with Barbed Wire, Roller Coasters
by Peter Dybdahl
Chippewa Lake Park operated as a fully functioning amusement park
for a hundred and one years. In its prime, the park was not some
glitzy backwoods attraction, but a destination itself, with a lakeside
hotel, roller coasters, a boardwalk and a grand ballroom. When Chippewa
Lake Park folded in 1978, the management just locked the gates and
took off, leaving roller coaster cars on their track and commemorative
centennial cups piled up next to trashcans.
From pictures I saw before my visit, it looked as if the park has
been reclaimed by nature. One of them was of the ferris wheel where
a large tree had grown up from the base of it.
The parks dubious existence made finding directions difficult.
Maps got me as far as the town of Chippewa Lake Park, but I had
to stop at the Stop-and-Go for directions from there.
The cashier, who looked about 60, said the park was just down the
main road. I asked if she had some memories of it. She said that
her husband worked for Ford and they used to have the company picnics
at the park in 1958 and 1959. I was hoping for an anecdote but she
nodded again and said I ought to visit during the day because, from
the gates, I might be able to see the ballroom that supposedly once
carried the Rolling Stones. She said that teenagers had burned almost
everything else down.
Indeed, for a solid reporting experience a daytime visit might have
been more appropriate, but for the full range of thrills to be had
with an abandoned amusement park, I felt the nighttime visit was
the way to go.
Chippewa Lake Park was not down the main road. It was past 10 at
night and after several wrong turns I gave up on the park. But heading
out of town, I passed a promising and partially hidden road and
turned down it. It took me past a handful of houses before opening
up to a stretch of pavement on one side. This gave way to a tall
metal fence with barbed wire at the top. A beat-down pick-up truck
was parked under a street light there. From the car, I could see
a row of broken down ticket booths.
I got out and looked around. From the gates I could see the roller
coaster track emerging from the top of one tree and twistinginto
the top of another. I had to squint to make it out. The barbed wire
was too imposing for me to scale the fence, so I snapped a few pictures,
and then followed the fence down the road. By the time I found a
break in the links, I was far from anything recognizable and felt
a bit edgy about hoofing my way through the woods to an abandoned
amusement park. I headed back out to the main road, and back to
Looking for information on Chippewa Lake Park, I was surprised to
discover that several groups on the internet are dedicated to defunct
amusement parks, especially those that are standing but not
operating as one website referred to them. As the SBNOs go,
Chippewa Lake is a gem. Usually when amusement parks close, they
liquidate assets and try to sell off their rides. Chippewa Lake
Park, however, was left in all its glory, and what hasnt been
burned still stands.
I am not sure what is so appealing about an abandoned amusement
park, but perhaps it lies in the allure of all abandoned things.
The way tourists still visit ghost towns of the West, or the way
we might pick up a discarded wedding album, I think we are intrigued
by the urgency to leave something valuable behind, and we look to
these things for the secrets of failure.
An abandoned amusement park is also just plain rad. The structures
are odd and frightening. I was juiced from the first moment I got
to Chippewa Lake, if only by the notion that someone would hassle
me for trespassing. Or shoot me. Moreover, we all suspect that behind
the seemingly harmless façade of the amusement park lurks
an inexplicable evil, like with clowns and funhouses.
At another Stop-and-Go store outside Chippewa Lake, a man told me
that the park closed when a kid stood up on the roller coaster and
died. Later, I found out that Jeffrey Dahmers first victim
was a hitchhiker headed to Chippewa Lake Park for a concert. This
is exactly the sort of lore I expected.
Ill leave getting to Chippewa Lake Park to the hard-core scavengers
and explorers, whom, I hope, wont defile this aging beauty.