Geauga Lake: From Icon to Eyesore

Geauga Lake began life in the early 1870s and was known as "Picnic Lake" or "Giles Pond."

Ryan Haidet and Kim Wendel

Geauga Lake may have closed but it is alive and well in the memories of thousands and thousands of people both local and national.

The park evokes memories that range from excitement to anger.

Anger? In September of 2007 Cedar Fair decided to silence the screams forever.

It was after the park had closed for the season.

That meant no one had a chance to take that one last ride, one last walk, or eat that one last french fry.

Today, Mother Nature has taken over.

Trees are reaching through the tracks of The Big Dipper, the last ride standing in this once iconic park.

Keep your arms, legs, feet and hands inside the ride at all times.

Fasten your seat belts for one last ride...

This was Geauga Lake

Gone but not forgotten

Geauga Lake began life in the early 1870s and was known as "Picnic Lake" or "Giles Pond." There were no rides, just grassy areas for picnics and a lake for swimming.

Owner Sullivan Giles eventually built a small dance hall. By 1880, a steamboat -- towing a large, dance-floor-topped scow -- circled the lake.

By 1889, the park had its first ride – a steam-powered carousel. The park was expanded in 1925, and with that expansion came the Big Dipper, the then-largest wooden roller coaster of its time, 2,800 feet long and 65 feet high.

Today the Big Dipper stands alone – silent, decaying and forlorn -- on a 550-acre property that straddles Bainbridge Township and the City of Aurora, a silent sentinel where there used to be crowds, amusement rides, entertainment and the kind of excitement that made memories.

Geauga Lake was once a destination, the place where, on July 11, 1926, Olympic medalist and Tarzan movie actor Johnny Weissmuller dove into its Olympic-sized pool – eventually closed in 1965 – and set a new world record in the 220-yard free style swim.

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There was a race track added in 1931 and operated for 38 years. In quick succession came a theater, bowling alley and a huge dance hall.

Big band names like Guy Lombardo, Artie Shaw and Fred Waring performed there. In 1937, the park's 1926 hand-carved Marcus Illions Carousel was added, after having been located in Philadelphia and Birmingham, at a cost of $35,000.

A tornado hit the park in 1942, injuring six, destroying buildings, and damaging the Big Dipper. The park reported $50,000 in damages, but it quickly rebuilt.

In 1952, a fire destroyed the park's bowling alley, theater, dance hall and roller rink so the park became strictly a seasonal amusement park, beach, and swimming area.

In 1969, Funtime Inc. bought it and the focus remained on rides and swimming. In 1970, SeaWorld Ohio was built across the lake.

Admission to the park was free until 1972 as more rides were added. Starting in 1973, the park switched over to an admission charge with a pay-one-price for all the rides and attractions. Geauga Dog became the park's mascot and would remain so until 1999.

The Corkscrew coaster debuted in 1978, making Geauga Lake the second (or third) amusement park in Ohio and one of the first amusement parks anywhere to have two looping coasters.

In 1988, Geauga Lake celebrated its centennial by introducing the Raging Wolf Bobs, a wooden roller coaster with a hybrid twister/out-and-back design.

In 1995, Premier Parks acquired Funtime, giving Geauga Lake a new owner. Premier Parks invested $9 million in new rides, including the Mind Eraser (a steel looping shuttle Boomerang roller coaster) and Grizzly Run, a water rapids ride designed by Intamin. These attractions opened in 1996, and the Corkscrew was closed, sold and moved.

In 2000, Geauga Lake received a $40 million expansion and became Six Flags Ohio. As part of that expansion, the park received 20 new rides, including four new roller coasters.

Facing financial difficulties, Six Flags considered selling the park. Two months before the 2004 season, a sale to Cedar Fair, owner of Cedar Point was announced. The deal was finalized and the park reverted to the name Geauga Lake.

In 2005, Cedar Fair invested $26 million in Wildwater Kingdom, a new water park on the former SeaWorld site.

In 2007, the summer-only operation of Geauga Lake continued but talk among park goers was that Geauga Lake would close. Cedar Fair remained mum, holding the Sept. 14- 16 Oktoberfest as usual.

Then, on Sept. 21, Cedar Fair announced the park was closing the amusement park side, Cedar Fair announced it would not reopen the amusement park side of Geauga Lake and that Wildwater Kingdom side would reopen exclusively as a water park called Geauga Lake's Wildwater Kingdom.

Geauga Lake Closes

Shock and anger

Shock and anger followed Cedar Fair's announcement.

Aside from the overall dismay at the closing, loyal customers and families who had generations of park goers had one question: Why not announce the closing while the park was still open to give us a chance to ride the rides one more time?

Of course, there were petitions and letters to officials, all to no avail. Park goers posted their favorite videos to YouTube and fan sites.

The national American Coaster Enthusiasts were dismayed but soon turned their focus on the historic Big Dipper and what was to happen to it.

Except for the chained gates and the empty parking lots, nothing much changed at the park through the winter of 2007 and the early spring of 2008.

But soon it became evident that Geauga Lake would not reopen as a park or be purchased by another company to reopen as a park.

Soon fans learned that Norton Auctioneers had been contracted to auction off the rides and other entertainment items and that Cedar Fair had put the entire parkland up for sale.

Cedar Fair held an auction preview day on June 16, 2008. Scores of people – many former park employees – toured the silent grounds for one last time.

Many took pictures of themselves before their favorite rides.

One former employee named Jason came with a video camera, a digital camera and some money in his pocket. He left late that day with "Geauga Dog," or at least what was presumed left of the famous Geauga Lake mascot's costume -- the headpiece.

His pocket was more than a little lighter as well, as the headpiece was priced at $400 in the Carriage House gift shop, a "buy it now" memorabilia clearinghouse during the auction that was loaded with T-shirts, key chains, cups, posters and the head of Geauga Dog.

It wasn't until late Tuesday, as Jason and his mother Linda finished up a second day of walking the park that they found the rest of the costume, tucked away in the attic of the "Palace Theater" ... and the people that bought the theater (The Burton Historical Society) are from Burton, Ohio.

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Jason worked at Geauga Lake from 1994 to 1999. He was only 16 when he started working there. "I started in Kiddieland and worked my way up," he said. Jason and his wife, Dawn, live in Garrettsville.

Jason walked the park and recounted his days running rides throughout the midway, from the Double Loop to the Texas Twister.

The Marcus Illions carousel and the Americana Ferris Wheel were moved to other Cedar Fair parks.

As Jason walked the park, he also commented on the silence and the lack of "smells" in the air.

"There's no smell of French fries, no smell of asphalt, or chlorine from the waters in the attractions," he said. Looking at the open spaces where rides had been removed years earlier, leaving cement pylons overgrown with weeds, he said it "looked like a cemetery."

The first day of the auction – June 17 – an agent for an undisclosed buyer bought the historic Big Dipper roller coaster, as well as the Raging Wolf Bobs double coaster. The agent was the sole bidder and snagged The Big Dipper for $5,000.

He said that day that he represented a man who wanted to move the Big Dipper to another location and get it operational again.

Pieces and parts of the Raging Wolf Bobs, located at the other end of the park, were removed and the rest demolished a few years later.

But the Big Dipper never moved. Since the auction, the Big Dipper has been for re-sale for prices ranging from $65,000 to $150,000.

There have been no buyers.

Geauga Lake Today

Decaying and untouched

Geauga Lake had no buyers for its land, despite the efforts of Cliff West at Marcus & Millichap.

Today The Big Dipper still stands decaying, untouched and unmoved but still mourned, easily visible from outside the park along Aurora Road.

Trees and saplings grow through its tracks.

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Weeds grow everywhere, buildings are decaying and falling down, and recent rains have created lakes where none were before.

Local officials call it an "eyesore" but that may soon change.

On May 6, voters in Aurora gave a boost to land developers who might be interested in the acreage.

They approved the replacing of the former industrial zoning of the site with mixed-use zoning that opens it up to a variety of land uses.

It's said that interest in purchasing all or part of the acreage has been renewed.

Many want to see a development similar to a Crocker Park in Westlake. Many would like to see the Big Dipper become the centerpiece of such a development.

But the original deal was to have the Big Dipper dismantled and moved to another park and used as a ride again.

But after six years of neglect, just how feasible is that?

Sitting in Silence

A collection of memories

Where dozens of rides once stood, few remnants remain.

The roaring buzz of bulldozers has come and gone, leaving Geauga Lake sitting in silence.

"It's pretty strange because it's almost post-apocalyptic," says Johnny Joo, a local photographer. "You're in a place that used to be filled with so many people. You can almost picture them walking everywhere."

Joo, who specializes in snapping photos inside abandoned, unique locations, captured some pictures of the park in 2012. He's published many of his photos in books and on his site, ArchitecturalAfterlife.com.

"It's a really strange feeling to being in a place that used to be so filled with people, and now it's just completely deserted and everything's falling apart."

Like many, he has a fascination with Geauga Lake and its now-abandoned status.

"It's almost like life after people," Joo explains. "It's really weird seeing stuff the completely opposite way that you would normally see it. Kind of like a mirror world of what we're used to."

In the years since the park has closed, Mother Nature has taken over, reclaiming her land where thrillseekers once thrived.

"Decay and decrepit-ness kind of creates its own artistic style within itself," Joo adds. "It's really weird how nature itself can create a whole artistic style of its own."

Most recently, the Raging Wolf Bobs wooden roller coaster was completely demolished, leaving only the Big Dipper intact. The iconic roller coaster now stretches near Aurora Road with trees tearing through its guts.

But not all is lost.

Two men -- known as the "Euclid Beach Boys" -- are preserving memories from Geauga Lake inside a secret warehouse. Joe Tomaro and John Frato have spent years collecting unbelievable amounts of amusement park memorabilia that instantly ignites a firestorm of flashbacks.

SLIDESHOW: Cedar Point's rides of past

"It was very sad when that park closed, because a lot of generations in Cleveland grew up with the family run parks," Tomaro says. "It's something we miss about the old amusement parks. You knew people there. You knew the ride operators. That's what's missing in today's big theme parks."

Among their museum-like items include stacks of signs, lines of roller coaster trains, props, costumes, employee wardrobe, photos, post cards, ride turnstiles and trash cans. They even have the bell that once hung above Geauga Lake's front entrance.

"For me the highlights are the signage, because for me that tells the story of the park," Frato says. "We have the Raging Wolf Bob cars, we have one of the log boat ride cars (and) we have one of the only rocket ship cars in private hands."

Although their collection is private, both Tomaro and Frato hope to someday find a way to make their monstrous collection available for the public to see.

"That's where we get the most amount of pleasure," Frato says of the reactions many have when they see their memorabilia. "When someone will look at one of the pieces, whether it be a coaster car or a sign, and it triggers that memory of when they were at the park. And you can see that look in their face. It's something deep and special to them."

One item still up for grabs is the Big Dipper. Sources close to the situation say the ride is still for sale with an asking price of $65,000. One year ago, the estimated cost to dismantle the coaster, move it and rebuilt it was at $3.1 million.

Although the Big Dipper has been designated as an American Coaster Enthusiast landmark ride, it is not historically protected.

So, unless somebody swoops in and moves the ride, the Big Dipper could also meet the demise of the 'dozer, leaving nothing but memories in the dust.

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For more information on Joo's photography, CLICK HERE: http://architecturalafterlife.com/

For more information on the Euclid Beach Boys, CLICK HERE: http://www.theeuclidbeachboys.com/

If you are interested in purchasing the Big Dipper, contact Jeff at 330-635-3726 or message the "North Ohio Classic Parks" Facebook page. Serious inquires only.

Chapters
Chapter 1
This was Geauga Lake
Chapter 2
Geauga Lake Closes
Chapter 3
Geauga Lake Today
Chapter 4
Sitting in Silence
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Geauga Lake: From Icon to Eyesore

Geauga Lake began life in the early 1870s and was known as "Picnic Lake" or "Giles Pond."