Thirty-Five Golden Summers
At Rochester's Ontario Beach Park
A cool breeze blew gently off the shoreline. It rippled long strings of bright colored banners and fluttered the many American flags that were always a bright addition to the greater splash of color that was Ontario Beach Park. It brought to the visitors of that unique colony the smell of hot popcorn, roasted peanuts and the sweet aroma of candy apples and Fairchild's Fairy Fritters. If you took a real deep breath it was easy to identify the fresh, clean scent of sun-baked sand and the distinctive wet tang one associates with a large body of water such as our Lake Ontario.
The breeze also carried with it a blend of all the other sounds that were so much a slice of the daily doings of the cheerful throngs that crowded that narrow strip of shoreline between the swift running Genesee River on the east and Bartholomay's huge Cottage Hotel that bordered that park's western rim.
At the turn-of-the-century it was easy for a park visitor to sift out the various assortment of sounds from the overall cacophony. There was the throbbing of the trolley car's idling motors, the distinctive clang of its bell and the voices of the happy revelers who were arriving to enjoy a lazy, hazy golden day in the sun at the resort that came to be widely known as the "CONEY ISLAND OF THE WEST." Their voices mingled with those of literally thousands of others who had already arrived and were caught up in the magic of a wonderland of thrilling adventures.
Then one heard the familiar keening cry of the seagulls, the deep whistle of an approaching New York Central and Hudson River Railroad passenger train mixing with the shouts of the pop-corn, candy apple, lemonade and ice cream vendors exhorting the multitude to try their tasty wares. One could also hear the rollicking laughter of the crowds watching a vaudeville act at Hilarity Hall or the appreciative applause for a trick cyclist performing at the open-air hippodrome. Also easily identified, were the screams of merriment heard from the youngsters aboard the two dozen whirling, rolling, tilting, sliding or spinning concession rides.
Over it all, again, when the wind was right, one could hear the unforgettable melodies from the Dentzel menagerie carousel's band organ. And perhaps most memorable, was the soundof a band performing a stirring John Philip Sousa march at Ontario Beach Park's three story band stand.
To truly understand the magnetic attraction of the popular lakeside resort we must go back to its opening on August 2, 1884. The happy citizens who flocked through the impressive, white-painted gateway arch at its official opening held attitudes and ideas far different than those we have today. They were perhaps a little naive, easily enthralled by the gay trimmings, fancy gimmickry, and unusual phenomena that the park promoted. Any attraction that moved faster than a horse trot was also quick to capture their attention. Many of these fine people were not world travelers. They had not yet experienced the horrors of a world war, the plague of pollution nor the fast moving pace of an age ruled by the atom and the electron. Most would live out their lives unjaded by a flood of filmed events, the crush of world-wide television coverage, the deluge of radio advertising and the cacophony-like crash, jangle and bang of modern "music."
Additionally, most had quite a different goal. There was a strong back-to-nature movement fostered by many of the local churches. Their hopes were to return some of the strays in the urban population to God and Nature. They promoted Sunday School picnics, family gatherings and other social outings at Ontario Beach Park. It was believed that the fresh air, lake breeze and good food would lure away those fathers and other young men who were frequenting the city's dim, unhealthy saloon and grogery haunts.
Further, with transportation confined to horses, trolleys and trains most people were limited to going where the rails led them. That fact was obvious to both trolley line operators and railroad magnates. Thus were established such trolley parks as Sea Breeze and Glen Haven amusement resorts with the magnificent 39 acre Ontario Beach Park becoming the creation of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Both electric and steam lines profited handsomely during the summer season.
Later, the New York State Railways Company operated trolleys for local folks. These were easily identified by their big side boards marked "CHARLOTTE." For a five cent fare the cars made a direct run from downtown's Four Corners to the amusement park in just 25 minutes.
Those happy souls summering at White City, Summerville, or Windsor Beach had theirown unique way of reaching the park. They paid a nickel to ride "THE WINDSOR," a ferryboat that took one across the Genesee River. There'd be the "clang, clang, clang of the engineer's bell, the clanking of chains, the slamming of gates, and the hiss of steam as the great craft starts her way across the river." The water odyssey covered just 500 feet but took seven minutes to complete. With more ringing of bells, rattling of chains, and creaking of gates one could emerge on terra firma once again. The venerable ferryboat served its patrons for thirty-three years, from 1894 to 1927.
To accommodate visitors from more distant points, the N.Y.C. & H. R. R. R. built a balloon-shaped railroad track that encircled much of the park. This track allowed excursion train crowds, often 1000 at a time, to disembark right into the midst of the midway. On one occasion four steam trains arrived filled with families from a single town during the same day. Added to this traffic was the Rome, Watertown and Odgensburg Railroad whose passenger trains brought customers to their small depot located just outside the park grounds. On special days, and there were many scheduled during the summer, it was not uncommon to see the park attendance reach 30,000.
When the throngs entered the grounds they discovered it to be much more than a tinsel mecca on Lake Ontario's golden shore. The park, with its sparkling resort attractions, soon evolved into the most brilliant gem on the entire shoreline of the Great Lakes.
Not unlike Disney World's first day, the grand opening of Ontario Beach Park was preceded with months of advertising. On opening day, the first Saturday in August, 12,000 curious citizens and kids crowded into the showy new playground. The largest attendance for an opening day was in 1907 when record breaking numbers arrived to enjoy a half million dollars in park improvements. It was estimated that 42,000 sightseers, eager to view the changes, jammed into what was billed as "WIZARDV1LLE BY THE LAKE." The great throng, "enchanted by the erection of a magic city," represented over one-fifth of Rochester's total population.
It was the only park to boast a wide, flower bedecked board walk similar to the famous walk-way at Asbury Park. Lamplit at night, with both elaborate pole lamps and colorful Japanese lanterns, the attractive promenade also offered tired picnic and party goers a place to rest, to socialize or to enjoy watching the majestic lake steamers and graceful sailboats as they passedoffshore. Others preferred to sit on one of the verandas of the huge Ontario Hotel and simply watch the lazily wheeling gulls while catching the cooling sea breezes. If one looked out at the lake they saw a wide stretch of dark green waters merging in the distant horizon with the azure blue of the sky. Just at the shoreline, where the wavelets unceasingly splash and break, we can watch scores of happy children wading in the shallow waters or building castles along the sandy beach.
To those families seeking amusement, excitement and adventure the journey by trolley or train took them out of the steamy city, the isolated farms and the small hamlets to a lakeside realm that seemed enchanted. For those patrons, in search of something unique, Ontario Beach Park provided a bright, glittering world of make believe. It was a happy, gaudy place in which many could escape their worries, their daily chores and their ordinary, mostly uneventful lives.
Here one could bathe, fish, frolic, dine and dream. Under its wide verandas and shady weeping willows one could renew their contacts with nature and refresh their spirits. Even today many of us continue to seek out this sandy bit of shoreline for our own recreation. Its one-half mile of natural sand beach, several hundred feet in depth, is one of the best on the entire Great Lakes.
There was however, a vast difference in those early thrill seekers and today's sun lovers. In almost all of the old photographs and tintypes nearly everyone is wearing a hat. The lady's hat fashions are decorated with a variety of feathers, while the men sported derbys and straw skimmers. Both men and boys appear in white shirts and dark ties while the girls and ladies wear frilly blouses and ground sweeping skirts. Many women are also seen carrying parasols or large black umbrellas. It seems obvious that Victorian tastes did not lead to deep tans.
Knowing that few if any of the park's patrons would ever travel abroad, most not beyond their state's borders, the concession operators often appealed to the public's tastes for the foreign and the exotic. Many recently arrived Rochesterians enjoyed a bit of their former homeland was reproduced in a row of quaint structures called the German Village. There beer, schnapps, pretzels and other Bavarian treats and souvenirs could be found. For park goers with other ethnic backgrounds the German Village became a kind of simulated trip to the Old World. At Bartholomay's Pavilion one could sit with a nickel schooner of beer and enjoy a fairly decent vaudeville show.Not too distant from that location one could take another vicarious tour, this one to the mysterious Orient. The curious "traveler" could enjoy all the elements they might have read about in stories. An ambitious association of concessionaires built an elaborate Japanese village complete with a delightful tea garden, a graceful Oriental bridge, a bazaar of Eastern wares, plus a genuine Shinto shrine. The highlight of the complex was a faithfully designed Japanese tea house operated by a gentleman called K. Ishida. Mr. Ishida served yakomen, chop suey and "authentic Japanese tea."
For others, especially young lovers seeking both a more exclusive and romantic setting, there were the "Venetian canals." This unusual concession provided an extended, somewhat private and watery, 1600 foot long ride aboard a rustic gondola propelled by a striped-shirted gondolier. Photos of several of these rides through the "City of the Sea" appear in the Tomkiewicz and Rusted publication, "Eight Miles Along the Shore."
At the Auditorium, a huge two story octagonal-shaped pavilion, vaudeville acts were always popular. Large signs near the entrance invited patrons to try "Bartholomay's Famous Beer and Ales." The first use of the structure was to introduce a cultural facet to the park. It accommodated a series of weekly orchestra concerts featuring both classical as well as popular music. Later it took on a more carnival-like aspect. Within the Auditorium's rounded walls any number of world cultures were on display over the years. One popular feature was entitled: "OUT OF THE NORTH." several families of genuine Canadian native peoples were on display. Called "Esqimouix", they were dressed in native costume and must have been well paid to endure the summer's heat in their furry garb.
Also featured on one occasion at the Auditorium was a grouping of African tribal families. The story relates that they were very unhappy being on display and kind of just sat around and sulked. The management quickly returned them home and replaced the brooding group with some black families from Georgia. This assembly was handsomely paid to imitate the former African tribe in a more lively manner.
Animal acts were often free and always much appreciated by the masses. Bostick's Wild Animals were a favorite. There were also Polar bears that slid down a chute to cavort in the lake, dancing, cycling and boxing bears, a dog and pony show, prancing horses and, of course, that one occasion when thousands were drawn to the lakeside to simply watch an elephant takea bath, squirt water through its trunk and splash around in the lake.
The air age dawned for many thousands at Ontario Beach Park. Blake McKelvey, city historian emeritus, tells us something of these early aeronautical events in his book, "Rochester, The Quest for Quality." It was at Ontario Beach that many local citizens first witnessed the flight of the Z-l 129. The cigar-shaped air craft was a large gas-filled balloon crafted from goldbeater's skin. The operator was perched in small wooden framework slung under the airship. Its lift came from hydrogen gas generated by the chancy practice of pouring sulfuric acid into tar-lined barrels of iron filings.
An estimated 50,000 arrived in 1891 to witness the craft's lift off with two adventurers aboard. One was a young daredevil who made perhaps, the very first parachute jump ever seen locally. Unfortunately for the inexperienced lad he was suddenly shifted from his planned beach landing. An onshore breeze caught him as he plummeted toward the crowd. Its brisk wind whipped him northward for 18 miles, well out of sight of the alarmed onlookers.
Men from the quarters of the U. S. Life Saving Corps located just across the river from the park, rowed gallantly out into the lake to his rescue. Happily they located the endangered youth and gathered him aboard their surfboat from Lake Ontario's chilling waters. Their safe return brought great delight and admiration from the cheering spectators.
John F. Cooley, a pioneer Rochester aeronaut, developed a four wing, two flapper flying machine he called the "TRUTH." The local flyer was hired in 1896 to exhibit his kite-like craft at Ontario Park giving limited practice flights during the summer. A propeller driven air-ship was scheduled to be the park's big attraction the next summer.
A "Professor Williams" gave his demonstration in August 1906. On its maiden flight his great balloon rose suddenly, then abruptly caught a downdraft and plunged disastrously just off the shoreline. Three years later, on the Fourth of July, 1909 Captain Jack Dallas, another Rochesterian, made the first propelled flight over our city. Alert park promoters engaged Captain Jack immediately. He spent the month of August at the beach resort thrilling the crowds of up to 20,000 or more exhibiting his aircraft and making short flights along the lake shore.
Research shows that "Jack Dallas" was the stage name for Benjamin Parker, who lived at 1530 Lake Avenue with his mother and sister. He had gained his experience as an airship pilot working for a man named Strobel who did circus advertising. The airship, 60 feet inlength, was fabricated from goldbeater's skin and painted silver. This double thickness of cow or oxen intestine had proved tight enough to contain the tiny molecules of hydrogen gas. The airship was powered with twin 7-horsepower engines which could reach 25 miles per hour. Jack's take off speed was an impressive 15 miles per hour.
Turn-of-the-century postcard views, many on display and sale at Russ Palumbo's LDR CHARP1T in Charlotte (Sha-LOTT), show scenes depicting some of the daring acts that thrilled audiences in days gone by. Along one wall we discovered views showing the "Death Trap Loop," "tall ladder high divers," "Looping the Gap" and the "GREAT MOROK." This last photo displays Morok's auto, disguised for some reason in the shape of a baby buggy, completely upside down in midair. The alert photographer caught the vehicle as it completed its perilous "double somersault" through the air. Other vintage photos reveal more of the glittering midway with its rides, food concessions and penny arcades.
At the west end of the midway was an immense ride called the Virginia Reel. Travelers rode small cars as they swung through a series of back and forth switch-backs finally taking the riders to the ground. Not far from there along the shore was the formidable wooden tower that gave the riders of this "water toboggan," built in 1892, a swift splashing plunge into the lake. If they struck the water's surface just right, the toboggan skipped like a thrown flat stone. A chair swing, known as the "Circle Swing," gracefully spun its occupants in great arcs around its base. This was accomplished through a tall tower to which heavy, 15 foot cables were secured to each of six sets of canopy-covered, highly decorated double seats. For those wishing a permanent record of their visit to the park, photographer E. B. Moore would take their picture and then gave it to them enclosed in a special format that allowed it to be mailed like a penny postcard.
The east end of the midway was dominated by L. A. Thompson's Scenic Railway. At first called the "Russian Railway", it later became the much loved "Breezer." The old Breezer took its 20 passengers on several dips and turns and finally looped back to its starting point. Tracks allowed it to coast through a large two-story building providing a dark tunnel. Within it an area filled with growling, fake lions and tigers added to the fun and brought shrieks from both young and old.
One could take a "Trip to the Moon," visit the "Hall of Mirrors" or experience anunusual attraction called "The Johnston Flood." However, one of the most amazing attractions was Messmore's "Fighting the Flames." At scheduled intervals throughout the day, flames and smoke would erupt from a half dozen windows in a large building facade. Alarm bells would ring, shouting actors would then pour out of the "blazing" Livingston Hotel and a dozen showcase firemen in red shirts would be summoned to the rescue. There were always two young ladies "trapped" in the upper story. After a sizable crowd had gathered the shrieking and screaming maidens would be coaxed to jump into an awaiting net held by the valiant fire fighters. As skirts inevitably flew upward and the girls were saved, cheers and applause followed. The gentlemen of the prim Victorian Era were frequently rewarded with an exposed ankle or knee. It was terribly exciting.
After an hour or so of absorbing many of the "thrilling spectacles" one's appetite could become quite sharp. With careful regard to this Ontario Beach Park offered much in the way of quick and abundant relief. Sexton's peanut emporium, at the park entrance, provided pink lemonade, popcorn, and their own specialty, regular and all day suckers in myriad flavors. Grown ups and kids alike enjoyed munching on "Coney Island Hots" that were offered by another vendor. And, nearly everyone had to try some of Fairchild's wonderful Fairy Fritters that left sticky fingers and happy palates. These were so popular that the golden fritters were also sold in Sibley's basement during the winter season.
We must not overlook the hippodrome with its wide assortment of free acts. It was everybody's favorite and attracted the largest crowds. The wide stage became the showcase for legions of vaudeville artists, flying acrobats and circus-like performances. One headliner, the tightrope artist known as BLONDIN, pranced daintily and somersaulted grandly on a tight wire stretch between two 90 foot poles braced in front of the bandstand. One historic account of Blondin's performance in 1895 tells how he carried out a chair, small table and oil stove, all precariously balanced on the wire. He then sat down, fried an egg and elaborately polished off a fried egg sandwich as the spectators wildly applauded his well-balanced meal.
Perhaps second to the hippodrome in its popularity was the bandshell with its numerous concerts. That bandstand, located in the center of the midway, held many talented musicians over the years. Free concerts were performed twice daily during the summer season. One could hear rousing marches played by such bands as Lapham's Red Hussars or the 54th RegimentalBand. Other performances brought the continental strains of the Royal Hungarian Boys Band or the sweet and sentimental pieces played by the Dosenbach Orchestra to appreciative audiences. Over the years the melodies of a hundred more musical groups brought memorable entertainment to the vast throngs that gathered at the great amusement park almost daily for more than thirty-five golden summers.
It was the automobile, improved highways and the First World War that combined to help end the public's great fascination with Ontario Beach Park. The bloodshed and horror of the Great War seemed to put the population in a more serious mood. The returning veterans seemed more jaded, showing less appreciation for the somewhat naive attractions of the old park.
Tastes in entertainment too had changed. People become more worldly and less inclined to venture to a resort in their own backyards. Coupled with this was the great freedom of choice offered by the automobile. The horse and the agrarian way of life with its slow pace and perhaps, "old fashioned" ideas of morality and behavior was slowly being replaced with this new idol. Old dobbin had to literally move aside for the noisy, smoke belching horseless contraptions that now were taking over the quiet country lanes. The public could now motor to the Adirondacks, camp along the St. Lawrence or journey to even more distant vacation spots.
With dwindling attendance and decreased income the once happy land of dreams was forced to close its gates. In 1918 the decision was made by the city of Rochester to purchase the park. Unbelievably, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts contested the title, claiming they owned shore-line territory. It was not until 1926 that the claim was rejected by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the city redeveloped the beach area, built public bathhouses and added other improvements.
The grand old Ontario Hotel became "Kenealy's At the Lake," one of seven restaurants in the local chain. The new owners took off the Victorian tower, removed the railings that had enclosed the second floor porch dining area, and mode other changes to "modernize" the famous structure, Even that would eventually be gone, the victim of a fire. City-built pavilions replaced the once teeming midway. Also added was a large hot dog and ice cream serving structure complete with Spanish arches, cream colored stucco walls and red tile roof. A large American flag was added and still flies in the former amusement park entrance-way at the foot of Lake Avenue. All shiny and new, the park brought throngs of people onhot summer days, but the spell of the grand old park could never be recaptured.
Today little remains of that magic mecca save the shoreline and, quite miraculously, the wonderful old carousel... This time honored, much beloved ride was the very heart and soul of that small fantasy-flavored community by the lakeshore. The first carousel was installed in 1885, just a year after the park's opening. Later in 1905, it was replaced with a Philadelphia-style machine. Built by master craftsman Gustav Dentzel, the carousel's animals are the most anatomically correct of the three main carving styles: country fair style, (small, simple and unadorned); Philadelphia style, (graceful, elegant and well-proportioned) and the Coney Island style, (flamboyant, jewel encrusted and ornate).
Ontario Beach Park's rare merry-go-round is termed a "menagerie" carousel due to its colorful assortment of fifty-two barnyard and circus animals. In addition to the traditional prancing horses and two cozy chariots, the unit boasts ten other animals including: a goat, two mules, three pigs, three rabbits, three cats, three ostriches, a lion, a tiger, a deer and a giraffe. In 1980 the city declared our machine to be a Rochester Historical Landmark. Its building was renovated in 1983-84 and at that time a new Stinson band organ was added to bring back those marvelous rhythms and sounds unique to carousel rides. Thanks to the dedication of the Friends of the Rochester Carousel, artist Susan Geverdt and Bill Finkenstein of R.F. Designs, are restoring each animal to its original brilliant coloring. At five per year, the painstaking restoration process will continue through this decade.
There are only 102 American-made carousels remaining in operation in our nation today. Of these, only 30 are the menagerie type. Further, of the 30 only six remain that were built by Gustav Dentzel. The rarity of the menagerie type is due to the fact that horses are common while other barnyard and circus animals are scarce and eagerly sought after by knowledgeable collectors. A giraffe, for instance, may fetch as much as $65,000 at auction. Therefore most of the menagerie types have been sold, little by little. Thus, very few survive intact today. We have indeed, (a both a significant treasure and a precious memento of yesterday. The old carousel is indeed a tangible link with those 35 golden summers enjoyed by so many and not entirely forgotten, but in a time long past.
© 2008, Donovan A. Shilling