Ah… the 4th of July Holiday Weekend. Summer is at it’s peak, and what better way to beat the heat and celebrate American Independence than a visit to a Canadian Amusement Park?
For 101 years, from 1888 to 1989, that was just what Buffalonian’s and Western New Yorker’s did with their summer. Crystal Beach Amusement Park, on the Canadian Shore of Lake Erie was known as “Buffalo’s Coney Island”. In the days before Disney, when amusement parks were local affairs, Crystal Beach was renowned as one of the best in the country. (Either country)
In a way, the mere existence of an amusement park on the Canadian shore in 1888, is kind of amazing. When you consider the whole American Revolution, Butler’s Raiders – Loyalist thing, the Battle’s of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier, and the messy Fenian Invasion of Canada in 1866, the fact that American’s and Canadians had managed to repair their relations to a point that they would choose to hang out together, swimming and drinking beer in the hot days of 1888 is a bit of a miracle. In lesser countries, the wounds, and hatreds would have lasted generations, and led to gun emplacements, and barbed wire. But along the Niagara Frontier, only a select few still harbor grudges, and seething hatred of their neighbors across the border.
As I have mentioned before, my folks grew up in Black Rock and Riverside, so boat rides on the Canadiana, or Americana in the 30’s and 40’s were some of their fondest memories of growing up. These two boats ran from Buffalo, across the lake to Crystal Beach pier, carrying 2,000 – 3,000 passengers per voyage, until 1956.
It’s quite amazing to think of the changes that occurred during it’s 101 years of operation. In 1927 the park opened the Cyclone Roll Coaster, which was one of the most vicious and violent coasters ever built. It was one of three such coasters designed by Harry Traver, and was notorious for having an on duty nurse stationed at the ride to attend to its victims. Even 80 years later the pictures are still impressive…
The coaster operated up until 1947, when it was dismantled and rebuilt as the Comet. The original design was a headache to operate and maintain. The G-forces the cars pulled through the figure eight were tremendous, and took a toll on the track. The Comet was less vicious, but still one heck of a ride. When I was a kid, it was the one coaster I feared the most. Ripping around those turns I always felt like we would go flying out into the lake. The Comet stood until the park closed, and was sold, and re-assembled at “The Great Escape” amusement park near Glens Falls, N.Y. I believe it still runs today.
But Crystal Beach wasn’t always about the thrills. It was home to the grand Crystal Ballroom, and during the Big Band Era, played host to all the greats, Glen Miller, The Dorsey’s, even Sinatra played there.
My favorite ride was the old fun house, The Magic Carpet. One of the old walk through fun houses with a hall of mirrors, slanted floors, slides, and little jets of air that blasted unsuspecting passers by. But there were other classics as well, like The Laff in the Dark, the Giant Coaster, The Flying Bobs, and the Skyway.
As a kid, these local amusement parks were common and my Dad loved to take us to them. Roseland in Canadaigua, was another WNY favorite, and whenever we traveled Dad drove out of his way to visit them. Elich’s Gardens in Denver, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh were some of the wonderful places he took me. He loved amusement parks, and especially the old ones, because he was a sentimental romantic at heart.
Sadly, time has claimed many of the old parks, as newer, bigger and shinier parks appeared to compete for peoples vacation money. We traveled further afield as well, Kings Island, Cedar Point, Busch Gardens, and Disney all made Crystal Beach look small, and decrepit. By the 1980’s the entertainment options open to most working class Canadians and Western New Yorkers meant the end for Crystal Beach. It’s lake front property became more valuable than the park that sat on it, and it was closed, and dismantled to make way for condominiums.
It’s a common story all over the world, to the point of cliche. Times changed, and suddenly, a trip to the lake and a Hall’s Sucker just don’t hold the same charm. Only a few of the truly old places remain, The Prater in Vienna, Tivoli Garden’s in Copenhagen, Elich’s. It’s an irony to me that Disneyworld was built with a faux “Main Street U.S.A.”, and hotel’s like the Boardwalk, when places like Crystal Beach, and Roseland Park, that actually dated from the era being copied, were in the process of dying a slow death.
But I didn’t write this remembrance to pick on Walt. He just gave us what we wanted. How was he to know that someday we would look back and have regrets? If Walt were alive today, I don’t doubt that he would be building a Cyclone somewhere, to bring back a youth we never had, but wish we did. Nostalgia is a sweet drug, and one that we can’t shake our addiction to.
One June evening a few years back, I found myself sitting in a beer garden in the Prater, the old Viennese amusement park. It was a lovely summer evening, and I was sitting at the Schweizerhaus under the lighted shade trees with some colleagues, eating roast pork, drinking cold Budvar, and thinking how wonderful it would be to have Dad there to share it with. I can’t explain it, but I had a distinct feeling that I was probably not the first person from my family to sit under those trees eating pork and drinking beer, just the first one in a hundred years to do so.
Since that time I have in my mind a sweet idea, that when I die, I will get to heaven and find that it is like an old amusement park. My dad will be there, along with his parents, and all the ancestors I never knew. It will be a warm summer evening, and the lights and sounds will be wonderful. We’ll sit around a big table in that beer garden, and eat and drink and tell stories, and laugh through the tears as we catch up on all that has come and gone.