The History
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The History
To the engineers faced with the monumental task of building a system of canals to create a continuous navigable waterway bisecting the frontier state of Ohio, the natural watery bog at the "summit" of central Ohio above the Licking River was an obvious place to begin. Drainage from the "Great Buffalo Swamp" was blocked with the construction of a dike in 1826, and by 1830 the new Licking Summit Reservoir was providing a reliable source of water for canal commerce. The canal system thrived for a time, but by the 1890s, canal boat traffic in the area slowed to a crawl and in 1894, the Ohio General Assembly declared Licking Reservoir a public park by the name of Buckeye Lake. At the turn of the century, the canals gave way to railroads, including "light rail" electric trolley systems, and the Columbus, Buckeye Lake and Newark Traction Company's Interurban Electric Railway was completed in 1904.
Joining the trend of providing an attraction at the end of the line to boost weekend business, the rail company began building amusement rides on a nine-acre plot at the north shore of the Buckeye Lake. By 1911, the Buckeye Lake area boasted two dance pavilions, a swimming beach and bathhouse, arcade, picnic area and ballpark, boat excursions and power boat races. Taverns, restaurants, hotels and rental cottages sprung up all along the lakeshore to accommodate out-of-town guests. In 1912, the traveling Chautauqua Assembly came to the west side of Buckeye Lake in the area known today as Millersport. Speakers included Emery Hunt, president of Denison University in nearby Granville, Warren G. Harding, who would later become President of the United States, and the great orator William Jennings Bryant. The circuit peaked from 1913 to 1918.
The 1920s were a chapter in Buckeye Lake Amusement Park's history highlighted by rapid growth as John J. Carlin, a well-known amusement park developer, leased the park from the Ohio Electric Railway Company in 1924, and in 1929, bought it from its new owner, the Ohio Power Company. The excellent reputation the park established in these early, carefree days helped it weather the more difficult times ahead. In August 1928, when the Muskingum Valley Colored Elks #82 held its annual family day at the park, the romance of the waterfront Pier dance hall turned to heartbreak. A portion of the crowded dance floor collapsed into the lake late that evening, and seven people drowned. The Great Depression in 1929 forever changed the dynamic of the entire Buckeye Lake region. Many families who enjoyed the modest lake cottages, as summer resort homes became year round residents as they lost their homes in the city. The interurban rail line went out of business, taking with it the easy, cheap transportation that made the amusement park a regular destination for city dwellers.
    New management in the 1930s rose to the challenge of keeping the Buckeye Lake Amusement Park vital. The "Dips" roller coaster built in 1930 quickly became a favorite attraction and top moneymaker. The Skateland roller rink began to hold races in addition to offering open skating. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the merry-go-round building was transformed into a nightclub. Perhaps the crowning achievement of this era was the addition of the fabulous Crystal Ballroom and Pool. The ballroom overlooked the lake as well as the pool, and fountains in the pool added an elegant touch. In addition to welcoming swimmers daily--even offering bathing suits for rental for those who came to the park unprepared to swim--the Crystal Pool hosted water shows by Johnny Weismuller, Hollywood's original Tarzan, and actor Buster Crabbe. The Crystal Ballroom and its competitor, the Pier ballroom, hosted such big name orchestras and entertainers as Guy Lombardo, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Lawrence Welk, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington, and the Dorsey Brothers.
    To keep the excitement at a fever pitch, free outdoor acts were featured in the 1940s as a promotional tool to attract people to the park and keep them there all evening. The acts were diverse and highly entertaining, including the famous Flying Wallendos family along with other aerialists and acrobats; the Barton horseback acrobats (later known as the Hannefords); parachute jumpers and trained animal acts. The park was in its heyday, entertaining as many as 50,000 visitors a day. The Buckeye Lake Amusement Park Company owned the major rides, but individuals owned the smaller rides and concessions from the surrounding community. Buckeye Lake was officially designated a state park in 1949 with the creation of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The park office was originally located within the amusement park, although ownership and operation of the amusement park rides and attractions remained in the hands of private companies and individuals.
    By the end of the 1950s, Buckeye Lake Amusement Park was in decline and conditions worsened each year. In 1958, a cable on the Dips roller coaster snapped and three cars slipped backward from the top of the big hill, injuring several riders. The aging Crystal Pool developed sizable cracks and, no longer able to hold water, the beautiful pool became a trash dump. A last gasp effort to revive the park in 1969 with a country and western music amphitheater and a dozen rides met with a lukewarm public response that put a chill on further investments. The Pier dance hall, silent since 1968, burned along with an abandoned dodgem car ride in a fire in the early 1970s.
    Today, all that is left of the Buckeye Lake Amusement Park, once known as the Playground of Ohio, is a fountain that once served as the centerpiece of the midway. The fountain has been preserved at Buckeye Lake State Park's North Shore facility, which offers a boat launch ramp and picnic shelters. On a fine summer day, standing by that fountain near the parking lot filled with boat trailers and anglers dotting the shore, it's hard to picture the old crowded midway here.

Thanks to Donna Braig, whose self-published book My Buckeye Lake Story documents the entire history of the Buckeye Lake region with delightful personal reminiscences of the amusement park. Thanks also to historian Chance Brockway for his insights and photos. Also to Jean Backs, editor of Ohio State Parks magazine.
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