|Karen and I finally were able to attend our first Flying High With a Blue Streak
event. The title was an homage to both Waldameer Park's Raving
Flyer II and Conneaut Lake Park's Blue Streak roller coasters. It
was a joint effort of the Western New York Coaster Club and the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. About 85 members were in attendance. The first park on the agenda was Conneaut Lake.
I was really excited to go there. Karen and I had visited
the park once before, in 2001, but when it was closed. So I was eager
to finally see it in operation. The park had a checkered
history. It opened in 1892 and was a thriving establishment until
the 1990s (like so many other smaller parks). Since then, the
park struggled to survive, sliding in and out of bankruptcy.
Certain local concerns wanted to turn the lakefront property into a
more immediately profitable venture. But thanks to the Trustees
of Conneaut Lake Park and many in the park enthusiast committee, the
park continued to operate. I was one of the people who
participated in a 2010 Pepsi challenge that helped fund repairs to the
Blue Streak coaster. I really wanted to see the park survive.
We arrived on a clear and mild Friday afternoon. It was evident that the years since our last visit hadn't been kind to the park. Many buildings, including the large ballroom, were gone, as were many rides. The park's layout was unique in that there wasn't a conventional gated entrance with specific parking areas. The 300 acres on which the park sat were surrounded by residences (some of them actually in the park), and roads ran right through the midway. The park was basically a small town unto itself. We drove down one of those streets and circled around along the lakeside to the giant Hotel Conneaut, a turn-of-the-century four-story Victorian building overlooking the lake. The gentle curves of the porch and windows vividly evoked a different era, not at all like the current trend of rectangular concrete block hotels. We entered the ornate lobby that contained plush furniture and lush carpeting. Against the far wall was a large bookcase filled with old books and knick-knacks. Next to it was a weathered grand piano. We approached the registration desk. A friendly man greeted us and introduced himself as Manny. "Checking in?" he asked. I said we were and gave him my name. He searched through a stack of cards by the side of the desk. He couldn't find my name. I told him I had called the hotel and made the reservation on June fifth. He asked me if I knew who took the reservation. I didn't. I told him we had reserved a room with a lake view. Another employee approached and Manny explained the situation. The other employee said, "Give them room 310." So Manny had me fill out a card, took my credit info and directed us up the stairs to our room.
Karen and I got our luggage and went up to the second floor (which I guess was actually the third floor). The door was down a short hallway that had been furnished to look like a summer porch, with white wicker furniture and a soft couch. We entered our room, which was bright and tastefully furnished. The large bed was actually two twin beds joined together. A door on the right led to the adjoining room, but was locked. The bathroom was small but nicely laid out. There were antique-looking pictures on the walls. And the room did offer a stunning view of the lake.
We explored the hotel a bit. Karen was a little nervous because of rumors of ghosts haunting the hotel. In fact, there was a book about that on the registration desk. I saw it as little more than a bit of publicity for the hotel. The huge circular room that Karen and I had stayed in with the kids in 2001 was just down the hall from us. The staircase landing had three large pictures on the walls depicting scenes from the park's heyday, including one of the kiddie coaster and another of the train.
After exploring the hotel, we took a stroll through the grounds. The large open lawn area next to the hotel was being used for an antique car rally. Behind the cars was a long meandering wooden platform (sort of like a boardwalk). It had been there on our previous visit to the park. I wasn't sure if it was a stage for performances or a catering area or what. It was pretty extensive. From there we walked over to Park Avenue, where the bulk of the park's midway was located. A small quaint yellow stone building, the park office, was to our right, looking like something out of an old western movie. A small concession selling fresh-squeezed lemonade and French fries was sitting near the dock at the very end of the avenue. It was a curious placement. There was nothing else around it except for concrete foundations from rides and buildings long-gone. As we walked westerly along the avenue, we next encountered a small food concession on the left selling the usual hamburgs and hot dogs. Next to it was an even smaller concession for a local micro-brewery selling its beer.
At that point, in the center of the avenue, was a sign for Conneaut Lake Park. Buildings lined each side of the broken asphalt. Giant trees, probably planted nearly a century ago, had lifted up the pavement around their roots. It was about 6:00 and the park was nearly deserted. The only sound came from a distant band organ. We continued walking. To our right, concession booths were all closed up. About half the booths on the left were open, but no one was staffing them.
We arrived at the intersection of Park Avenue and Comstock Street. To our right was a gift shop, so we stopped in. A girl sitting behind the cash register said a quiet hello. We looked around and discovered there was quite a bit of unique merchandise. There were magnets, greeting cards, license plates, t-shirts. There wasn't a lot of merchandise there, but still there was a good variety. We talked with the girl and she said they originally had a much larger selection, but it had been a busy season and much of their stock had sold out. I was happy to hear that, actually. I noticed some canvas prints on the wall. Two were of the park's Blue Streak roller coaster and one in particular caught my eye. It was a low shot looking up at a hill on the return track. I asked her how much it was, and she said it was $100. And it was the only one. So I whipped out my plastic and bought it. That seemed to pick up her mood. "I can't wait to tell them that I was the one to sell it!" I also bought an embroidered t-shirt, some magnets, a license plate and a greeting card. We thanked her and headed back outside.
Across the midway was the park's carousel, so we went to have a look. It was a surprisingly impressive machine, with horses carved by none other than the great Daniel Muller. A sign at the entrance explained the ride's history and how it also had new animals carved by the Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio. The band organ that we heard turned out to be a rare Artizan Factories model. It was playing vigorously but needed a tuning. That was a minor issue, though; here was a small park that prided itself enough to have a working band organ for its carousel!
Next to the carousel was the whimsical entrance to Kiddieland, a yellow wooden tunnel flanked by toy soldiers and clown masks and topped by a giant 3D clown head. The Kiddieland area was about half the size of the main midway, a surprisingly spacious section with a large collection of vintage kiddie rides from the 1950s.
From there we walked across the street. A stock Tempest spin-and-barf ride (just like the one I used to run at Mountain Park) had been amusingly themed to Witch's Stew, which was appropriate since it was next door to the park's famous dark ride, Devil's Den. Then we continued west along Park Avenue. The Bumper Cars stood at the intersection. Just beyond that was a Music Express. Next to that was one of the rides that I most eagerly anticipated: a Tumble Bug from 1927, one of only three left in the world. And it appeared to be in pretty good shape. We stood and watched it go around for a while. It was quite zippy, and the few passengers on it were given a really long ride. It didn't run backwards, but the long ride made up for that. From the opposite side of the midway we could hear a familiar clacking. Hidden in the thick woods, we could barely discern the tall lift hill of the park's infamous Blue Streak roller coaster. We walked over to the coaster's station, with its new brightly lit sign. I was glad to see that the park was still running their classic stainless steel National Amusement Device trains, the same type that were used at Mountain Park. They were comfy and considered to be the Cadillac of coaster trains in their day.
Next to the station was a miniature golf course. There was also the miniature railway that we had seen in the picture, but there was no train around and no one in line for it. Apparently it wasn't running. Across from that was a giant set of water slides that apparently hadn't been in service for a long time. That entire area had been fenced off. And that's where the midway appeared to end. There was a railing erected on Park Avenue preventing vehicles from coming in or going out. There was a short stretch of midway veering off to the right and leading to formal entrance gates. But that was it. The formal entrance itself was actually quite pretty, with a small fountain and quaint latticework buildings. There was also a large parking area across the street from the entrance. There were three rides along the entrance path: a Flying Scooter, Tilt-a-Whirl and Paratrooper. They almost seemed to form a separate small park on their own.
It was getting dark. We were tired from our nine hour drive and headed back to the hotel. We hadn't eaten any supper (and hadn't noticed the pizza concession next to the Blue Streak). But next to the hotel was a small food trailer serving various fried treats. So I got the mac & cheese bites, and Karen got some fresh-cut French fries. Both were delicious. We chatted with the friendly vendor as we sat on a picnic table overlooking the expansive lake. In fact, everyone we talked to at the park seemed outgoing and pleasant.
We arrived back at the hotel's entrance and found that a group of coaster enthusiasts had gathered there for the Party on the Porch, an annual event that began when Conneaut was closed. In those days, the enthusiasts would meet up at the hotel, bringing along beers from the area's micro-breweries. They'd just sit around until the wee hours swapping stories. Even with the park open, the tradition continued. The sky was clear, and a full moon cast a peaceful glow across the lake. We sat and talked with them for a while and then decided to turn in for the night.
On Saturday morning, we awoke refreshed. The room had been very comfortable and quiet. I wore my new Conneaut shirt. We took a stroll outside along the boardwalk. We checked out the odd little Tiki Bar at the edge of the lake. Karen needed to find an ATM, so we set out to find one at about 7:00. Manny had told us there was one at a convenience store down the road, but at that hour the store was closed. So we followed Route 68 west, guided by my iPhone, and located a bank in the nearby town of Linesville. We also wanted some breakfast, and the iPhone came to the rescue again by recommending Rebecca's, which was just down the street. The exterior of the restaurant didn't look like much, a non-descript store front in a row of equally non-descript buildings. But when we entered, it was like stepping into a log cabin. All the furniture was made of logs. There was a huge stone fireplace against a wall made of rough-hewn brick. It was rustic and attractive. They had an extensive breakfast and lunch menu. I ordered blueberry pancakes and home fries. Karen ordered a cheese omelet. The place was pretty empty when we arrived, but by the time we got our meals, it had started to fill up. It was evidently a popular spot. Our food was absolutely delicious. The pancakes (2 of them) were huge and flavorful. Karen really liked her omelet. On our way out of the restaurant, we encountered an elderly couple sitting at a card table next to the entrance. They were from a local church and were selling raffle tickets. We told them we weren't from the area, but they said that wasn't important. So I bought a couple of tickets. They were very friendly and we chatted for a while. Then we headed back for Conneaut.
The night had brought severe thunderstorms to the area, but the morning was clear and cool. Karen had seen a sign advertising a flea market at Conneaut. So when we arrived back at the hotel we strolled to the far north end of the park where there was a series of old picnic pavilions. A handful of vendors had set up their wares on picnic tables there. It seemed like more of a social thing for the locals. Old friends were greeting each other and conversing. But there really wasn't much in the way of interesting merchandise. There was a box of ancient cordless telephones, most with their antennae broken. There were lots of old videotapes. A gentleman was there selling maps of the area's Indian camps. After looking around, we headed back into the park.
The Blue Streak Pavilions were at the southwest corner of the park. They were in a grassy area abutting the coaster's turnaround, the highway and the miniature railway's track. As he usually did, Bob Wheeler from the WNYCC had hung up the club's banner on the first pavilion. Geff Ford, the event coordinator (and newlywed), was there with all the registration materials. We were given VIP wristbands and nametags for the event. And then we were free to go until dinner time. We heard a shrill whistle. I turned, and around the corner came the park's train, driven by one of the maintenance crew. The engine was a rare Herschell, similar to the one that used to operate at the long-gone Whalom Park. It disappeared back behind the coaster's turnaround.
The coaster itself was an interesting construction, designed by Ed Vettel in 1937. He also designed one of my favorite coasters, the Lakeside Park Cyclone. He had an unusual method of track construction. Normally, the laminated wooden track rails would be bolted on top of cross ties (like railroad ties) that would keep the track evenly spaced throughout the course. But for some reason, Vettel embedded his cross ties within the track laminate. It seemed like that would make the coaster much more challenging to maintain.
Karen and I headed over to the Blue Streak station to make sure we were first in line for the front seat. Along the way, we met a father and son who had just arrived and loved riding the coaster. They talked enthusiastically for a while about their amusement park experiences. We watched the activities as two ride operators arrived. One of Vettel's original trains sat in storage near the front of the station. Behind it on the transfer track sat the NAD train. I found it interesting that the park would take the time to move the train off the main track at the end of the day. They were still using the original hand levers to operate the skid brakes. The two operators stood at the front and back side of the train and pushed on it. Slowly, the entire transfer track rolled to the left until the train lined up with the station track. They released the transfer brake and the train rolled slowly up to the loading area. One of the operators walked over to the front of the loading area and pulled the brake lever there, and the train rolled foward in to a tunnel and disappeared from sight. We heard it engage the lift and clack its way up. Above the tunnel entrance was an interesting illustration of the coaster. It wasn't like the one at Lakeside, which was intended to show where the coaster was along its route. This one seemed like a cartoon rendition of the layout.
The Blue Streak tunnel was infamous among coaster enthusiasts. It was known for being pitch black inside, very long -- and for having a skunk family in residence, which obviously could result in an unpleasant ride. Karen wasn't big on tunnels, so I didn't know what the result of this ride would be.
At last, 11:00 arrived. The train returned to the station and the rides began operation. I noticed the operators reaching into the train and adjusting the seats before we entered. They let us in and we walked up to the front seat. There was no way we could have sat in the second seat; it was missing. Refreshingly, there were no seat belts, just a well-padded lap bar that locked down high above our legs. The seats were thickly cushioned. Looking into the tunnel ahead of us, light was streaming through. Evidently, it was no longer dark. The operator gave his spiel about holding on to all loose objects and staying seated, then he released the brake and we rolled forward. The train turned 180 degrees to the left. On the right was a big hole in the side of the tunnel. And ahead of us, the top of the tunnel completely vanished. There were some new wooden crosspieces there, so evidently they were rebuilding it. Occasionally, walls of the tunnel would be missing as well. We made a 180-degree turn back to the right and engaged the lift. It looked terrifying. The wood was dry and grey, and some pieces had broken off. I couldn't imagine the last time the structure was painted. There was a thin catwalk and a railing on the right, but nothing on the left. We crested the hill and looked down. The first drop seemed impossibly steep for a wood coaster. We blasted down with an enormous amount of force. At the bottom, the track turned into a straight run and we hit the transition with a hard jolt. After flying across the short straight section, we hit another jolt as we rose up to the second hill. We both floated out of our seats. In fact, our seat cushion floated out of the seat as well, and when we dove down the second drop our seat was now about two inches forward from where it had been. The bottom of the second drop was a nice smooth parabola. From there we climbed up to the second camelback hill. Again there was more sustained air time. And again our seat cushion inched forward. We flew into the turnaround with a lot of speed and began the seemingly endless bunny hop run back to the station. Every hill brought sweet air time. By the time we reached the curving brake run, the seat cushion had our knees pinned to the front of the train. As we whipped by the brake run, we saw a tree with a five-foot-diameter trunk on the left that had begun to get perilously close to the track. But evidently the maintenance staff had made peace with it and left it alone. Overall, the Blue Streak was a fun ride that obviously needed a bit more TLC. The bottom of the first drop, especially, was a bit rough. But other than that, it was remarkably smooth, fast and loaded with air time.
I immediately headed across the midway to cue up for the Tumble Bug, one of my all-time favorite amusement park rides. Karen decided to pass on it. I had the leading car all to myself. The seats were painted, but were still simply steel. The one at Kennywood Park (the only other Tumble Bug in the U.S.) had padded seats which would prevent you from sliding around in the tub. But the whole fun of the ride was that sliding action, and the steel seats helped with that. When the ride was loaded, the operator powered it up, moved it forward slightly, then rocked it backward, then forward a bit faster, up the first hill and off we went. It was like riding the Blue Streak's bunny hops over and over again in a giant circle. I had a great time! Even though it was a long ride, I could easily have stayed on it longer.
We walked on down the midway past the Bumper Cars, which had only about a half-dozen cars running in the arena, and over to the Devil's Den. Karen wasn't a big fan of dark rides, but agreed to go on this one with me. A young girl was running the ride all by herself. The cars were quite small, with a diamond-stamped arched metal front. She would let people into a car then manually push it around a corner and up to a lift hill, where a chain would pull it up to the second level on the right-hand side of the building. The car would turn 90 degrees and emerge on a sort of small porch above the exit track, then turn back into the building, curve left, dive down a small dip, rise up and turn right into the building, disappearing from view. She would time herself so that when the car turned over the porch, she would be at the exit just as a car emerged at a pretty fast pace. She would grab hold of the car to slow it to a stop and let the riders out. Then she would give it a shove over to the entrance and wait for the next car to emerge. It seemed like exhausting work, but she didn't seem to mind it. Unlike most dark rides, this one had no electrical current in the track (which is why she had to give the cars a push). The entire ride was like a roller coaster, running off of simple gravity. There were only three cars operating, which seemed like plenty for her to handle. Once all three cars were back at the entrance, she would load them one by one and send them off.
Karen and I climbed in and were given a push toward the lift. The "infamous Gum Wall" (kids sticking their chewing gum there) was at the top of the lift hill, on the left. But it appeared the park had made an effort to clean it up. We rolled out over the "porch" area and then zipped down the little dip, turned right and slammed through the doors. It was pitch black. There were the usual spooky sounds surrounding us. The car seemed to move alarmingly fast, taking tight turns. The various scenes that flashed before us weren't all that scary (Halloweenish skeletons and devils) and were appropriate for kids. The biggest thrill was the speed of the car. I could feel the tilt of the floor, which was a bit disorienting. We zigged and zagged and finally emerged through the exit doors. The girl was there to catch our car and let us out. The ride was good family fun.
I was getting thirsty, so we walked toward the lakeside to the fresh-squeezed lemonade stand. Karen got her Diet Coke. I, of course, got a lemonade. It was tasty, not too sweet, and it hit the spot. We walked back over to Kiddieland. Karen paused for a picture with Connie and Conrad Otter. The park was getting more crowded, and Kiddieland seemed to be a popular place for parents and grandparents with their small fry. The Jolly Caterpillar seemed especially busy. At the far south end stood Don's Pony Track, where kids could take a real pony ride. Or if they were a little bigger and wanted something more exciting, children could take a ride on the Little Dipper kiddie coaster.
We were hoping for a ride on the Bessemer Railway System, the park's train, but the crew was still testing it. We watched it make a circuit past the golf course entrance, and as it neared the Blue Streak it jumped the track. Lenny, the head of the maintenance crew, and his small team began puzzling out what was happening. Some coaster enthusiasts came over to offer their suggestions. It turned out that the track on the curve had settled and banked to the outside. So the crew dug under the track and raised it up slightly. They re-aligned the train and continued on. Then it jumped the track again right before the train's tunnel near its station. So they went to work on that section of track. It looked like it was going to be a while, so instead Karen and I played a round of miniature golf at Cascade Express. We had to pay at the nearby pizza stand, where they gave us our golf balls. The course had an interesting layout. It resembled current "adventure golf" courses. The fairways were framed with 4x4 wood and were each angled in a unique way. There weren't any of the usual windmills or other obstacles on most mini golf courses, except for the final hole which sported a small caboose. Several holes were around and under a large wooden water tower in the center of the complex that spilled out into three troughs. The troughs on either side of the tower spilled into small ponds. It was a stunning feature, but was set back into the trees and wasn't immediately obvious from the midway. The third trough was hidden behind the tower and spilled directly onto the green for hole six, making it unplayable unless you either were perfectly accurate or wanted to get soaked. We bypassed that hole entirely. Other than that, we had a fun game. I even got a hole-in-one on seven!
Meanwhile, the train was slowly traveling its circuit. It stopped once again, this time at the Cascade entrance. A brake line had come loose and the engine had to be refilled with brake fluid. Karen decided to go back to the hotel for a while, sit on the porch and read a book. I wanted to record one of my park walk-thrus. So while she relaxed, I walked a complete circuit of the park. Afterward I took another ride on the Devil's Den. Then I walked over to the Blue Streak. There was only one enthusiast in the line, so I queue up for it and sat with him in the front seat. The operators sent us on our way. I noticed it was running noticeably faster out of the station than our first ride. We climbed the lift, crested it and dove down the first drop. When we hit the bottom, it was as if somebody kicked my butt really hard. And then it happened again as we turned up the second hill. It was really painful. At least the seat didn't come off this time. The rest of the ride was fast and relatively smooth. But that was the last ride I was going to take on Blue Streak. When we glided into the empty station, the operator asked if we wanted to go around again. My riding partner responded with an enthusiastic yes, and so we were sent off back into the tunnel. I knew I had to ride defensively on that first drop. But the forces were too great and once again I got slammed really hard ... twice. That did it for me. I couldn't wait to get back on solid ground.
I went back to the hotel to meet up with Karen. By then it was nearly 4:00; the buffet dinner would start in about another hour. So we headed back into the park. Along the way, I noticed the train had moved once again and there were several enthusiasts gathered at its loading area. So we met up with them. The train was indeed running again. So we waited patiently. The crew sent it around the entire circuit three times to make sure there were no problems. The final time, the waiting crowd cheered as it pulled up to the station. We boarded the two passenger cars and were on our way. The ride took about ten minutes traveling mostly alongside the Blue Streak, sandwiched between it and a thick green swamp. When we arrived back at the station, a long line of eager guests had formed, surprised that the ride was finally running. And evidently the maintenance crew did a good job, because the train continued running reliably for the rest of the day. In fact, one of the enthusiasts we were waiting with had mentioned how a recent visit by the state inspectors commended Conneaut for achieving some of the best ride maintenance of any park in the state.
By then it was nearly 5:00, so we all made our way over to the Blue Streak pavilions for dinner. About 85 club members showed up for the event, attesting to Conneaut's popularity. There were many familiar faces, including the inimitable Mr. Cheese-on-a-Stick, Marty Moltz, who was decked out in a banana shirt. The food was catered by a local establishment, Antonio's, and it was all delicious -- hot rolls, salads, pasta ... it wasn't the usual hamburg and hot dog fare, and they even specially prepared some vegetarian dishes (including stuffed peppers for the entree).
After the dinner, Geff Ford announced that Conneaut was inviting us for a "walk-back" inside the turnaround of the Blue Streak. The gate was opened and we wandered into the expansive grassy area, surrounded by coaster track. Most people got their cameras out. It was a chance to get up-close and personal with the ride. While we were standing around, I noticed some solar-powered LED lights strung around trees and through guy cables. Nearby was one of the maintenance crew, Barney, so I asked him about that. He said that the small tree at the center of the turnaround was planted in memory of another crew member who passed away. They decorated it with solar lighting and it worked out well. So now he was experimenting with solar rope lights on the guy cables, seeing how durable they were. He said they had lasted all season so far, so he was thinking about stringing lights on all the cables. It was clear from the emotion in his voice that he deeply cared about the park and wanted to do anything he could to improve it. That was true of every employee and volunteer I spoke with; they all had an undying love of the park and wanted it to succeed. There were many volunteers there putting in as many hours as the full-time staff. They returned day after day to their beloved park, doing whatever they could to make it a better place. That kind of dedication and committment was truly moving and inspirational. One of the volunteers had mentioned that the park had run a half-price special a few weeks before that brought over 4000 people into the park, an encouraging sign that this now-struggling park could have a good chance at succeeding, continuing its century-long mission of entertaining guests from near and far.
As dusk descended and orange sunlight filtered through the thick canopy of trees, Karen and I strolled along the now-busy midway. This was the kind of park I loved -- filled with a rich history and staffed by people who deeply cared about it. I felt very much at home there. Where others might have seen the park as run-down, I viewed it as weathering a storm. It didn't matter so much that rides could have used a coat of paint. I didn't mind the condition of the pavement. I could see that everyone involved was doing the best they could with the resources they had. Running a small park is rarely a huge money-making venture. It's a community service requiring ridiculously long hours and back-breaking work. And yet here was a park where nearly everyone considered it a priviledge to be a part of that work.
There was yet another Party on the Porch that night. Regrettably, Karen and I were exhausted and knew we had to rest up for the long day to come. I didn't want to say goodnight to Conneaut. I wished I could spend more time there. I wished I could be volunteering, helping to bring this park back into a new golden era. That night I dreamed of the park filled with happy guests, rides filling the now-empty sections of midway. I hoped my dreams would come true.
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