Saturday, October 13, 2018

The End of LeSourdsville Lake/Americana


The story of LeSourdsville Lake/Americana Amusement Park is what kicked off this website nearly eleven years ago. It was an early foray into my ongoing photographic documentation of abandoned and forgotten places. As a photographer and theme park veteran, I was fascinated by the place. Now, it's meeting its finality.

Here's one last look. From the ground, from the sky, and from the past.



- The remains of LeSourdsville Lake/Americana as seen from a drone in September 2018.


Let's go back a bit...

As a teenager, I was obsessed with two things: photographing abandoned places and amusement parks. I worked in a theme park and used the funds from that job to purchase my first digital camera. In my off time, I'd scour the internet and get inspired by what was then a niche interest: documenting forgotten, off-limits, and abandoned places via photography. What's also known as "urban exploration."

After school one day, those key interests combined when a friend and I hopped a fence into Surf Cincinnati. The afternoon ebbed into the evening as I filled my memory card with what we were seeing: the crumbling remains of a waterpark. It was a gateway drug and I was hooked. I knew what subjects I wanted to photograph, the kind of history I wanted to explore through writing. There were a few more abandoned locales we hit up: some old factories, warehouses, gravel quarries, apartment buildings, etc. All of them paled to "Surf," though, a place we had personally known when it was active, a location unique not solely because it was abandoned, but because it was an abandoned amusement park.

Imagine our feeling when we realized there was another abandoned amusement park nearby.

I had only known it as "Americana" and my visits during its active life were sparse, mostly when I was really young. Still, LeSourdsville Lake (as it was historically known), had an interesting past and embodied a more "classic" amusement park feel compared to the waterpark we had originally lurked around. At Americana, there were roller coasters and rides, all sitting idle and mysterious in the distance.

Naturally, I wanted to see it.

Visiting the closed park in nearby Middletown, Ohio wasn't particularly uncommon at the time. The internet had a few photo essays scatted about and tales of illicit adventures after dark were often passed around between groups of my theme park co-workers. Stories persisted of guard dogs and roaming security patrols, but by most accounts, it seemed no one was watching over the shuttered entertainment destination. The intrigue grew with every passing thought and every drive by in the car when I'd go out of my way to catch a glimpse of the place. Sometimes I'd pull up to the old parking lot and just hang out, listening to music and keeping an eye out for any security guards. In the winter, I'd look for car tracks in the snow. I eventually felt confident that there was no one inside. Those human figures I could see in the office windows and zoom in on with a camera: they were clearly mannequins.

At this point, I want to be clear. We weren't looking to go in armed with spray paint or thoughts of adolescent destruction and the only thing we planned to take were photographs. The scenes would be unique and eerie, we'd be documenting history and sharing a cool story.

So one evening, another friend and I, headed out in search of adventure. We stashed my car and made off in a hurry. The rusted, old barbed wire fence was easy to scale (I doubt either of us even knew what tetanus was anyways). Over the obstacle and inside, we broke out the cameras. I snapped maybe one or two shots when I saw movement across the property. There was a car and it was headed towards our general area.

We took off running, ducking into an old picnic shelter that had become storage for dismantled ride vehicles. Behind a tarp, we dropped to the dusty floor and held our breath. Our parents would be pissed and our school probably wouldn't been too happy.

In my head, I thought: "how could we have been so naive? Maybe we should've scouted some more? Why did I trust everyone's stories? How did I not notice that someone was watching this place?"

The car flew by. It stopped. We heard someone get out and walk around. Then the door slammed again, the engine started up, and the car took off.

We peeked out: "All clear."

Off we ran, back the way we came, our adventure cut short. I had one more thought as we left that that night: "why didn't we just ask?"

We mainly kept the tale of that night to ourselves, but through an encouraging mentor and friend (thanks for everything throughout the years, LM!), we had a personal introduction to the park's owners. I asked if myself and a few friends could come see the place and our request was obliged. On a Spring day, we stood inside what seemed like the setting of a Scooby Doo cartoon, but only for about fifteen minutes before the sky overhead unleashed a violent storm.

"Come back another time," they said.

I graduated high school with plans to pursue college and a study of photography, returning to my summer job at the local, active theme park. I was eventually able to get that permissible visit to Americana rescheduled. In the Summer of 2007, myself and a few friends stepped through the gates once more.

The day was atypical of the August afternoons spent at amusement parks across the nation: hot, humid, sticky. The only difference was that this park was completely closed, just as it had been for five years by this point. We spent hours roaming around, making countless frames, and taking it all in.

A few months later in a college dorm room, I launched QueenCityDisco.com with its first story: "LeSourdsville Lake/Americana Revisited."

- Americana's marquee coaster, "The Screechin' Eagle," seen abandoned in 2007.


The story was popular, still the seventh most viewed throughout this website's 500+ posts and 10+ years of existence. I wrote in the style I knew at the time: like a high school kid authoring a history report. The previous attempts to visit the park weren't mentioned and most of the history photos were courtesy of Scott Fowler and AmericanaAmusementPark Dot Com (which seems to be defunct now, but Mr. Fowler has published a fantastic book on the park's history).

That original post has the detailed history, but I'll include a quick summary here:

LeSourdsville Lake was born out of an ice manufacturing facility that utilized a manmade lake near the defunct Miami-Erie Canal. Edgar Streifthau and his partners built picnic and campground facilities along the lake that they had also added a concrete bottom to. A popular entertainment option between Dayton and Cincinnati, the park hosted dances, gatherings, and eventually grew to include amusement rides. In 1939, the park added its iconic roller coaster, one that had originally debuted at another Ohio amusement park back in 1927. Board by board, the ride was transported to LeSourdsville and it re-debuted in its new home as "The Cyclone." 
The park continued throughout the years. There was drama and a few downturns, but the place had grown and prospered for the most part, becoming an iconic local institution. Television stars, popular musical acts of their respective times, and local celebrities passed through. New investors came in, things were reinvented, and the park evolved along with the greater amusement park industry across the nation. 
In 1968, one of LeSourdsville's original founders, Edgar Streifthau, found himself forced out of the park's ownership. With neighboring land that he still owned, he found another park. Fantasy Farm was geared towards younger children, but still a competitor to the historic park it butted up to. The Middletown/Moneroe, Ohio area now had two amusement parks.
Cincinnati's Coney Island had always existed far enough away that it never seemed to bother LeSourdsville or Fantasy Farm too much. Even when Coney Island was mostly relocated, reborn, and modernized into the behemoth known as Kings Island in 1972, the much smaller LeSourdsville seemed to have its own niche and successful operating model. A rebrand changed the park's name to "Americana Amusement Park" in 1978 and brought about significant investment and a new identity. 
The 80s and 90s were a bit more tumultuous. There was a fire that brought about millions in damages, but didn't claim any lives. Then there was the introduction of temporary foreign workers to meet staffing challenges. That action caused a PR dustup when the nearby union-run steel industry declined to hold their lucrative, annual picnic at the park in the wake of such hiring practices. Attendance dropped after a few seasons of hardship and eventually Chapter 11 bankruptcy was declared. Fantasy Farm saw its own demise in 1991 (the aforementioned Mr. Fowler has another exceptional book around that park's history as well). 
New owners came in and made some positive strides. Costs were cut, relationships with the local unions were repaired, and attendance began to climb back despite the addition of new attractions becoming more of a rarity. A local company, Park River Corporation (who also came to own Cincinnati's Coney Island after it was downsized for the creation of Kings Island) eventually came to own Americana. They poured in money that resulted in physical improvements and increased marketing. By 1996, the classic coaster (that had come to now be known as "The Screechin' Eagle") was still popular among roller coaster enthusiasts both as a historical piece and fun attraction. However, Park River quickly reverted on their enthusiasm for Americana, placing the park for sale in 1998. After one more season in 1999, the park was mothballed.
Local businessman and recreational vehicle magnate Jerry Couch came to own the park in 2000. He constructed a new RV showroom and shared plans to reopen the amusement destination. In April 2002, "Couch's Americana Amusement Park at LeSourdsville Lake" debuted. Classic attractions remained and many rides were leased from the Pugh Family, a company of carnival operators who also handled the staffing and park operations. The season was cut a weekend short, though, and plans for Halloween and Christmas events cancelled. The park's future was in doubt as the Pugh Family filed for bankruptcy. 2002 would stand as a lone season of revival as rumors swirled about the future. The park passed through 2003, closed once again, with no news. 
And so was the story in 2004. 
And 2005.  
In 2006, Mr. Couch announced that the park would never operate as a traditional amusement park again. I visited and wrote my story in 2007. Back then, one of the plans was turn the place into a "Christian summer camp." The lake was drained and replaced with grass for recreation fields. Theoretically, the new camp could operate some of the rides, but it wasn't known if they would want to or if a deal would even be reached to bring the camp to life. Stories of revival seemed to come and go and as the years progressed, rumors never turning into action. Every now and then, a ride or two would be purchased and relocated to other small parks in the country. A History Channel show: "Life After People," was filmed at Americana in 2009. The program explored what would happen to the world if/when the human race disappeared. The park served as an overly dramatic, real-life example with the show's narrator theorizing that the marquee wooden roller coaster would soon crumble to the ground.  
It did in 2011 when demolition equipment tore into the wooden boards due to fear of frequent trespassers getting hurt on its structure. Little by little, elements of the park continued to disappear. A few children's rides were relocated and partially assembled near the parking lot. Supposedly, they'd be attractions in a new RV campground. However, the entire RV business closed in 2015 as Mr. Couch announced his retirement. 

Americana had been dead and gone for years. What little remained could commonly be seen on social media, particularly Instagram, where countless people posted pictures of their excursions into the amusement park's dwindling remains. Plans for the property emerged in 2017 as local technical school, Butler Tech, announced intentions to build a new campus. Shortly after, Mr. Couch donated the remaining land to the City of Monroe. Current plans call for the construction of a large municipal park and bicycle trail. With the recent announcements in mind, I decided to go back to where the genesis of QueenCityDiscovery.com began:


As of September 2018, very little of Americana/LeSourdsville Lake and Fasntasy Farm remained. A new restaurant, the Fantasy Diner and Ice Cream Parlor, had "opening soon" banners displayed alongside salvaged elements of the mostly demolished amusement parks.

- View the full size image.

An old Americana map hung on a wall, a few building structures remained, and the park's former Liberty Bell replica had been placed out front.

- Remnants of the parks still on site.






As for Americana itself, not much could be seen from the parking lot that now catered to a technical school campus. The entrance was standing for the time being, construction equipment was lined up, and you could see a few structures in the distance beyond the fence.





As I stood outside, a motorcycle tore through the park and emerged at the fence.

"Still a security guard after all these years," I thought to myself,

However, the crotch rocket rider emerged, saw my camera, and said: "It's cool in there, you should go check it out," as he slid the fence back in place behind him and sped off. I have to admit that the thought of one more illicit adventure (after our failed journey over a decade ago and so many other urban exploration treks throughout the years) was tempting, but technology has advanced. On this day, I simply had to sit back and let my buddy do all the work as he took his drone to the sky:












For me, the saddest thing about Americana/LeSourdsville Lake was that it always seemed like it could come back at any moment. Although it's easy to to fantasize about other people's money and spend hours playing "Roller Coaster Tycoon," it wasn't hard to imagine a scenario where the park could be reborn. The amusement industry landscape is dotted with small, family friendly parks that operate independently of corporate backing and the cash infusions of name brand chains. In a day and age where local, handcrafted, unique experiences are making a comeback and actively competing for entertainment dollars, why couldn't this park be part of that? Mostly everything was sitting there, just ready to be revived. The classic coaster could roar back to life, the lights of the midway could glow once again, and people could experience a taste of what the park's name claimed to offer: "Americana."

That's all easier said than done, though, and ignores the more complex realities of life, the economy, industry, and investment. In 2007, it seemed the park was just waiting for one more chance. In 2018, its death is certain.

The land will be put to good use, though, and history will remember another deceased park alongside the the tales of locals, many of whom filled this website's comment sections over the years. Parts of the place have managed to live on. Aside from the aforementioned diner and ice cream parlor, animatronics from one of the park's shows can still be found performing at the nearby Jungle Jim's International Market. The "Rock-O-Plane" and "Tempest" rides can still be ridden at Cincinnati's Coney Island. You can still take a spin on the "Electric Rainbow" at the local Stricker's Grove. "The Serpent" now operates at a park in Saginaw, Michigan. "The Calypso" made its way to Fun Spot in Indiana, where it found itself forgotten once again at another abandoned park that was highlighted here on QC/D:

- The Calypso seen at the abandoned Fun Spot in Angola, IN after being relocated from Americana. Photo from a 2010 QC/D story.


The Calypso would go on to eventually find a third life at Holiday World in Indiana, where it operates today. One more interesting tie to old Americana: "Thunder Run" at Kentucky Kingdom.

- Thunder Run seen idle at the then-derelict Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom. Photograph from a 2012 QC/D story


Designed by the local (and now defunct), West Chester, Ohio based Dinn Corporation, Thunder Run was a wooden roller coaster set to be installed at Americana. I've never come across the exact reasons, but it never found its way to the park. Instead, the ride was built at Louisville's Kentucky Kingdom in 1989. Kentucky Kingdom would eventually become Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom and it too would eventually become another abandoned park that I'd photograph and highlight here on QC/D.

Unlike Americana, though, the much larger Kentucky Kingdom eventually reopened (covered in a 2017 QC/D story) and Thunder Run lives on:

- Thunder Run, alive once again along with Kentucky Kingdom in 2017.


As part of that original 2007 story, I filmed some (blatantly amateur) video as we toured LeSourdsville Lake/Americana's remains. That video was up on YouTube for awhile, but got pulled when the video hosting service took issue with my unlicensed use of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song as the background track. I re-cut the video into a somewhat less amateur production in 2012.

Despite the park's story coming to a close with this post, and it being the subject that kicked off this website nearly eleven years ago, there's still one last part of the story to tell.

I went back once...



Read on in the next post.

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Over the years, several of QC/D's urban exploration stories have focused on abandoned amusement parks: View all of the stories

Special thanks to Scott Fowler for being an incredible historical resource and to Scott Schiaffo for flying his drone while visiting from New Jersey (great seeing you again, dude). 

2 comments:

  1. Dude thanks for this. I went there as a little kid before we could afford Kings Island. Serpent and Screeching Eagle and little dipper were 1,2 and 3 for me.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for taking the time to read it and check it out. If you're ever up for it, the Serpent is still running up in Saginaw, Michigan.

      ..but then you have to go to Saginaw. And ride the Serpent.

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