Lake Compounce: North America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Amusement Park
Posted by Staff on Monday, August 8th, 2011
North America’s oldest continuously operating amusement park, Lake Compounce, is doing pretty well considering that the lake is cursed: that’s according to one of the legends written into the Connecticut amusement park’s 165 year history. The park has survived the ups and downs bound to occur over such a long time and today it confidently claims the title of “New England’s Family Theme Park.” Located partly in Bristol and partly in Southington (the lake is in Southington), the park is now in its 166th season. Although Lake Compounce is thriving today, a review of the park’s transformation from a lakeside picnic area to a modern amusement park reveals the highs and lows common among those parks that have stood the test of time.
The legend of origin that Lake Compounce has included in their history is naturally the least gruesome of the bunch. According to their website, the name of the lake is derived from a Mattatuck/Tunxis Native American Chieftain, John Compound, who traded the lake to white settlers in 1684. Soon afterward, he drowned in the lake “trying to cross it in a large brass kettle.” Most other accounts acknowledge that he had been hoodwinked by the settlers and after realizing this committed suicide in the lake by either tying the kettle to his neck and throwing himself in the lake, or an unknown method that caused his blood to run into the lake, thereby cursing it. Yet another tale claims he was murdered by his own tribe for trading away sacred land. Nevertheless, none of this has stopped visitors from enjoying the lake, now or then. There are some out there, of a superstitious bent, who have linked the cursed lake to a number of tragedies that have occurred at the park: we’ll let you take up that line of investigation at your own discretion.
The official opening of the park in October of 1846 was a dud. A local scientist convinced the current owner of the land, Gad Norton, to let him conduct a public “series of experiments in electricity.” For the finale, a raft with two barrels of gunpowder under it was to be blown up by a trigger on shore, but the darn thing never went off. It did, however, draw a large crowd and inspire Norton to do a little landscaping around the park. Soon after, he opened Lake Compounce as a picnic park and by 1851, at which time he joined forces with the successful forty-niner, Isaac Pierce, he had added a hand-powered revolving swing and the first ten-pin bowling alley in Connecticut.
The next major step toward becoming a modern amusement park was the addition of a casino, which included a restaurant and ballroom. This coincided with a new public transportation system that could deliver visitors to the park by trolley. The casino would eventually expand in the late 1930s to include the Starlite Ballroom. All the popular big bands of the day performed at the Starlite, including Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. In 1941, a record setting 5,000 dancers showed up to hear a promising young vocalist, Frank Sinatra, perform with Tommy Dorsey. To return to the legendary curse for a moment, a tragedy did befall a musical act performing at Lake Compounce when in 1989 the pop group, Milli Vanilli, was outed as lip-syncers due to their back up record skipping.
Lake Compounce’s first ride, a carousel, opened on Memorial day, 1911. The carousel combined the work of four master carvers and a Looff mechanism, whose work we’ve also seen at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Just a few years later, the park got its first electric powered roller coaster, The Green Dragon, later to be replaced by the still operating wooden classic, The Wild Cat, in 1927. In addition to roller coasters, Norton and Pierce modernized the aquatic attractions and kept the lake stocked with the latest speed boats. They would continue to add attractions such as a mini-golf course, miniature steam railroad, the “Little Showboat” leisure ride, and the Lake Front Stage, until the Norton’s, who had eventually bought out Isaac Pierce’s grandson, sold Lake Compounce to The Hershey Corporation in 1985.
The following decade, the “decade of the roller coaster,” was hard on parks that weren’t at the forefront of roller coaster technology. Many of New England’s oldest amusement parks fell into neglect and eventually closed for good. Lake Compounce did manage to hang in there, but some seasons the park only opened for labor day weekend in order to keep its title of longest running amusement park.
The turning point for Lake Compounce was in 1996 when the Kennywood Entertainment Company took over management for the park and, through a partnership with the state of Connecticut, managed to pay off the park’s back taxes. Since then, close to $50 million has been invested in new rides and major reconstruction. Perhaps the biggest factor in the park’s success today is the balance between modern thrills and tradition that Kennywood has maintained during its revival. A wooden roller coaster, the Boulder Dash (pictured at top), built in 2000, repeatedly ranks high in the National Amusement Park Historical Association’s Golden Ticket Award for Top Wooded Roller Coaster. This roller coaster, by combining a classic look with current technology, is emblematic of Lake Coumpounce’s story of success.