Many think of Geauga Lake as a popular amusement park for much of the 20th century, but it has a little-known environmental history. The lake has existed for millennia and human activity has impacted it for a very small portion of its existence. The lake formed in a time before humans, saw the tenure of Native Americans, pioneers and settlers, and eventually urbanites seeking short excursions for leisure and recreation. Throughout these phases, Geauga Lake influenced local residents, and they, in turn, influenced the lake.
Geauga Lake is a kettle lake that formed during the Illinoian glaciation, which occurred between 130,000 and 300,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated north, they scoured the land and left behind Geauga Lake, as well as other natural lakes. The land surrounding the lake was eventually inhabited by beech forests, the result of ecological succession, which would cover this area of Ohio for years. The land also consisted of silt loam soils, which are rich with nutrients. The fruit bearing vegetation and water brought animals like the now extirpated elk, panther, wolf, bear, wild cat, and beaver.
From 9500 B.C. to nearly the 18th century, different groups of Native Americans inhabited in northeastern Ohio. These groups from earliest to latest are the Paleo-Indians, Archaic Indians, the Woodland period, the Whittlesey Focus, and the Proto-historic period. There is some uncertainty about Native American boundaries, but it was once thought that perhaps the Erie people, a Proto-historic Iroquoian tribe, inhabited the lands including Geauga Lake. The current consensus is that these lands were instead inhabited by the Whittlesey Focus people and varying tribes until the pioneer era. Regardless, Erie and Whittlesey Focus cultures may give some insight into the interplay between human cultures and the environment around Geauga Lake. The Erie people were called “nation du Chat,” or the Cat Nation, by the French in the Jesuit Revelations of 1641. No Europeans ever officially met a member of the Erie people, but the Erie are said to have built palisaded towns on rivers such as the Chagrin and used these lands for hunting grounds. Similarly, the Whittlesey Focus people had towns with earthen walls topped with wooden stockades. Both groups grew corn, squash, and beans on a small scale. Geauga Lake may have been part of the hunting grounds of either of these groups, but it is unclear how the lake was used and viewed by native people. Compared to today, the lake was still relatively untouched and pristine, but the cultural importance of the lake to native people may never be discovered.
By the mid-18th century, Northeast Ohio was uninhabited by native people and by the end of the 18th century, white settlers began to arrive in the area. Joel S. Giles was not the first settler in the area, but he bought 100 acres of farmland near the lake for $4.00 an acre in 1817. The lake was named Giles Pond and eventually the Geauga Lake rail depot was constructed as part of the Erie Railroad. Eventually known as Picnic Lake, the lake brought people and groups for fishing, as well as for picnics and other group recreational excursions on the land around it. Soon it was known by its present name, Geauga Lake, and the 75-room Kent House was built in 1888 to accommodate recreation seekers. The lake fell under increasing pressure from human use, which gradually diminished the natural qualities that first brought people there. This paradox presents itself throughout much of the rest of the lake’s history.
Geauga Lake and the surrounding land was slowly transformed into an amusement park, beginning with a “primitive merry-go-round,” as stated by the Plain Dealer in a 1981 article on the park’s history, and growing to encompass a multitude of rides and roller coasters. Large swaths of trees were removed and massive amounts of concrete infrastructure, including parking lots, were installed to accommodate increasing numbers of patrons. As people left Cleveland to find amusement, the lake was being polluted and the land, contaminated. By 1970, the lake was almost fully surrounded by Geauga Lake Park and the newly opened Sea World of Ohio, which later became rebranded under the ownership of Six Flags and Cedar Fair. The lake and wetlands that make up the Geauga Lake site became less effective at filtering and slowing down the waters the flow into the Tinker’s Creek and Chagrin River watersheds. Installation of concrete infrastructure and asphalt parking lots replaced hydric soils, which are important for wetland and riparian function. On September 21, 2007, Cedar Fair, the current owners of the lake, closed down Geauga Lake Park and eventually Wildwater Kingdom, formerly Sea World, on the east side of the lake a few years later.
The land now sits, amusement park torn down, a shadow of its former self in the eyes of local residents. Parking lots, concrete pilings, and abandoned buildings dot the landscape. The lake has storm water runoff issues, leading to algae problems. The soils under the impervious surface may be contaminated with various chemicals including solvents and herbicides. Nonetheless, the potential for the lake to return to a more natural state, possibly bringing balance to the natural needs and human wants to the lake, presents itself. Plans are being developed to repurpose the site, but the outcome remains uncertain. Strong leadership backed by a small fortune can bring harmony between humans and nature back to Geauga Lake.