Saturday, November 30, 2019

Camden Park - May 18, 2008


During a recent trip through West Virginia, Ryan and I stopped to make a few photographs of Camden Park. Already closed for the season, the quick detour got me thinking about some older images from a visit to the park over ten years ago and how this place intersected with several other QC/D stories/elements of my work over the years.

So, I dug up those photos and notes.



- The Big Dipper, 2008.


On a rainy Sunday morning, I left my dorm room at Ohio University to go visit Huntington, West Virginia’s Camden Park with a friend. At the time, I still worked at Cincinnati’s Kings Island (summers in the Rides Department, winter breaks with the Wood Coaster Maintenance Team) and was a fan of amusement parks from a photography, visitor, and operations perspective. This website wasn’t even a year old at the time and the first article ever produced here was centered around the abandoned LeSourdsville Lake/Americana Amusement Park in Middletown, Ohio (plus, we had been sneaking into the crumbling, closed Surf Cincinnati for years).

I knew there were things I wanted to say about amusement parks, what they represent, culture, nostalgia, history, and how all of that relates to other aspects of life—but I was just in the early stages of fleshing all that out. Over a decade later, I’m still working on those themes, but have put together a lot of other stories which share that personal journey. At the start, though, Camden Park was a nice encapsulation of many of those elements (even if I didn’t quite realize it yet).

The park was about two hours away and I got there just as it was opening, the sun was clearing, and the rain was evaporating off the asphalt midways. Camden was/is pretty small and is West Virginia’s only amusement park. Like so many of this nation’s “classic” parks born well before the corporate boom of the 70s, Camden started as a riverside picnic grove and similar to Cincinnati’s historic Coney Island—visitors once arrived via intercity rail transit. Some sources credit Camden as “one of only thirteen trolley parks that remain open in the United States.”

The grove opened in 1902, but the first ride (a carousel) arrived in 1903. Over the years, more rides were added to the park’s lineup including the classic Big Dipper—a 1958 wooden creation from the National Amusement Device (NAD) Company.

- The Big Dipper and its original, manual lever controls, 2008.


In 2008 (and from what I understand, still as of this writing) the Big Dipper still had its original, manual operation system in place: a series of levers that work the brakes as opposed to an electronic PLC system.

- During my visit, I was told that these holes in the Big Dipper station served to hold guest’s sno-cones while they rode. 

- The Big Dipper, 2008.


From what I remember, the Big Dipper was a good ride and relatively smooth despite the age/design. It did (and still does) feature the original NAD trains—a historic and comfortable rarity in the amusement industry. The last seat was permanently blocked off due to the intense “ejector air-time” that occurs when the ride descends hills. The park’s children’s coaster—the Lil’ Dipper (also built by NAD)—still had its original, streamlined art-deco trains as well. Before it was in vogue, the Lil’ Dipper was actually built with steel supports beneath the layers of wood track.

- The Big and Lil' Dippers, 2008.

- The Ferris Wheel and Skydiver, 2008.


Camden had a varied reputation over the years, but as I recall—at the time of my visit in 2008—a new family ownership had taken things over and was known to have greatly improved the place.

- View from the "The Skyliner," 2008. Note the casual restraints.


A slice of pizza cost me $2.69, which is a more than fair price considering a “slice” was 1/4 of a whole pizza. I also ate a pronto pup (a corn dog made with flour or pancake batter).


The park was dotted with classic rides such as “The Whip,” which is hard to come by in adult form these days. According to my notes, the ride’s sign was painted by the owner’s son, Jack.



Outside of the classic midway, the park featured a lake surrounded by several rides. Much like the now demolished Americana/LeSourdsville, Camden’s lake was also stocked with giant fish that you could feed.



I never much cared for water rides, but rode the park’s log flume at the urging of my friend. Despite being relatively small, I remember the thing completely soaked its passengers. This ride was built by Barr Engineering, the same company who had designed Americana/LeSourdsville’s renown log flume.

- Americana/LeSourdsville Lake's similar log flume as seen in its abandoned state. From a 2018 QCD story.

- Log Flume, 2008.

- Log Flume and ride operator, 2008.

- Scrambler, 2008.


A lot of the ride’s at Camden offered long cycles. Really, really long cycles. Unlike corporate amusement parks where it’s a priority to move guests through as quickly as possible, many of Camden’s rides were manually controlled. I.E. if it was a low crowd day like this particular Sunday was, the operators would let you spin for a good long while.

Apparently The Scrambler was removed some time after 2008.

- Manufacturer plate on The Scrambler, 2008.


Depending on who you talk to in the industry, Camden Park had two or three roller coasters in 2008 (it has since added another in 2016). Aside from The Big Dipper and Lil’ Dipper, the Haunted House is technically a roller coaster, even if the Roller Coaster Database website didn't agree at the time (it does now). You ride in a car, a lift hill chain pulls you up, and gravity does the rest (in a 2008 piece I wrote about the park for a different website, I mentioned that there’s a “surprise” in the Haunted House, but I have no idea any more what that surprise is). The most unique thing about this ride, though, is its braking system...

- Haunted House, 2008.


...an employee just waits for the car to come in and then physically stops it. I’m not sure if it’s still this way, but at the time—this method of operation was certified and approved by state inspectors. According to some notes, the man stopping cars here was Scott, a really nice guy who spoke with me for awhile.

Also according to some notes: the bumper cars offered up a ten minute ride cycle, my car had steering problems, and a dad + his kids beat up on me the whole time.

- Bumper cars, 2008.


The new attraction for 2008 was a detailed miniature golf course that was between the park’s sky ride and train. The land that the mini golf occupied once belonged to a steel roller coaster known as the Thunderbolt Express.


The Thunderbolt Express was an early “shuttle loop” built by Arrow Dynamics. If you’re a longtime reader of this website and think this ride looks familiar, you may be reminded of the story on Fun Spot—a small, family owned park in Northern Indiana that was abandoned. Fun Spot had a similar Arrow Dynamics model. In fact, Fun Spot had wanted the one that Camden Park eventually got.

- The Thunderbolt Express at Camden Park. Image via Pinterest.


Cincinnati’s Kings Island opened “The Screamin’ Demon” in 1977. It was the park’s first looping roller coaster—a technology and attraction feature that was just gaining prominence in the industry at the time. Arrow Dynamic’s original prototype was also relocated to a Florida park and opened to the public that year.

- The Screamin' Demon at Kings Island. Image via CincinnatiViews.net.


Kings Island operated the "Demon" for 11 seasons, at which time its gimmick and technology were eventually surpassed by newer attractions within the park. They put the ride up for sale and a prospective buyer was found in Angola, Indiana at a small park known as Fun Spot. As John Keeter reported in a story here, Kings Island backed out of the sale when Fun Spot’s owner told the press the reason why KI was removing the Demon (to install a new water ride). Annoyed that their-then secret future expansion plans had been leaked, Kings Island backed out of the deal and sold the "Demon" to Camden Park instead.

The coaster was renamed “Thunderbolt Express" and it operated in West Virginia from 1988 to 1999 before standing, but not operating from 2000 to 2004. Eventually it was removed and the miniature golf course took the land for 2008.

Fun Spot did eventually get their own Arrow shuttle loop, purchasing the original prototype from Florida in 1990. That ride lasted in Indiana until the park closed in 2008. It was seen abandoned in a 2010 QC/D story and eventually demolished.

- Fun Spot's shuttle loop in its abandoned state. From the 2010 QCD story.


If you’ve read that Fun Spot story, you may remember the anecdote about the small boats and my childhood connection to them. Camden had a set too...


...in addition to this small horse and buggy style ride—an old-school children’s attraction that’s increasingly uncommon (I’m not sure whatever happened to Fun Spot’s):

- Pony Carts, 2008.


Another connection to Americana/LeSourdsville Lake: Camden’s sky ride is similar in that it only features one station. Guests ride above before turning around and returning to the loading platform.


The park’s “Spider” ride was similar to Kings Island’s “Monster,” but slightly smaller. Some swear that this version from the same manufacturer is more intense. Both types feature manual controls and each ride cycle/experience is unique. Apparently Camden's Spider was removed in 2011.

- The Spider, 2008.


Overall, from what I remember (and what memories these photographs are bringing back), Camden was/is a great, small family-run park.

- Camden Park midway, 2008.


It’s a vestige of a bygone era, the kind of park that’s becoming more and more rare these days. I met and spoke with a lot of the staff on this visit, all of whom were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Maybe one day I’ll get back when it’s actually open. Somewhere I still have a shot glass with that iconic clown sign.

Thanks, John, from showing me Camden Park this day. It meant a lot and wherever you are (and if you’re reading this), I hope you’re well.

- Camden Park sign as seen when passing by in 2019.

2 comments:

  1. I've never been inside the park but I do have a picture of the sign from 2005. My comments at the time include the claim that this was the only amusement park in West Virginia. http://dennygibson.com/newkid/day05/pic1a.jpg

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    1. If you're ever up for a random Sunday drive and desire hot dogs + roller coasters, hit me up. I'd love to visit Camden again!

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