I've never been a real big history buff... or (until very recently) too keen on amusement parks, either. However, there's something oddly nostalgic about combining the two. In the age of Tivo, 'Web 2.0,' and 120mph roller coasters, I've always been curious as to what would have passed for 'fun' in the old days. Ironically, the answer is in my backyard. Literally.
While you wouldn't know it if you've ever had the 'pleasure' of visiting Columbus, Ohio, but back in the day it used to sport America's largest amusement park. Like all brilliant ideas, this one started with a bar and two brothers with nothing better to do.
From 1899 to 1919, the Dunesbery brothers sought to make this piece of land, which was essentially a forest next to a river in the middle of a city, the greatest park they possibly could. By the banks of the Olentangy River that comes up next to my apartment, they built a giant theatre... the largest in America for the time. They brought in a few roller coasters, one of which know as the Loop-the-Loop actually looped riders upside down. That might seem like nothing by today's standards... but a century ago it was unheard of. Unfortunately, the technology did not yet exist to build a looping roller coaster that didn't jerk passengers around like they were on a bull ride... so the ride was shut down. It wouldn't be until many years later in the 1970's that looping roller coasters again came back into popularity.
The Dunesbery brothers also built a large ampitheater and dance hall in the park and attracted many of the popular groups of the day, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Concerts from big and small bands would play nightly at these venues in my backyard.
A few years after this, the brothers built an enormous swimming pool at the park... enormous by today's standards even. Sand was even brought in and placed along the borders of the massive swimming pool so people going for a dip in the Midwest could feel like they were at the ocean. This pool was probably the greatest attraction of the park, being the largest swimming pool in the world for many years... in fact, according to the Ohio Historical Society, it is still the third largest swimming pool ever constructed in America.
So where is this park today? Well unfortunately, like most amusement parks and businesses in the United States, Olentangy Park did not fare to well from the hardships of the Great Depression and closed its doors for good in 1938. Some of the rides were sold off to the nearby Columbus Zoo and Wyandot Lake, but most were torn down and bulldozed away to make room for the construction of an apartment community, the same one I live in today.
There's not much evidence left that Olentangy Park ever even existed, really. The giant swimming pool was actually kept in operation at the apartment community until just recently, in 2002, when the rest of it was filled in to make room for new apartments. Most of the buildings have long since burned down. There is a walking bridge where you can go out over the river and, if you know where to look, still see the foundations of the theatre and old canoe club... but nothing more.
In fact, the only surviving attraction, as far as I've ever heard from people who are fond of telling the story here, is the grand carousel that used to belong to Olentangy Park. It too, almost faced the wrath of time and deteriorated into nothingness at Wyandot Lake... but was taken down in 1999 and underwent a massive restoration project that cost just over a million dollars. A year later the restored carousel was moved to the Columbus Zoo and reopened, where anyone can ride any of the 52 hand crafted horsies for a buck. According to the Ohio Historical Society, of the "5000 'Grand Carousels' that were operational in the early 1900's, it was one of only 200 that remain."
So, in an odd little roundabout way, I've gotten a satisfactory answer to my question. Some children are doing the exact same thing for fun that their great-grandparents were doing a hundred years ago. Funny how things come full circle like that sometimes, isn't it?