New book explores the rise and fall of Crystal Beach

Crystal Beach outside the park by Gary Pooler

I have long been fascinated by the amazing effect Crystal Beach Park has on the psyche of so many western New Yorkers. So many Buffalo residents seem to have a very strong bond with “Buffalo’s Coney Island” and can’t believe the amusement park ever closed. As with so many of the long-gone local institutions that are so fondly remembered, I ask myself: if it was so great, why isn’t there more?

In case you didn’t know, Crystal Beach Park was an amusement park for over a hundred years, a small village on a beautiful beach, across the Canadian border from Buffalo. It closed over 30 years ago, but there’s still a lot of nostalgia for the Crystal Beach “Glory Days”.

Gary Pooler is a lifelong resident of Crystal Beach and his book is full of history about this unique attraction. It helps answer the question: Why was Crystal Beach Park closed? Well the short answer is that it closed because people stopped going there.

Crystal Beach started out in the 1880s as a Chautauqua-style spiritual and religious retreat, but before long it was turned into an amusement park.

Crystal Beach began as a Chautauqua-style spiritual and religious retreat in the 1880s, but was soon converted into an amusement park. It quickly became a major regional attraction in the early 20th centuryth Century, and a large number of Americans were drawn to the park and one of the most beautiful beaches in the area.

Before the Peace Bridge was built, most Americans came to the park aboard the Peace Bridge Americanand later by her sister ship, the Canadian. That Canadianknown as the Crystal Beach Boat, was built in 1910 at the Buffalo Dry Dock on Ganson Street and was the last passenger ship to be built in Buffalo.

That Canadian was a luxurious Victorian-style boat with a grand ballroom featuring Cab Calloway, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington. The boat could carry 3,500 passengers and at times made ten trips a day. For many, the two-hour cruise to Crystal Beach was more enjoyable than the rides in the park.

After the Peace Bridge opened in 1929, Americans could drive to Crystal Beach, the US said American sold. That Canadian continued to operate, with ticket prices kept low to attract the 2,000 passengers per trip needed to cover costs. It closed permanently after the 1956 season.

Many western New Yorkers made regular trips to the park, but a good number also spent a week or even the entire summer at the local cottages, which went by unique names like “Villa Maria,” “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Harvey Wallbangers.” Below the hut dwellers developed many lifelong friendships.

Since its construction in 1948, Crystal Beach’s most popular ride has been the Comet Roller Coaster, an exhilarating ride with a vertical drop of 87 feet and a top speed of 55 miles per hour. Other popular rides included the Wilde Maus, Laff in the Dark and the Magic Carpet. The Magic Carpet was an old-fashioned amusement house that ended with parkgoers being able to ride a rolling “magic carpet.” If you didn’t like rides, there was the arcade full of pinball and skee ball games, as well as a miniature golf course. At its peak, tens of thousands of people passed through the park every day.

In the 1970s and 1980s, new large theme parks began to affect attendance at quaint small amusement parks. Back than that Canadian was still in operation, Most Americans were taken straight to Crystal Beach. Now that they were going to Canada, they could go to any of the great new attractions like Canada’s Wonderland and Marineland of Canada. By the way, you could stay in the US and visit the theme parks at Darien Lake or Fantasy Island.

In order to compete effectively with these parks, Crystal Beach probably would have needed to modernize and expand beyond its 37 acres, but there wasn’t the space available to do so.

Also detrimental to visitor numbers, according to the author, was Crystal Beach’s decision to introduce a general admission fee for entry into the park. “It was universally despised, especially by the locals and summer farmers. It put an end to people who happened to be visiting the park for a ride or two and a Hall’s sucker,” Pooler wrote. “Many people perceive the general approval decision as a disaster.”

After a steady decline, the park closed in 1989 and the rides were auctioned. Crystal Beach was a “desolate ghost town” for a number of years, but in 1992 the park’s land was converted into a gated community, the Crystal Beach Tennis & Yacht Club.

Western New Yorkers, nostalgic for the good old days, formed Friends of the Canadian‘ in the 1980s to raise funds to refloat and purchase the boat and towed it to Buffalo in 1984. Plans to restore the boat fell through, and in the 1990s it was dismantled for scrap.

The author is from Crystal Beach and worked in the park when he was young. He has had a distinguished athletic career and is a retired Ontario Police Officer. It offers an extensive social history of the community, including tales of bootlegging, police scandals, rowdy cottage parties, gang fights and performances by historic athletes such as Jesse Owens and Johnny Weissmuller.

Crystal Beach outside the parkdoes an excellent job telling the story of the cherished amusement park long gone but certainly not forgotten. Pooler gives the reader the nostalgic sights, sounds and smells of old Crystal Beach and paints a vivid picture of how special this place was to so many people over so many years.

More information about the book can be found here.

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