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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AMUSEMENT PARKS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

AMUSEMENT PARKS. The amusement park, a concept that originated in Europe, debuted in the U.S. at Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. The island began as a summer resort for the wealthy of New York City; gradually the middle and working classes expropriated it and its expanding attractions for their use and entertainment. It became the prototype for amusement parks throughout the U.S. Two innovations at Coney Island deserve special mention. In 1884 La Marcus A. Thompson, an inventor originally from Ohio, built and operated the "Switchback," the nation's first roller coaster. The roller coaster went on to become the favorite attraction and most visible symbol of parks everywhere. Less noticeable but more important was the creation of a transportation network that fed the park. City rail lines carried visitors to the boat lines that served the island. Inexpensive transportation was critical in both the rise and the demise of the traditional urban park. By the early 1890s, all of the factors that had made Coney Island a success were operative in Cleveland: a large, urban population, living in cramped neighborhoods of numbing similarity but possessed of some disposable income, with access to trolley and interurban rail lines. Once started, the parks sprang up quickly. The first for which documentation exists was FOREST CITY PARK, located between Beyerle Ave. and WASHINGTON RESERVATION/WASHINGTON PARK with the Willson Ave. (E. 55th St.) trolley line running nearby. The park seems to have been an immediate success; 100,000 customers paid the $.15 admission fee in 1893. Attractions included a shooting gallery, a merry-go-round, shows and concerts in the theater, dancing, and BOWLING. As the years passed, however, the park began to suffer in comparison with newer competitors. Also, with no parking facilities, it could not host the newly developed automobile trade. Declining admissions and a major fire closed Forest City Park in the mid-1920s, and very few traces of it can be found today (1996).

Inspired in part by the success of Forest City, local investors formed a company to build a park on the eastern lakefront that in time became a Cleveland institution. EUCLID BEACH PARK, built on the site of the Cobb family farm between Collamer Ave. (E. 156th St.) and Ursuline Ave. NE, opened in 1895. A local trolley line ran to the gate on Lake Shore Blvd., providing access to the park in its early years. The 1,700' sand beach and 75 acres of wooded parkland drew bathers and picnickers. Entertainment attractions were varied and constantly expanded, and opening day at Euclid Beach became a harbinger of summer for generations of Clevelanders. Nevertheless, the park was not an immediate success. The original investor group gave way in 1901 to the Humphrey family. Previously known in Cleveland as candy and popcorn manufacturers, the Humphreys brought Euclid Beach into its, glory years. In order to counteract the reputation of parks and carnival midways as hotbeds of iniquity and sensationalism, the Humphreys ran Euclid Beach in accordance with their personal slogan, "Nothing to depress or demoralize." Further, they ensured that nothing would physically injure their visitors by daily inspection of the rides. As a final inducement to patrons, the Humphreys allowed free admission to the grounds and charged small fees for use of the attractions, among the more popular of which were the baroque-styled carousel, the Thriller roller coaster, the Flying Turns, the Surprise House, the lakefront pier and fountain, the maple-floored dancing pavilion, and the skating rink, complete with a rococo-styled Gavioli organ. Over 100 rides and concessions made Euclid Beach the epitome of amusement parks. As the years passed, Euclid Beach Park changed. Trolleys were replaced by buses, and families in automobiles began to arrive more frequently. Although the park made provision to host these new guests, attendance began to decline after World War II. Slowly at first, and then with startling rapidity in the 1960s, the once-loyal patrons turned to other diversions. The park closed forever on 28 Sept. 1969. In 1985 Ohio created Euclid Beach State Park on the easternmost 16 acres of the old amusement park, restoring some vestige of the land's former purpose.

In 1898 the first park on the west side of the city opened. PURITAS SPRINGS PARK stood astride a deep ravine overlooking the Rocky River valley. Puritas Springs was also a "trolley park," served by the Cleveland & Southwestern interurban. Owner and manager John E. Gooding took his cue from Euclid Beach and offered free grounds admission. The truly outstanding attraction was the Cyclone roller coaster, higher and faster than any other coaster in the Cleveland area. Puritas Springs drew west-siders for years, but its magnetism also began to fade after the war. In 1946 a fire destroyed the dance hall, and another fire forced the park to close in 1958. A residential neighborhood was developed on the Puritas Ave. site. In 1902 another east side park opened for what proved to be a brief run. WHITE CITY amusement park was built on the lake at Lake Shore Blvd. and E. 140th St., competing with and imitating Euclid Beach, a mile to the east. Served by the same streetcars, the 2 parks became a common destination for a day's outing. Unlike Euclid Beach, White City charged an admission fee. Attractions included the Shoot-the-Chutes water ride, the Scenic Railway roller coaster, the Flying Airships, Bostock's Animal Show, and the inevitable dance hall. Following a damaging gale on 24 July 1907, it never reopened. The grounds are now (1996) the site of the Easterly Sewage Disposal Plant.

LUNA PARK opened in 1905 and proved to be Euclid Beach's most memorable competitor. Copied from the Coney Island park of the same name, Luna Park was a fantasy of "Oriental" architecture, and electric lights. Served by several local streetcar lines, the 35-acre grounds were bounded by Woodland Ave., Woodhill, Mt. Carmel, and E. 110th St. The site is hilly, and patrons climbed a steep flight of stairs or later rode an early escalator to reach the gate. The grounds were divided by a sharp rise, with the rides situated in the eastern half. Luna Park also charged admission. The park featured a concert garden, in which opera star Enrico Caruso once performed, and the western half contained a picnic grove, swimming pool, motordome, and stadium for FOOTBALL and BASEBALL. Luna Park enjoyed brief but fervent popularity, losing patronage in the late 1920s. In 1940 the Woodhill Homes housing project was constructed on the site. The western suburbs got a park in 1906 with the opening of Lincoln Park, on Sloane Ave. in ROCKY RIVER. Built on grounds known formerly as Scenic Park, Lincoln Park was touted in the Cleveland newspapers as an investment opportunity. The Detroit and Clifton Ave. trolleys ran past, as did the Lake Shore Electric interurbans. Despite such major access lines and unique attractions such as the "only round dancing floor in Ohio," and a race course over which "pitching wooden steeds operated by electricity" ran, Lincoln Park never became truly popular. One by one the attractions were disassembled, until only the grounds and the name were left. Gordon Gardens was the final venture in the Cleveland area, built in 1922. The smallest in size with only 8 acres, the park was located on the west side of E. 72nd St. between the lake and the New York Central tracks. The operators hoped to attract the automobile traffic on E. 72nd, but the small park could not compete with its larger, better-equipped competitors. The 1927 burning of the dance hall closed the park. In 1996 the grounds were occupied by the Shoreway and the LAKEFRONT STATE PARK.

The golden age of urban amusement parks lasted only some 60 years. All across the U.S., the old parks closed in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps the primary reason for their passing was a change in taste for entertainment. Movies, and to a greater degree television, exposed the American public to fantasies far more compelling than those that the glitter and false fronts of the amusement parks could offer, and at a lower cost. Increased personal mobility, which had made the parks possible, continued to expand, carrying the public away with it. The parks had coped with the advent of the automobile by adding parking facilities, but they often reached the limits of their capacity. Family vacations more often became automobile trips to remote destinations, and the local amusement park was simply too close. The nature of the direct competition changed, too. With the successful advent of Disneyland in 1955, "traditional" parks such as Cedar Pt. and Geauga Lake repackaged their offerings as complete vacation destinations, with accommodations and, activities beyond the scope of the urban park. Racism in the postwar years also dealt a blow to the urban parks. Many whites ceased to attend parks once they had been successfully integrated, and as whites moved to suburban areas far removed from the parks, the loss of population further reduced the patronage of the parks and crippled their economic viability. Finally, the safety record of the old-style amusement parks was somewhat spotty. Wooden construction of high-speed rides and low profit margins often combined to produce neglect and unsafe conditions. The newer destination parks virtually ensured that personal injury would not occur to their patrons. Paradoxically, the traditional urban amusement parks proved to be both too tame and too dangerous for their audience.

Russell Allon Hehr (dec.)


Last Modified: 23 Apr 1998 12:40:32 PM

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