I visited Conneaut only once in 2000, stayed for exactly one hour, and had a wonderful time. I chronicled part of the experience for Neil deMause's late, lamented HERE Magazine (I recommend perusing all the stories there on a day when you don't have much to do, because you'll be there for quite a while.) And my rides on the Blue Streak, which now will be the only rides I got to enjoy, were among some of the best roller coaster rides I ever had. For serious.
"Hold it! Just one moment, if you please." Three seconds into my first impressions of the Conneaut Lake Blue Streak and I'm prevented from boarding the train by a grizzled old ride operator in mechanics' overalls. The fellow leans into the seat I'm about to occupy and scoops up forty-five cents in change off the floor, left behind from the open pockets of an unwary rider. He leans back up and grins at me through an exceptionally cracked mouthful of teeth.
"That's m'tip for the evening, there. Hop in and enjoy your ride."
Conneaut Lake Park is in the middle of nowhere. Geographically, it's just about halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh but fundamentally speaking, it's the middle of nowhere. And frankly, I couldn't be happier. I was here on a complete whim, my road trip plans taking me from Boston to Myrtle Beach by way of Pittsburgh, and I just happened to notice Conneaut Lake off to the side of I-79. None of the locals I talked to near Meadville knew if the park was open. This was not a good sign. Conneaut Lake Park has hit on some hard times recently, the center of a major battle between small-town politicos and local entrepreneur ego, and it wasn't very certain in the spring if the park would open for this summer, or any other summer for that matter. I was determined not to let this park slip on away without experiencing it. Too many parks in the past I've lost -- Lincoln, Idora, Crystal Beach -- and besides, if I couldn't get in to Conneaut, I could still make Pittsburgh by nightfall and all would be well.
The park was open. But only for another hour or so. I felt somehow like I'd beaten the odds, that I'd gotten incredibly lucky, that I'd made it to Brigadoon or something. I paid five dollars for a ride-all-rides wristband. I was about to pay an exorbitant amount for ride tickets, but the elderly lady in the ticket booth said "Trust me, dear, save your money. You'll be able to ride plenty with the bracelet before we close." And she was right, bless her heart.
Conneaut Lake Park is an old park. It's situated on an old resort lake. Its adjoining hotel has no hot water. Or electricity, so I was told by a fellow enthusiast, but I'm somewhat dubious of that claim. The men's bathrooms have trough urinals, though, I witnessed those first-hand. There's an old dark ride that smells like it should -- of axle grease and old musty wood. One of the last three remaining Tumble Bug rides, once as ubiquitous as a roller coaster in the American amusement park, is here at Conneaut. But I was really here for one thing and one thing only -- the Blue Streak.
Built in 1937, this wooden out-and-back coaster has a reputation among enthusiasts as a rough yet enjoyable ride. It's also considered a Coaster Classic by the American Coaster Enthusiasts, by virtue of its beautiful old art deco Century Flyer trains which have minimal restraints -- a single lapbar that can be either down when the ride is in motion, or up when the ride is stopped. ACE members love to be flung around in all possible directions, see, and any wood coaster without seat dividers or individual stapling-you-in lapbars (and headrests so you can see better) is a Classic in their definition. And the Blue Streak definitely throws you in as many directions as it can.
It's deceptively small, the Blue Streak. Over time the trees around the coaster have grown up, overtaking it in terms of height. So now the lift hill only barely crests the top of the trees before plunging into the thick overgrowth. You're afraid to put your hands up the first few times riding for fear of snagging a branch. To add to the psychological sucker punch, the entire structure looks flimsy and creaky, in desperate need of a paint job. Funny how a coat of paint adds years to a coaster's perceived lifespan. The Blue Streak, which is more flaky gray than blue, looks as if it was built in somebody's backyard by a "handyman" with a stack of Time-Life books and an instructional video by Bob Vila. The entire ride is missing a handrail on the left-hand side. I assumed it was a maintenance issue, but was later told that's the original ride design. It gives the rider on the left-hand side a brand-new feeling of vulnerability.
The ride is as organic as they come. Three hills out, a turnaround, bunny hops back. Gravity takes over as soon as you leave the lift, and treats you to an impressive display of g-forces as it lifts you up, hurls you over, hauls you down, smushes you against your seat, leaving you giddy at the final brake run and ready for another ride. The night came upon us and things got progressively darker and darker. Bats circled dangerously close to the crests of the hills, giving me another reason to watch my hands. And then, on one particular run, sitting near the back, I watched as the entire train gave off a beautiful shower of sparks as it made its way around the far turnaround. For a brief moment I felt as if I was in a Barry Levinson film -- all atmosphere, silent except for some ethereal music in the background, all slow-motion, all sparking -- enough Profound Moment to choke a cow. I guess metal on metal does that to a person.
What did surprise and impress me was that in the short span of one hour, for five dollars, I had more fun and enjoyed more rides on a roller coaster than I had in an entire day at a local Six Flags megapark. Support your traditional amusement parks. Patronize the family-owned parks. Spend a day at the old trolley park near your home -- yeah, the one you haven't been to since you were 9. Forego the large corporate-run "vacation destinations" just this once. It's only a day out, not a damn week. Take the kids. Pack a picnic lunch. Ride the rickety roller coaster, even just once, so you can brag about it later on. Watch eyes light up at the sight of the old hand-carved carousel. We can't let more history simply just fade out over the roar of a bulldozer.