My immediate family did not have a “regular” vacation spot. We tended to travel to different locations from year to year. My extended family, however, had a vacation spot that was their home away from home. Since about 1905, my extended family was always in some way anchored to Conneaut Lake.
Conneaut Lake is about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh, the year round home of most of its summer population. It is Pennsylvania’s largest natural lake, but that said, it is only about 5 miles long. It was however a place of wonder and excitement to me. My Uncle Bill and his son Harvey had cottages at “The Lake” and were willing to open them to their extended family even if this meant that we’d be packed like sardines into these small shelters. During these annual stays, which typically lasted a week, we’d have no great agenda, simply an open time to fill with trips to the beach or to walk the small trails among the cottages. There was absolutely no television because the area “boasted” of the most miserable signal reception – but that was no worry. I never recalled being bored. We might be reading comic books or watching boats. We might go fishing off Sunset Pier. We might take a nap or help Uncle Harvey build a grill fire without using charcoal briquettes. In the evening, we played cards with my grandmother who taught us a new game every year. There must have been strain on my uncomplaining aunt and uncle. There was certainly stress on their septic system as evidenced by the plea posted by the single toilet: “If brown flush if down. If yellow, let it mellow.”
On Thursday night, however, rain or shine, we’d go down to Midway dock and catch the ferry to Conneaut Lake Park. Here was the pinnacle of the week! Stepping on the ferry I felt as if I was going to cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. The ride across the lake felt majestic and it seemed to go too quickly. Well, it probably was since I think it took about 10 minutes. Arriving at the Park, you would disembark and walk past the hotel. One could only imagine the lives of the rich and famous staying in a place like that! You would pass the ballroom which I imagined was for teens and older folks of that sort. You would first arrive at the large building where they had games such as Skee-ball. You could put a penny in a vending machine and get a picture post card of some cowboy movie star that was more from my parents’ age than mine. They had no pictures of Captain Midnight or The Lone Ranger! Another machine would squish a penny and imprint it with a logo from the park. I always played the “iron claw” machine that offered valuable fare such as watches. These could never be grabbed and held until the delivery slot. I am reasonably sure that my dad tried for the very same prizes a quarter century before.
The midway featured chocolate covered frozen bananas which I considered a delicacy. You could ride on the Laff-in-the-Dark which allowed you to ride in a small car past a series of most unconvincing scary scenes. They never updated the ride. My dad said it was the same as when he was a kid. It appeared to be a place designed to let teens “go necking” with the girls providing mock screams as their young squires put a brave arm around their shoulders. (Certainly, I would not do that when I was older!)
The Wild Mouse, by my estimation, was the best ride. It had no spectacular drops, but several “close calls” that I found scary. You could ride on the “airplane” or the “scrambler” which were pleasant but a far cry from what would entertain today’s kids. The Park had the most magnificent carousel, which they sadly sold off in recent years. And there was “The Blue Streak” an ancient roller coaster that always appeared ready to fall apart, thus adding to its terror factor. I remember being “held” in by what appeared to be not much more than a water pipe that had possibly been inspected or possibly not.
For thousands of those young at heart, the demise of Conneaut Lake Park, like many such small parks across the country, is a loss of both a time and place that brings back pleasant memories. For a small amount of money you could have a good time not so far from home. Today’s “Theme Parks” provide spectacular entertainment that leave you a bit overwhelmed and light in the pocketbook. After a hectic day fighting the crowds and standing in long lines at such places, you are ready for a little relaxation… such as the kind you used to find at Conneaut Lake.