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New Book Examines The Rise and The Fall of Crystal Beach

Crystal Beach Out of the Park by Gary Pooler

I’ve long been intrigued with the amazing hold that Crystal Beach Park has on the psyche of so many Western New Yorkers. So many Buffalonians seem to have a very strong attachment to “Buffalo’s Coney Island,” and can’t believe that the amusement park ever closed.  As with so many of the long-gone local institutions that are remembered so fondly, it makes me wonder: If it was so great, why isn’t it around anymore? 

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

Gary Pooler is a lifelong Crystal Beach resident, and his book provides much history about that unique attraction. It helps answer the question: Why did Crystal Beach Park close? 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 started out in the 1880s as a Chautauqua-style spiritual and religious retreat, but before long it was turned into an amusement park.  It quickly developed into a major regional attraction in the early 20th century, and large numbers of Americans were drawn to the park as well as one of the nicest beaches in the area.

Before the Peace Bridge was built, most Americans came to the park aboard the Americana, and later by her sister ship, the Canadiana. The Canadiana, which became known as the Crystal Beach Boat, was built at the Buffalo Dry Dock on Ganson Street in 1910, the last passenger vessel to be built in Buffalo.   

The Canadiana was a luxurious, Victorian-style boat with a large ballroom Cab Calloway, Woody Herman and Duke Ellington. The boat could carry 3,500 passengers, and at times made ten excursions 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 were able to drive to Crystal Beach, so the Americana was sold. The Canadiana kept operating, with ticket  prices kept low in order to attract the 2,000 passengers per trip needed to meet expenses. It finally shut down after the 1956 season.

Many Western New Yorkers traveled to the park on a regular basis, but a good number also spent a week or even the entire summer in the local cottages, which bore unique names like “Villa Maria,” “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Harvey Wallbangers.” Many life-long friendships developed among the cottage residents.

Ever since it was built in 1948 the most popular ride at Crystal Beach was the Comet Roller Coaster, a thrilling ride with a vertical drop of 87 feet and a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour. Other popular rides included the Wild Mouse, Laff in the Dark, and the Magic Carpet. The Magic Carpet was an old-fashioned fun house that ended with parkgoers getting a ride on a rolling “magic carpet.” If you didn’t like rides, there was the Arcade filled with pinball machines and skee ball games, and a miniature golf course.  At its peak, tens of thousands of people passed through the park on a daily basis.

In the 1970s and 1980s new large theme parks started to hurt attendance at quaint little amusement parks. Back when the Canadiana was still operating, most Americans were taken right to Crystal Beach. Now that they were driving to Canada, they could go to one of the big new attractions, like Canada’s Wonderland and Marineland of Canada. For that matter, they could stay in the US and visit the theme parks at Darien Lake or Fantasy Island.

To effectively compete against those parks, Crystal Beach would likely have had to upgrade and expand beyond its 37 acres, but there wasn’t the available space to do so.

Also hurting attendance, according to the author, was Crystal Beach’s decision to implement a general admission charge for entry into the park. “It was universally despised, especially by the locals and summer cottagers. It put an end to people casually visiting the park for a ride or two and a Hall’s sucker,” Pooler wrote. “Many people feel that the general admission decision was a disaster.”

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

Western New Yorkers nostalgic for the good old days established “Friends of the Canadiana” in the 1980s to raise funds to re-float and purchase the boat, and towed it to Buffalo in 1984. Plans to restore the boat failed to materialize, and by the 1990s it was cut up for scrap.

The author is a native of Crystal Beach and worked at the park in his youth. He went on to have an outstanding athletic career and is a retired Ontario Provincial Police Officer. He provides an extensive social history of the community, including stories of bootlegging, police scandals, wild cottage parties, gang fights, and appearances by historic sports figures like Jesse Owens and Johnny Weissmuller.

Crystal Beach Out of the Parkdoes an excellent job telling the history the cherished amusement park that is long gone but certainly not forgotten.  Pooler provides the reader with the nostalgic sights, sounds and smells of the Crystal Beach of old, painting a vivid picture of just how special of a place it was for so many people for so many years.

For more information on the book, click here.

The post New Book Examines The Rise and The Fall of Crystal Beach appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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