Lake Compounce Amusement Park
Bristol, ConnecticutThis month's Cold Spots marks the one-year anniversary of the column, so to celebrate, I figured I'd take you, the readers, to an amusement park!
Ride the roller coasters, the Ferris wheel, and listen to the calliope chirp through the air on a summer day. As the sun drifts below the hills, the air turns chilly, the buildings strangely menacing. However, it must be just your imagination, right? A haunted amusement park is something reserved for Scooby Doo and meddling kids, complete with old men in rubber masks trying to launder money or find buried treasure. But there are no talking dogs, and old man Withers isn?t wearing a cheep rubber mask. At the Lake Compounce Amusement Park, the ghosts are very real, and the rides are only part of the thrill.
Amusement parks have long been a staple for family fun with brightly costumed characters and thrill rides to suit all ages. For the price of admission cares are thrown away in a dizzying blend of steel, music, and the cheerful screams of those partaking. Even on the famous ?haunted house? rides, the ghosts are all fabricated to entice delighted squeals from those who?ve momentarily abandoned their worries. But what visitors should remember is the land never forgets. Where that giant roller coaster now stands, beneath that merry-go-round, lie memories long since buried and forgotten by most.
As the oldest park of its kind in the United States, Lake Compounce Amusement Park was constructed in the mid 1800?s. But before the first picnic table found its way onto the land, it belonged to the Mattatuck Indians. In 1684 Chief John Compounce, from whose name the park gets its moniker, sold the land to white settlers who had come from Massachusetts. It was the first recorded evidence of development of the area, and one that was marred by mysterious tragedy.
Mere days after marking the deed with his fingerprint, Compounce met with an untimely demise. Though there are no records, there are three pervasive theories as to how he died. One story claims he was trying to row across the lake in a large brass kettle when it tipped over and he drowned. As ridiculous as the story may be, it is plausible, and slightly less macabre than the other two versions. In the second story Compounce, disgraced at having sold sacred land, purposely rowed out to the center of the lake and drowned himself in a form of ritualistic suicide. Still others believe it was members of his own tribe, angered at the land sale, who bound the chief?s hands and feet and took him to the middle of the lake, drowning him. Whatever the case, the fact remains that Chief Compounce?s mysterious death left its mark on the land. Legend also tells that, not long after, the man who brokered the deal, the head of the Norton family, suffered his own untimely demise when he fell off a ladder.
The Nortons were reputed to be spiritualists who fled Massachusetts when their religious practices were questioned by the government. Their practices involved communing with the spirits and strange rituals, which many say helped to lay the groundwork for future hauntings.
Another factor in making this area ripe for supernatural activity came about in 1846, when a scientist named Samuel Botsford persuaded Norton?s descendant, Gad, to allow him to conduct a series of strange and exciting experiments with electricity. Through his show of arcs and electric attraction across the water of the lake, Botsford attracted a large audience and planted an idea in Norton?s head.
By 1847 Lake Compounce became a picturesque place for families to meet and picnic. Summer barbecues became commonplace, with Norton serving the families lamb. The addition of a hand-crank swing chair and ten-pin bowling alley drew more people, including a ?California Gold Rush ?49er? named Isaac Pierce. Pierce and Norton became business partners.
From that point on, things began to grow at an amazing pace. A casino was completed in 1895, followed by the carousel in 1911. When the Green Dragon, Lake Conpounce?s first electric roller coaster, opened in 1914, it was clear that the park was a money-making venture.
However, success did not come without some sacrifice. Over the next 82 years accidents were bound to happen. Stories circulate about workers killed under the early rotor rides, a builder who was decapitated by an early roller coaster, and even a child who lost her life in a way eerily similar to Chief Compounce himself. She drowned in the lake bearing his name.
There is not one building on the park site that has not experienced some form of haunting. Those that work in the park all have stories of spooky happenings that range from phantom voices to lights flashing of their own accord. Some former workers have reported moving objects and shadows darting away at the edge of vision.
Most of the hauntings, however, occur in the famous Starlight Ballroom, where such luminaries as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman all preformed. The all-time attendance record was set in the spring of 1941 when 5,000 dancers kicked up their heels to Tommy Dorsey?s band and the smooth vocals of a young up-and-comer named Frank Sinatra. The sounds of music are still heard, long after the doors are locked and the last patron has gone home. Shadowy dancers cavort through the halls, and though some talk about items being moved, it seems the souls are simply there to have a good time among the living.
The park stayed in the Norton family for many years with the Pierce family selling their interests to the Nortons in 1966. Thirty years later the Kennywood Entertainment Company became managing partner of the park, overseeing $50 million worth of new rides, attractions, and structural refurbishing. The new pieces still continue to honor the natural beauty of the land and the roots of the park while providing every modern convenience.
Improvements notwithstanding, the park still employs security forces to patrol the grounds night and day. Those officers, whether they have prior knowledge of the disturbances and history of the park or not, all have reported sightings and phenomena over the years.
Ask anyone when the best time to go to an amusement park is, and they?ll tell you as often as possible. Summer months in the north seem to be the best time for rides and fun, but those looking for more thrills than a roller coaster can offer may look to the dead of winter, when the first mysterious death marked the land.
See you in two weeks!
Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson