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Summers Past and Present

Cedar Point
The Queen of Great Lakes Resorts

“Somebody should erect a bathing house on the lake side of Cedar Point. There is no finer place for bathing in the world.The beach is broad, and the finest whitest sand;
|the bottom of the lake is smooth as a house floor, and slopes gradually to any desired depth of water; the lake water is the purest of blue, and the swells simply glorious.
Will not some enterprising person give us a bathing house?”

Sandusky Register, 1867

story compiled by Chris Edwards

Birth of the Resort Era

Summer resorts and amusement parks were in vogue in the Great Lakes at the end of the 19th century. Hiram Walker had built his great resort overlooking Lake Erie in Kingsville, The Mettawas (“To The Mettawas!”issue #26 )
made possible by the advent of train travel. In the US, a middle-class was emerging – moderately priced hotels sprang up and down the Great Lakes, including the famed Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, Tashmoo Park on Harsen’s Island at the top of Lake St. Clair, Belle Isle’s Electric Park (see story in this issue), Brighton Beach in Sandwich and Bob-Lo Island in Amherstburg (see Issue #21 – “Long Live Boblo!”).

The south shore of Lake Erie proved an ideal location for the establishment of a summer retreat. With its stunning lake islands, including Kelly, South Bass (with its famed Put-In-Bay),and Pelee (accessible from Kingsville, Leamington and Sandusky), the region earned a reputation as an idyllic “sweet water” bathing resort. Put-In-Bay’s first summer hotels opened in the 1860s, and soon featured beer gardens, amusement parks and restaurants. Guest arrived via Sandusky by train and transferred to steamboats, which ferried them to the islands.

Among all Great Lakes amusement parks of that era, only Cedar Point remains. From its humble beginnings as a fisherman’s launch, Cedar Point has grown to become one of America’s best known and most popular summer spots. The park rode the wave of success at the turn of the 20th century through the Great Depression, then fell from grace – only to rise again in the third millennium as a top tourist destination, especially for those of us living in the Border Cities.

It is thought that the 364-acre peninsula got the name “Cedar Point” at the beginning of the 19th century and was named for the groves of cedar trees that once covered the peninsula. The first documented title was on a 1823 map.

In the 1850’s, Lake Erie commercial fisherman experienced a veritable bonanza – perch, pickerel and monster-sized sturgeon – prized above all other fish for its caviar and delicious meat.

In Sandusky, Ohio, commercial fisherman used the Cedar Point peninsula, located just offshore, as a base for harvesting Erie’s bounty. They built living quarters and soon, a small railroad to haul fish and gear across the peninsula. Sandusky became a major fishing center, as Cedar Point provided a safe harbour from Lake Erie’s occaisonal fury.

Louis Zistel, a German immigrant, built two boats for use during the Civil War to transport Confederate prisoners to a jail on Johnson’s Island, near Cedar Point. After the war in 1870, he used the boats to transport locals to Cedar Point, and opened a bathhouse (people “bathed” at the beach, not swam) near the spectacular long sandy beach on the north shore of the peninsula, accompanied with a beer garden and dance floor. The following summer, the beer garden at Cedar Point did not re-open for a second season and remained closed for the next few years.

In 1882, Benjamin F. Dwelle and Captain William Stackfore leased the property and established a dancehall, eight new bathhouses and laid wooden walkways on the beach. The first season was quite successful – up to one thousand people lazed on the magnificent beach on some days. Over the next five years, the partners continued to expand the resort.

Acres of brush were cleared, picnic tables added, and a baseball diamond designed. In 1887, Charles Baetz formed a new company to run the fledgling resort. A major construction project resulted in the Grand Pavilion in 1888. This two-story building, 110 feet wide and 168 feet long, contained a theatre, concert hall, photographer’s studio, bowling alleys, and a bar. The centre also included a large cupola where guests could peer out over Lake Erie. They also constructed Music and Ladies Pavilions, where guest preferred cakes, fruits, ice cream and a soda water bar.

In 1890, a water toboggan was built so guests could slide down a ramp into the lake. Thus began the advent of amusement rides at Cedar Point. The Switchback Railway was Cedar Point’s first roller coaster, built in 1892. About twenty-five feet high, it reached the dizzying speed of ten miles an hour (compare that with Cedar Point’s new Top Thrill Dragster at 420 feet tall and an incredible speed of 120 mph!).

The first roller coaster incorporated two tracks running side by side, one for the ride down and the other for the train to be hauled back to the top by the ride attendant. Little did they know at the time that Cedar Point’s claim to fame would be its ever-expanding collection of roller coasters.

Pedal-powered roller chairs touring Cedar Points famed boardwalk in about 1905.

Cedar Point’s Golden Era

Despite these innovations, by the mid-1890s visitors were losing interest and Cedar Point was losing money; the future didn’t look very bright.

But things changed in 1897 with the arrival of a visionary businessman from Indiana, George A. Boeckling. As the park’s new owner, Boeckling quickly reshaped the park. His plans for Cedar Point were ambitious, and over the next 15 years Boeckling transformed a somewhat shabby picnic grounds into a nationally prominent showplace.

The Grand Pavilion’s auditorium was redecorated, a pony track added on the beach, the bathhouses renovated and 3,000 bathing suits made available to rent. The extensive musical performances booked by Boeckling were not only the best ever seen at Cedar Point, but the best at any summer resort. Among the other attractions that summer was a photo gallery set up by W.A. Bishop. Many of the photos and postcards from these early days come from his original glass negatives.

Cedar Point’s second roller coaster, the Three-Way Figure Eight Roller Toboggan, was built near the beach in 1902. The ride was forty-six feet tall and had eleven cars on its hilly track.

A 1,200-seat Opera House was built west of the Grand Pavilion for the 1903 season. Guests could see two shows per day at the reasonable charge of 10¢ a performance. With the addition of a separate theatre, the second floor of the Grand Pavilion was turned into a dance hall, while the ground floor was remodeled to include a cafe, lunchroom and bar.

A Sea Swing was added in 1904. Really daring guests could ride the water swing out over Lake Erie; an ill-timed wave would occasionally leave a rider stranded in the surf without a bathing suit. After eight years, the ride was removed and the Racer roller coaster took its place. The Crystal Rock Castle opened mid-way between the beach and the pier and sold beer and wine to guests. The building’s exterior had the look of a stone castle. The structure itself remained on the peninsula until the early 1960s, when it was intentionally burned.

The Racer was built in 1912 on the resort’s beach.

Also that year, the Detroit Dredging Company was contracted to dredge the swampy, mosquito infested lagoons into interconnected passageways. By draining the land into three miles of specially built lagoons, Boeckling not only controlled that problem but also created one of the park’s most popular and scenic attractions.

Before long the lagoons were busy with boats full of sightseers, artists, naturalists and young people who wanted to get away from the watchful eyes of the older generation. The lagoons also afforded a more practical side – they were used to carry coal to the power plant in the center of the peninsula.

Reasoning that the longer guests stayed at Cedar Point, the more profitable the resort would be, Boeckling made plans to build a massive hotel on the beach. But this was no ordinary hotel. In keeping with his vision of Cedar Point as the Coney Island of the West, he would build the grandest hotel ever seen at a resort.

His vision came to fruition when The Hotel Breakers opened on June 12, 1905, featuring 600 rooms, most with a view of Lake Erie. Each room included running water and one hundred had private baths, a rarity for turn-of-the-century resorts. The Breakers Cafe seated 400 guests. The entire hotel was as long as two city blocks and shone like a beacon on the beach at night. The design was influenced by chateaus Boeckling had seen while traveling in France.

The Breakers’ elegant lobby featured convenient round seats, which remain a Cedar Point tradition throughout the years. The ceiling was elaborate pressed tin and included chandeliers crafted by Tiffany artists from New York. Amenities included a barbershop, news stand, ice cream parlor and souvenir counter .

Adjacent to the lobby was a rotunda featuring four tiers of balconies, which remains to this day. Stars of the Metropolitan Opera gave impromptu performances in the rotunda from their balconies during the teens and 20s.

The Breakers proved a great success and encouraged Boeckling to build another massive structure, dubbed the Coliseum. It stood 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, with two stories: 90-thousand square feet of enclosed space. And the unusual domes were 40 feet higher than the Hotel Breakers.

The main floor Rathskeller (bar) sold assorted beverages to patrons. On the second floor a wooden dance floor was built with a giant stage at one end.

The steamer Put-In-Bay sailed from Detroit to Toledo and onto Cedar Point.

Boekling then designed the Amusement Circle, linking the beach to the pier. Attractions included a circle swing that created an illusion of flying; a carousel said to the best in the land; “A Trip to Rockaway” that simulated a rocking boat; the Miniature Railway costing five cents a ride; a midway, and many other rides and attractions.

A steam engine powerhouse was built on an island in the lagoon and was used to power the resort, including the new Amusement Circle. Near the Hotel Breakers, the resort also added two new dormitories to house all the seasonal help, which remain in use by staff to this day.

Prior to 1907, large passenger ships from Detroit, Toledo and Cleveland headed to the resort needed to land in Sandusky, where passengers transferred to ferry boats and went on to the resort. Boeckling built a lake landing on the peninsula’s western tip to drop off and pick up resort guests; this opened up even more traffic to the resort.

In 1908, the Dip the Dips Scenic Railway, featuring eighteen dips was constructed in the center of the midway. Fifty-three feet in height and 4,200 feet long, this ride topped out at a mind-boggling sixty miles per hour – very fast for the era.

The double-ended steamer ferry G. A. Boeckling was christened in June of 1909 to carry passengers to Cedar Point from Sandusky; it remained in service for more than forty years. Built by the Detroit’s Great Lakes Engineering Company, she measured one hundred and fifty five feet, and could handle 660 people in one crossing.

In the summer of 1913, Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, two University of Notre Dame students, were employed by The Breakers Hotel as lifeguards. The two perfected the football forward pass during their free time on the beach – a unique concept for the fledgling sport. Knute Rockne later became a famous football coach at the Notre Dame and would send his team to Cedar Point to practice and work.

By 1915, Cedar Point achieved its Golden Era as the incredible period of expansion spurred by George Boeckling came to an end. Boeckling didn’t stop improving the resort; he made sure guests always had something new to look forward to every year. But the dramatic changes taking place every year had come to an end – for now. Boeckling’s early vision of the peninsula’s potential was fulfilled, and he had turned Cedar Point into a pleasurable and profitable resort. Cedar Point’s guests had every reason to call her the “Queen of American Watering Places!”

During Prohibition, Cedar Point fell on hard times since alcoholic beverages were completely banned. The Crystal Rock Castle, which dispensed alcohol before Prohibition, was converted into the Ye Olde Castle Grill. The Rathskeller in the Coliseum dispensed soft drinks instead of alcohol.

Mainly due to the tenacity of George Boeckling, Cedar Point endured. But the Amusement Circle section of the resort actually increased in popularity during Prohibition. Many new additions were built on the midway with some of the older attractions removed and replaced with more modern ones. In 1924, a section of rides for children was added.

The Bon Air wing of the Hotel Breakers was erected to the north side of the hotel in 1925. This 160-room wing remains today, dwarfing the Breakers Tower, which still stands beside it. The Noah’s Ark attraction – a funhouse based on the famous biblical story – also opened. Atop what appeared to be Mt. Ararat, an ark stood with animals peering out the windows.

The resort’s convention hall was the site of a dramatic speech by Helen Keller in 1925. Miss Keller addressed 3,000 Lions Club members, convincing them to make assisting the blind the club’s main service activity.

By the end of the 1920s, the Golden Era of Cedar Point came to an end. The famed Cedar Point Cyclone, built by renowned coaster designer Harry Traver, who also built the legendary Cyclone at Coney Island, opened in 1929 and scaled a dizzying height (for the times) of seventy-two feet. This monster struck fear in the hearts of many; riding it became a rite of passage for visiting teenagers.

The Lean Years

The stock market crash of ’29 ushered Cedar Point and the entire continent into the Great Depression. Many families didn’t have enough money for essentials, let alone a trip to Cedar Point. Concessionaires that leased buildings in the Amusement circle became unprofitable and struggled through the Depression.

On July 24th, 1931, George A. Boeckling died of uremia. The entire resort mourned his death and he was buried in Sandusky, not far from his beloved Cedar Point. Like Hiram Walker in Walkerville, his leadership abilities were so all-encompassing that it seemed impossible to fill his shoes.

And indeed, the park suffered from neglect and decay for many years following his death. With little money coming in, management couldn’t even do cosmetic maintenance necessary to keep the park looking fresh and fun, let alone invest in big new attractions.

In 1935, the Hotel Breakers was modernized and the Tavern Terrace added near the hotel. The outdoor stage area provided entertainment from bands and offered cocktail.

The Grand Pavillion, built in 1888, was initially the centre of
Cedar Point’s activities.

By the late 1930s, the resort seemed destined to be sold to the state of Ohio for $3,000,000. But after the 1938 season, the resorts’ directors gambled that the Big Band Swing Era could save the day; the Coliseum’s second floor was modernized in an art deco style. Exposed wooden beams were covered in plaster and coloured light fixtures added. New tables and chairs filled one side of this massive room and the stage was modernized to rival any in the land. And in the middle, the giant dance floor enticed patrons to swing away their cares..

Cedar Point in the ’30s and ’40s is memorable primarily for the incredible musical talent that played at the dances in the Coliseum Ballroom. The roster included such dazzling musical stars as Jimmy Dorsey, Ozzie Nelson, Bob Crosby, Woody Herman, Glenn Miller, Les Brown, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Harry James, Count Basie and Skitch Henderson. NBC radio broadcast many of these performances nationally.

The musical entertainment kept Cedar Point alive even as other parks failed. While the massive crowds of the turn-of-the-century through the ’20s did not return, a modest number of guests kept visiting Cedar Point, even as the second World War shook the globe. During the war years, Cedar Point probably would not have survived were it not for the loyal patronage of Sandusky residents.

Many restrictions arose from the war, including the restrictions of automobile use and certain foods.The park did manage, with great difficulty, but began to show her age – poorly maintained buildings and creaking boardwalks. The grand Hotel Breakers was in need of much repair.

In 1946, the oldest existing ride opened on the Cedar Point midway. The Midway Carousel, purchased from Revere Beach in Massachusetts, was originally hand-carved by Daniel Muller in 1912, containing sixty horses and four chariots. Inside this beautiful carousel is a Wurlitzer #153 band organ.

By the end of the 1940s, Cedar Point ‘s days again seemed numbered. In 1949, the G. A. Boeckling Company was near bankruptcy and Ed Smith, who had run the park since George Boeckling’s death, retired as president of the company.To add to the sense of foreboding, at the end of the 1951 season, the steamer G. A. Boeckling made its last trip to Cedar Point and was towed to Wisconsin to be used as a floating warehouse.

The docks at the Cedar Point Pier in Sandusky,
Ohio were humming with activity in 1952.

The public dreaded the retirement of this great vessel, but Cedar Point introduced three new all-steel vessels over the next few years. The new sixty-five foot boats were named G. A. Boeckling II, Cedar Point & Cedar Point II. Also around this time, a series of jetties were built to protect the precious white sand beach from erosion. Made from sandstone, these jetties remain today near the Sandcastle Suites Hotel on the tip of the peninsula.

The Chaussee, the only road connecting Cedar Point to the mainland, was crowded on busy days and disturbed the residents that lived on the peninsula. To remedy this problem, the Cedar Point Causeway opened in 1957 and continues to serve as the main gateway into the park.

Yet patrons worst fears seemed to be coming true in 1956. Newspaper headlines told the story: “Famed Cedar Point to Make Way for Homes.” “Cedar Point Nears End As Resort.” A real estate syndicate headed by Toledo businessman George Roose and Cleveland businessman Emile Legros bought the entire peninsula and planned to turn it into a housing development.

But Cedar Point’s lease as an amusement park didn’t end until 1959, so Roose and Legros studied the operation for two years. It appeared there was still some life in the old park yet.

Scaling New Heights – and Thrills

In 1959, a marina opened on the site of the old pier, containing 250 dock spaces, making the park accessible for private boaters – an increasingly popular hobby for post-war Canadians and Americans. Also that year, the Wild Mouse was added, similar to the one on Boblo Island.

Cedar Point experienced a modest profit in the first season of Roose and Legros’ management. Encouraged by these results, and inspired by the then-new Disney “theme park” concept in California, the management team decided family-oriented entertainment might also work at Cedar Point. They abandoned the housing project plans.

In 1960, Roose and Legros announced an ambitious $16 million capital-expansion to turn Cedar Point into an Ohio Disneyland. Many of the park’s traditional favourites opened during the next decade as the park grew rapidly. But unlike Disney, Cedar Point was never converted into a “theme” park – it would instead focus on “thrills.”

The gamble to build a family amusement park began to pay dividends. By the 1965 season Cedar Point reached new heights in attendance – for the first time, two million people visited Cedar Point in one summer.

The rapid expansion of Cedar Point’s exciting ride package continued throughout the ’70s, including two world-famous roller coasters. The 1976 Corkscrew was the first roller coaster in the world to go upside down three times. The Gemini opened as the tallest roller coaster in the world two years later, towering 125 feet above the midway.

The Gemini was the tallest roller coaster in the world when it was built in 1978
– its wooden structure makes it look much older.

In an era when many amusement parks played a game of “anything you can build I can build higher,” Cedar Point stayed on top. A world-record breaking roller coaster brought international fame to Cedar Point: the Magnum XL-200, at 205 feet tall was the first scream machine to break the 200-foot barrier. And it was the first one to travel more than 70 miles per hour.

Before riders could catch their breath, another coaster of epic proportions burst onto the scene: the Mean Streak. This timber terror debuted as the tallest, fastest and steepest coaster on the planet in 1991. At 61 feet tall, Mean Streak reached speeds of 65 miles per hour.

In 1994, the Raptor soared onto the midway as the first of a new generation of coasters. The inverted thriller turns riders upside down six times as they hang from the track, and is great fun to watch from the safety of terra firma.

Cedar Point celebrated its 125th anniversary season in 1995 with a record $17 million in improvements. Guests were greeted in 1996 by Mantis, a $12 million stand-up roller coaster that is one of the tallest, fastest and steepest of its kind in the world.

RipCord, a 15-story tethered free-fall ride opened at Challenge Park. Power Tower, a 300-foot-tall multi-million-dollar mega-thrill machine made its debut in 1998. Power Tower consists of four 240-foot-tall steel towers and two heart-pounding ride experiences. Two of the towers launch riders up, while two of the towers blast riders down – all in 3 seconds – at more than 50 mph.

Taking a quantum thrill-riding leap into the new Millennium, Cedar Point spent an unprecedented $48 million in its 2000 investment program. Millennium Force, the first roller coaster to top the 300-foot mark, is the seventh world-record-breaking ride Cedar Point has introduced since the Magnum XL-200 in 1989, as well as the seventh roller coaster the park has added during this same time-period. The single largest investment in the 129-year history of Cedar Point, the $25 million Millennium Force was the park’s 14th roller coaster – more than anywhere else on Earth.

Cedar Point amusement park/resort continued its focus on thrill-seekers in 2003 with the debut of its 16th roller coaster – Top Thrill Dragster. Reaching a stratospheric 420 feet tall and topping out at an unheard of speed of 120 mph, this new screamer helped Cedar Point reclaim the title of owning the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the universe.

While he might not recognize much of the park he made famous, Goerge Boekling would probably nonetheless be very impressed!

“Cedar Point – The Queen of American Watering Places,” by David Francis and Diane Francis, Daring Books, 1988.
Archive print and video materials from Cedar Point Media Relations (special thanks to Bryan Edwards)
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