Alone with Barbed Wire, Roller Coasters
by Peter Dybdahl

The 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 park’s 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 Oberlin.
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 hasn’t 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 Dahmer’s first victim was a hitchhiker headed to Chippewa Lake Park for a concert. This is exactly the sort of lore I expected.
I’ll leave getting to Chippewa Lake Park to the hard-core scavengers and explorers, whom, I hope, won’t defile this aging beauty.

November 9
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