Classic Cincinnati: Bygone amusement parks offered thrills and chills from summer heat

There are certain things that are just so Classic Cincinnati -- from holiday traditions to food to celebrations. As a Tri-State native, entertainment reporter Brian Mains loves either remembering or learning about them. That's why he decided to write a recurring column celebrating the Queen City's unique heritage.

CINCINNATI --  When Coney Island Amusement Park opened in 1886, it drew people by steamboats from Downtown to its shore on the Ohio River with its shade trees as a retreat from sweltering summer heat.

The park entertained crowds with its dance halls, a bowling alley and simple rides, according to the park's official history on its website.

People disembarking the Island Queen at Coney Island for "Covington Day" in 1928. (Photo courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

Throughout the years Coney Island added more attractions, such as Sunlite Pool in 1925. Mechanical roller coasters and rides also were added after ferry service to the park ended in 1947.

“One of my most vivid memories from early childhood was the Wild Mouse,” said Judy Carraher Hinterlong on the Old Photos of Cincinnati Facebook group page when asked about visiting the park with her father in the 1950s.

Postcard of Coney Island. (Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library)

The park remained popular through the early 1960s but faced an uncertain future when its new owner, the Taft Broadcasting Co., dismantled many rides and shipped them to the company's new, modern amusement park, Kings Island. Coney Island closed in 1971, and the park was sold again.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra purchased a portion of its land to build Riverbend Music Center in the 1980s. However, thanks in large part to the popularity of Sunlite Pool, which remained open each summer, Coney Island's owners were able to reintroduce smaller rides and reopen the amusement park during that time as well. 

Coney Island was not the only area amusement park when it first opened, though. Throughout the 20th century other local amusement parks competed against it -- and failed.

Here's a look back at some of those parks: Woodsdale Island Park, Chester Park, the Ludlow Lagoon and LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park, known as Americana.

Chester Park (1875-1932)
Spring Grove and West Mitchell avenues

Postcard showing entrance to Chester Park

Chester Park was located along the railroad lines near the intersection of what is now Spring Grove and West Mitchell avenues. The site, now partially occupied by Greater Cincinnati Water Works, began as a local horse racing club in 1875 owned by then-Cincinnati Bell president George Stone, according to "Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors."  

Chester Park added a bicycle racing track in 1886, amusement rides and a place for concert and operas. The Cincinnati Street Railway Co. bought the property in 1895, rebranded it as an "amusement resort" and added new features such as a swimming area. 

By the 1920s the park had a "large lake bisected by a midway, so that boating could be enjoyed on one side and swimming on the other. Circling the lake was the boardwalk with all the fun devices and eating places necessary to produce a carnival spirit," according to the guide.

Chester Park lake

With the advent of cars, the Great Depression and Cincinnati growing around it, Chester Park started experiencing financial troubles by 1930 and was also unable to compete with Coney Island, which was still thriving at the time.

Chester Park's amusement rides and attractions closed in 1932 after the city of Cincinnati turned off the park's water for unpaid bills. In 1933, only the pool and rink reopened. The pool then closed in 1941.

Woodsdale Island Amusement Park (1891-1913)
Fairfield Township

Woodsdale Island Park

In much the same way visitors took a steamboat ride to Coney Island when it first opened, people took an hourlong train ride from downtown Cincinnati to Woodsdale Island Park, which was located in what is now Fairfield Township.

The Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad Co. spent approximately $20,000 to open a restaurant, merry-go-round, boathouse and other entertainment amenities at the park, according to a booklet produced by the company that was donated to the Library of Congress.

A 2013 story in the Journal-News reported the park's location, between the Miami-Eerie Canal and the Great Miami River, was its downfall. A flood in 1898 severely damaged the park and the Great Flood of 1913 wiped Woodsdale Island Park, and the town that it was named after, completely off the map for good.

Ludlow Lagoon (1895-1918)
Ludlow, Kentucky

Ludlow Lagoon image courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library

The Ludlow Lagoon amusement park in Ludlow, Kentucky, was the result of a flood control project for the railroad and trolley routes that rolled through the Ohio River community located west of Covington. 

When the lagoon first opened it primarily offered spots for fishing, a sandy beach and boating, according to the Kenton County Public Library's Genealogy & Kentucky History department.

Over the years, the park added a $10,000 merry-go-round, a 100-foot-high Ferris wheel, roller coaster and elevated automobile ride.

Ludlow Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Kenton County Public Library

At its peak, the large lake that made up the park could attract as many as 25,000 to 35,000 people on Saturday nights, according to the history website NKYViews and Kenton County librarian David Schroeder. 

A series of accidents and natural disasters that started at the lagoon in 1913, combined with World War I, which led to the halt of beer sales due to rationing of grain, forced the park to close in 1918, according to the library.

LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park (1922-2002)
Middletown, Ohio

This photo was taken in 1946 at LeSourdsville Lake. (Photo courtesy of the Journal-News)

LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park opened later than the other larger parks in the region. It also stayed in business longer, though the park struggled to compete with Kings Island in the 1990s. 

Unlike the other summer destinations on the list, this Middletown park opened without any clear ties to railroads or rivers. As discussed by Scott Fowler in his book "Images of American: LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park," local businessman Edgar Streifthau opened the park on May 8, 1922, as an area for people to enjoy a place to picnic and swim.

Steifthau eventually took on a business partner, Don Dazey, and they added a dance hall, live entertainment, picnic areas and rides to the park.

Sky Rider swings over the lake at Americana Amusement Park, formerly known as LeSourdsville Lake Amusement Park. (1969) (Courtesy of the Journal-News)

The park was sold in 1961, two years after Dazey died. The park then changed its name to Americana Amusement Park in 1978. It went into bankruptcy in 1991 after a fire destroyed many of its attractions. It reopened under a series of owners before closing in 2002 under final owner Jerry Couch, according to the Journal-News.

Couch also operated an RV dealership on the park's property that closed in 2015. The Journal-News reports the park's land is currently being purchased with plans to turn it into a city park.

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