When I was a boy, amusement parks were smaller and simpler than they are today. The rides may not have subjected you to as many G forces but they were thrilling none the less. They were bumpier, louder, and more raw. You could smell the grease in the gears and the ozone created by electrical arcs in the big unshielded motors.
One of my favorites, aside from the wooden coasters, was the Tumble Bug. It was manufactured by Traver Engineering and its successor, R. E. Chambers of Beaver Falls, PA, from 1925 until the mid-1950’s and could be found in amusements parks across the nation, indeed, around the world.
The name varied from park to park – Tumble Bug, Turtle Ride, or just the Bug. It consisted of five or six cars shaped like turtles, some versions even had metallic heads and tails. The shell was hollowed out to allow riders to sit inside on a circular bench and there was a chrome wheel mounted like a horizontal steering wheel in the center to hang on to. These cars rode around an undulating circular monorail. They were held to the track by spokes radiating from a post at the center of the ride.
One of the unique aspects of the Tumble Bug was that it needed a little coaxing to get rolling out of the station. The operator, usually a teenager not much older than the riders, would start the train moving slowly forward until it stalled on the first hill. Then he would throw the motors into reverse to back the train through the station until it stalled on the hill behind it. Again he would throw the motors into forward and this time the train would almost make it over the hill, at least the first turtle would. One more back up and we were ready to rock and roll.
The train of turtles then went around the track, three hills in all, raced through the station and around again. That’s it. Even so, you got tossed around pretty good and if you didn’t hang on, you could find yourself halfway out the opening where you get in and out of the car. They didn’t have safety restraints or legal departments in those days. We kids used to stand in line for 20 minutes to go around a circle for 3 minutes and we loved every second of it. As soon as the ride ended, we would rush down the exit ramp, turn, and get right back on line to ride again.
There are only two operating Tumble Bugs left in the world and they are both in western Pennsylvania – one in Kennywood Park and one in a little park on Conneaut Lake. I made a pilgrimage to the latter to ride the Tumble Bug.
I had been to Conneaut Lake Park once before, in my twenties. I was working at a state psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh at the time and several of the social workers arranged a weekend trip for some of our more “presentable” patients. The park was a magical place reminding me of West View Park, north of Pittsburgh, where my school district held its annual picnic. It was a busy, happy place with lots of excited kids and adults rushing from ride to ride, spilling cotton candy along the way, punctuated with the shrieks from riders on the Blue Streak coaster as it thundered overhead. There were long lines for many of the popular rides, including the Tumble Bug.
When I began planning the itinerary for my three-month RV road trip, there were two places that I absolutely had to go: Key West to see Dominique Lefort and his performing house cats and Conneaut Lake Park to ride the Tumble Bug. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon in June and while I set up the motor home in Camperland (which was once Fantasy Forest) I was thrilled to hear the unmistakable rattle of the anti-rollback safety ratchets on the wooden roller coaster across the street. I thought it was odd that I didn’t hear it again for almost 15 minutes, but at least it was running and I would soon be inside the park.
Time has been unkind to Conneaut. The park has limped along for the past decade, always on the verge of closing, torn apart by warring factions on its board, and generally ignored by today’s thrill seekers who prefer super parks like Cedar Point which is only three hours away. The parking lot was nearly empty, the paint is peeling from the signs which proudly proclaim “Since 1892”. There were no staff at the entrance, but the gates were open. There is no admittance charge.
As you enter the sweeping curve of the walkway, the first ride you pass isn’t even a ride. It’s just a few crumbling concrete footers, and a circular picket fence. Next to it is an abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl with trees growing up through the track. The park appeared nearly empty.
Further along were several working rides which were sitting idle due to lack of customers. I rounded another curve and there it was – the Tumble Bug! And it was open for business. I almost ran over to it, except my knees don’t allow me to run anymore. I watched as it started forward and stalled on the first hill. It rocked back and forth, as it always has, until it had worked up enough momentum to get out of the station and on its way – all two passengers shrieking in delight. It sounded more metallic, more strained, than I remembered but, after all, I was witnessing an eighty-year old mechanical device that had somehow been kept patched and cobbled together enough to still operate.
After buying tickets at the kiosk, I returned to ride the beast myself. As it turned out, I was the only rider and the young man at the controls gave me an extra-long ride, too long actually. It got boring in a hurry. But who cares? I was on the Tumble Bug. I was the only one on the Tumble Bug on a perfect summer day, one of the only two such rides in the world. Where were the people?
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park, or what was left of it. The Pavilion had burned to the ground several years ago; the midway was a sad glimpse of a forgotten past. The carousel, which was a classical beauty, had one dad and his daughter riding. About the only place that had a crowd was a loud beach bar on the lake that was overrun with bikers.
So I decided to brave the Blue Streak. It’s an out and back wooden coaster built in 1937 and designed by Ed Vettel, who also designed the Big Dips at West View Park. I had the naïve idea that I would shoot video with my cell phone as I hurdled along the track. Instead I hung onto my phone desperately with one hand, while I kept my other hand over my eyes, not because I didn’t want to see the ride, but because I had lost my hat on the first hill and I didn’t want to lose my sunglasses as well. That left me with no hands to hold on. It was the ride from hell. Strange wailing moans came from somewhere, and since I was the only person on the coaster, they must have been coming from me.
As I left the park, I walked past the Tumble Bug one last time. It was closed. A maintenance truck was parked in front and several workers were huddled over the train. I asked the operator what happened. He told me that the hydraulic brakes had sprung a leak and that the ride would be out of commission for the rest of the day, maybe all weekend. (Maybe forever, I thought.)
West View Park closed decades ago and was bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall. I have a feeling Conneaut may not be around much longer either. Why does that make me sad? Is it true that you can never really go back?