats going in circles.”
Crisafi, 52, grew up in Grove City and as a child would travel the half-hour or so north each year for her father’s company picnic. She still lives in Grove City and now the retired phlebotomist spends Thursday through Sunday in Conneaut volunteering at the park, sprucing it up ahead of its Memorial Day weekend opening.
“I’m happy when I’m working in the park,” she said while taking a break from digging up garden beds in preparation of planting donated flowers on a recent Saturday.
Nearby, Tom Broadfoot was working on the Devil’s Den. It’s a dark, winding, haunted house-style ride with horror-themed dioramas at each turn. Broadfoot calls them “stunts.”
While he’s a part-time employee of the park, and has been for the better part of the last 40 years, he creates a lot of these stunts in his free time.
“It all started about five years ago,” he said. “The original devil that was in there, he was papier mâché. His face was crumbling and he looked really terrible. Well, I decided that I was gonna redo the devil.”
Since then, the Devil’s Den has become Broadfoot’s specialty. He runs a Facebook page dedicated to sharing updates about the ride and teasing new stunts. Everywhere you look, there are little pieces of him in the ride. For instance, he and his wife recorded their own voices to bring to life the ghosts of Edgar and his bride Elizabeth, who tower above riders in their wooden coffins. According to local lore, Elizabeth was a real woman who died on her wedding night in a fire at the neighboring Hotel Conneaut in the 1940s.
“That's why she has that burnt, charred look,” he said.
In taking on maintenance of the Devil’s Den, Broadfoot also made himself the caretaker of one of the last known mementos of a bygone era. He says the ride is likely one of two working gravity-fed pretzel rides left in the United States. The rides, named for the way they twist and turn while coasting downhill, were created by the Pretzel Amusement Ride Company. These “dark rides,” mostly featuring spooky interiors, also have a large following of enthusiasts.
Conneaut Lake Park is filled with vintage amusement park rides like this, says Lenny Adams, the park’s ride maintenance supervisor.
“Basically … we're a working museum,” Adams said.
In addition to the Devil’s Den, the park has an 80-year-old wooden roller coaster called the Blue Streak. It’s considered an American Coaster Enthusiasts landmark, “a designation reserved for rides of historic significance.” The park's Kiddieland is a treasure trove of original Allan Herschell rides. Herschell is one of the most prolific 20th Century amusement park ride creators, famous for his turn-of-the-century carousels.
Conneaut Lake Park's carousel is closer to 100 years old, as is a ride called the Tumblebug. For those familiar with Kennywood Park, it’s the same ride as the Turtle.
“Pennsylvania actually has the only two [tumblebug rides] remaining in the world,” Adams said.
Thanks to the help of Adams, visitors to Conneaut Lake Park can still ride these century-old attractions. But that wasn’t always the case.
“Anyone that's familiar with the park can tell you about 10 years ago when you'd come in, half the rides would be shut down,” Adams said.
The park has seen its share of ups and downs. It’s changed hands many times over the years and in 2007, financial troubles prevented the owners from opening that season. It remained closed the following year, but reopened in 2009. That’s when Adams was brought in to repair the aging Blue Streak roller coaster.
Debt continued to follow the park and in 2014 it filed for bankruptcy. That’s when the Economic Progress Alliance of Crawford County took over management.
Since then, the park has halved its debt, reopened the adjoining water park and doubled the number of campsites at the nearby Camper Land.
EPACC executive director Jim Becker says the park has also been increasingly profitable in the last few years. In 2017, the park brought in $43,000 in ticket sales. In 2018, it jumped to $63,000.
While the park intends — and is on track — to pay off the rest of its debts and exit bankruptcy, it’s not just about boosting sales, Becker said.
“It's a process,” he said. “We are not professional amusement park operators. That's for sure. We take this on as a, almost an additional responsibility, as a community asset.”
The park’s paint-peeling benches, empty flower beds and aging rides offer a reason for people like Broadfoot and Crisafi to come together on Saturdays.
“I just kinda took it on as a project," Broadfoot said. "You know, it's my way of giving back to the park."
Conneaut Lake Park doesn’t have fast rides or steel coasters, but that’s OK says Adams.
“We look for people that say, ‘Wow look at that. Can you imagine my grandmother rode that.’ And we hear that with people that come to the park, walking through, ‘Oh I rode this when I was 6 years old and I'm 90 now,’” he said. “And it’s like, well, I'm glad it's still here that you can enjoy it.”
It’s also one of the few parks where you can still ride all day for $10.
The post was updated at 10:32 a.m. to correct the spelling of Sandra Crisafi's name.