Geauga Lake

An Environmental History

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.

Images

Geauga Lake in the 1930s

Geauga Lake in the 1930s

This postcard view shows boat docks, pavilions, and one ride from the vantage point of the lake. | Source: Boston Public Library View File Details Page

From Lake to Lake

From Lake to Lake

This is the Cleveland harbor as it looked sometime between 1900 and 1910. The Erie Railroad connected the Cleveland harbor with a stop at Geauga Lake. Not only did Geauga Lake support recreational uses, but the land near it was mined for resources like coal and stone. | Source: Library of Congress Photograph Division | Creator: Detroit Publishing Company View File Details Page

Geauga Lake Ad, 1890

Geauga Lake Ad, 1890

This advertisement is an example of businessmen imploring Cleveland residents to take the train to enjoy a nice Sunday of recreation. Later ads would use words that made Geauga Lake sound like a reprieve from the grit and grime of the city. | Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer View File Details Page

How to Reach Geauga Lake, 1926

How to Reach Geauga Lake, 1926

This map shows an alternative to the railroad from the city to the lake. It was meant to show how “easy” it might be to drive out to Geauga Lake. Note that the map is not drawn to scale, selects University Circle (four miles east of downtown) as the starting point, and makes it seem as though one is halfway to the destination when at Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights. | Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer View File Details Page

Park Entrance and Roller Coaster, 1930s

Park Entrance and Roller Coaster, 1930s

From an environmental standpoint, among the most significant impacts on the lake came when large areas of land around the lake were paved for a large parking lot and walks and plazas connecting rides and attractions. These impervious surfaces introduced more runoff into the lake. | Source: Boston Public Library View File Details Page

Aerial View of Geauga Lake, 1968

Aerial View of Geauga Lake, 1968

This is an aerial photograph of Geauga Lake Amusement Park on the west side of the lake. The old Grandview race track is at the top. Infrastructure can be seen taking up much of the land on this portion of the lake, which contributed to water quality issues. | Source: Cleveland Press View File Details Page

Geauga Lake Brochure, Early 1970s

Geauga Lake Brochure, Early 1970s

This Funtime Inc. brochure shows the location of Geauga Lake and Sea World in Northeast Ohio. Funtime had recently acquired the park in 1969 and would operate it until 1995, when it was bought out by a company that later also bought Six Flags, leading to Geauga Lake's reorganization under the Six Flags banner by 2000. The brochure points to the serenity of the park--long a draw for picnickers--but also points to its 5,000-car parking lot. Of course, the presence of the latter impacted the lake itself. | Source: Brian on Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0, www.flickr.com/photos/retrolandusa/19676009006/ | Creator: Funtime Inc. View File Details Page

Shamu, the Killer Whale, 1970

Shamu, the Killer Whale, 1970

A story about Geauga Lake would be incomplete without the mention of Shamu the killer whale. This photograph shows Shamu traveling across the country to reside in Sea World of Ohio for the summer in the large tanks on the site. | Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections | Creator: Bill Nehez View File Details Page

Western Village, 1979

Western Village, 1979

This is a photograph of the “Western Village” in Geauga Lake Park. The park had a unique theme with accompanying architecture. This also shows the infrastructure and building that took place near the lake throughout much of the 20th century. | Source: Cleveland Press | Creator: Timothy Culek View File Details Page

Geauga Lake Map, 1981

Geauga Lake Map, 1981

This is a park map of Geauga Lake used by the patrons of the park to navigate their way to various rides. This is yet another example of how built the environment surrounding the lake actually was, but also how the strategic use of greenery and the blue lake attracted people. | Source: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Geauga Dog, 1976

Geauga Dog, 1976

Geauga Dog is photographed here waving from a Merry-Old Mobile. Also, picture is some of the trees that comprised a forest that surrounded the lake and supported many different species including apex predators. This captures the nexus between man and “nature.” | Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections View File Details Page

Geauga Lake, 2012

Geauga Lake, 2012

Concrete pads from removed rides in Geauga Lake Park as they appeared several years ago. Today there is much discussion about the future redevelopment of the abandoned amusement park. | Source: bill baker on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, www.flickr.com/photos/billb1961/6897514838/ View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

John Micklewright, “Geauga Lake,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 24, 2017, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/795.
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