Scenic Park

Scenic Amusement Park had it all - dancing, rides, recreation grounds, theater and beer gardens. While a favorite destination of Clevelanders, not everyone approved of the frivolity offered at the park.

In the spring of 1903, the management of Scenic Amusement Park hired surveyors to study possibilities for overcoming the watery divide separating Lakewood and Rocky River. A scheme had been concocted to unite the two suburbs.  On the land that now comprises Cleveland Metroparks Scenic Park, surveyors formulated plans for a multichannel chute to span the width of the Rocky River.  Even though Scenic Park was the leading amusement park west of Cleveland, it was feared that the resort’s continued profitability hung in the balance of completing construction of the newest attraction.  Park management, however, had no intention of erecting a new stomach-dropping toboggan ride; one passage in the chute would transport boxes of cash to Rocky River, while the neighboring duct accommodated a dumbwaiter large enough to convey glasses of beer and liquor to Scenic Park's German Village in Lakewood. Far from being the most exotic diversion, it was assured to become a favorite park-destination for Cleveland’s working class.  

The proposed engineering feat infuriated an outspoken contingent of Lakewood residents; the village had been voted dry in November of the prior year.  Since its official opening in 1895, the popular amusement park drew the ire of many living in the surrounding community.   Grievances had been lodged with local law enforcement claiming that park management evaded Blue laws by offering music, sporting events, and alcohol on Sundays.  Rumors were abound that a not-so-secret drinking establishment was hidden away in the woods, and that it operated on the Sabbath.  Newspapers provided accounts by anti-saloon league members of fights, lewd comments, rowdyism, and inebriated women sitting on the laps of men.  It wasn't just the careless commingling of limbs that concerned Lakewood residents. Chartered in 1889 and incorporated as a village in 1903, Lakewood was experiencing growing pains.  The village’s potential as a prosperous suburban enclave laid in forging its identity as a residential community - a vision pitted in opposition to the urban character of amusement parks.

Drunken crowds and unruly behavior were nothing new along the shores of Lakewood. Scenic Park was the last vestige of pleasure gardens designed to attract Clevelanders and potential new residents to the undeveloped grounds in the late 1860s. Located at the picturesque confluence of the Rocky River and Lake Erie, the Clifton Park Association acquired and developed lands abutting the lakeshore and east river bank; the estate touted picnic grounds, bathing beaches, beer gardens, rental boats, a dance hall and hotel. The Rocky River Railroad was laid out in 1869, connecting the retreat with the burgeoning city to the west.  Liquor and beer flowed freely at the resort, as evidenced by the carnage of wrecked buggies leading away from the park on Detroit Avenue.  While a popular destination, the seasonal nature of the recreation grounds could not adequately sustain their operation. Land used for the dummy railway was eventually absorbed for commercial use by the Nickel Plate Railroad in 1881, and the hotel succumbed to flames the following year. With accommodations and access to the pleasure garden limited, the Clifton Park Association invested little in maintaining or developing the land during the next decade.

It was waiting game for the land speculators, but their patience paid off.  In 1893, the Detroit Avenue streetcar line was opened by the Cleveland City Railway Co.  The hamlet of Lakewood was immediately accessible for settlement by city dwellers. The Clifton Park Association subdivided their real estate in anticipation of growth. Lakefront property was dedicated to high-end residential development; the rugged bluffs and flood-prone terrain along the Rocky River were slated to become a new type of recreation grounds.

Across the United States, both landholding and traction companies were investing in the development of amusement parks.  Private parks and picnic grounds in bucolic locals were enclosed and transformed into spaces for public recreation on the outskirts of every urban center by the late 1890s.  Landholding companies, such as the Clifton Park Association,  invested in amusement parks to draw people into the suburbs; additionally, they could lease their undeveloped properties to park operators. Most commonly, these new recreation grounds were built and run by traction companies. It was a wise investment.  Nothing promoted streetcar ridership during the summer more than amusement parks. As further incentive, the excess generating capacity of streetcar companies could be used to power lights and rides at parks located near the end of trolley lines. The Cleveland City Railway Co., leased the park grounds from the Clifton Park Association, and struck gold with the opening of Scenic Park.  Within weeks of the park’s formal opening, the Detroit Avenue streetcar line was overrun by throngs of Clevelanders wishing to breathe in the fresh air and wander through the charming mechanized wonderland. 

Despite the characterizations presented by proponents of temperance, there was much more to Scenic Park than its beer gardens. The amusement park offered dancing and theater pavilions, a half mile racing track, baseball and recreation grounds, picnic groves, merry-go-rounds, a playhouse for light opera and vaudeville, two boathouses, boat rentals, a Ferris wheel, shooting galleries, an Old Aunt Sally, shoot-the-chutes, swings, and restaurants. Thousands of electric lights illuminated the rustic scenery, lending an attractive backdrop for open air concerts, lavish theatrical performances, sporting and race events, pyrotechnical displays, equilibrists, aeronauts, and any sort of extravagant display that could capture public attention.

While all were standard fare in American amusement parks, Scenic Park was renowned for its mile-long Thompson Scenic Railway; purchased and operated by agents of the Cleveland City Railway Co., it was the only scenic railway in the region at the turn of the century. The mile long coaster skirted the bluffs of the Rocky River, propelling its riders through two tunnels ornamented by paintings and papier machee. While a price was attached to rides and attractions, admittance to the park was generally free except on Sundays. Throughout the summer, the amusement park regularly hosted benefit picnics for fraternal, social, political, and labor organizations. Admission receipts were kept by the clubs, while park management indirectly profited from packed streetcars, concessions and paid attractions.

As bustling crowds of city dwellers flocked en mass on summer days to escape cramped neighborhoods and breath the clean air, residents of Rocky River and Lakewood could not help but notice the incursion of urban society upon their growing suburbs. Episodes of drunkenness, crime, and occasional violence accompanied the crowds. The beer-soaked grounds of Scenic Park did little to promote high-end residential development or attract cosmopolitan citizenry into the area. Lakewood residents were not alone in its concerns. Towns throughout Ohio were going dry at the turn of the century in an effort to thwart what was seen as a root of societal troubles; real estate sales were reported to have boomed in consequence.

Drying up Scenic Park proved a bit more difficult than expected. While the chute across the Rocky River was never constructed, a nine foot wide footbridge was erected in its place. Jokingly referred to as the most used bridge in Cuyahoga County, visitors of Scenic Park crossed over the watery impasse onto a small strip of land where liquor was sold. Following a thorough scouring of law books, the citizens of Lakewood realized that they had no authority to close down the beer garden. Adding fuel to the fire, low alcohol drinks known as "swanky" and "non-intox" continued to be sold on park grounds. Despite receiving assurances from Scenic Park management of their compliance with the alcohol ban, residents continued to encounter rowdy park-goers and streetcars brimming over with drunkards leaving the grounds.

The Lakewood police took action during the summer of 1904. The bridge was boarded up, and policemen disrupted day-to-day operations of the park by stamping out games of chance. Scenic Park management was sent word that all Sunday amusements would be shut down if any attempt was made to reopen the footbridge. A sample of "non-intox" was later obtained for analysis during July 4th festivities, and the park manager was arrested for the sale of alcohol. Cleveland Electric Railway Company, which had acquired the Cleveland City Railway Co., soon-after declared that their lease with the Clifton Park Association would not be renewed following its expiration in 1910.

The residents of Lakewood succeeded in drying up Scenic Park. In 1906, the grounds were sublet to the Lincoln Park & Amusement Co. and redeveloped as a family-friendly park. The newly-formed amusement company renamed the grounds Lincoln Park, and invested large sums of money to rebuild the park's infrastructure and public image. The objectionable features of Scenic Park, alcohol and gambling, were erased from park grounds prior to reopening. Lincoln Park offered many new attractions in their place, including displays of an Indian village, the streets of Cairo, and an old-time plantation. Other amusements included a wild west show, a free circus, an illusion palace, a steeple chase, and the largest dancing pavilion in the state. After one season, the Lincoln Park & Amusement Co. declared bankruptcy. The Cleveland Electric Railway Co. entered into negotiations to sublease the park to various amusement promoters over the final years of their lease to no success. The amusement park was eventually dismantled. In May of 1917, the Scenic Park property was purchased by the City of Lakewood from the Clifton Park Association. The land was donated in 1925 to the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board for use as a gateway to the Rocky River Reservation. The once-thriving playground for Cleveland's middle and working classes had been reclaimed by the citizens of Lakewood to both reflect and promote the desired residential character of their emerging suburb.



Stuntmen and Sprits at Scenic Park
Foster Brown, Historical Interpreter for Cleveland Metroparks, recounts the rise and fall of Scenic Amusement Park. ~ Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
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