Lakeside: Sixty Summers of Ups and Downs
It’s a hot summer Friday in Salem, Virginia; any hot summer Friday in the 1960s or 70s or 80s. Soon after breakfast, you see hundreds of visitors begin to arrive, pouring out of buses with sunblock and picnic lunches. Soon each is branded with a color-coded string tag on his or her wrist; soon after that they are screaming in fear and delight. At dusk they straggle back onto the buses, exhausted and happy, some slightly sunburned despite their lotion, others carrying neon-colored stuffed animals. The next day, it happens all over again.
Before the rides came one heck of a pool. In 1919, a group of investors led by Robert Lee Lynn and H. E. Hogan purchased the orchard of John Bower for the purpose of operating a “general pleasure resort” known as Lakeside. The name referred to the 2 million gallon swimming pool, complete with sandy beach, that they soon built. Lakeside’s swimming pool was described by the Salem Times Register a few days after opening: “The lake is 300 feet in length and 125 feet wide, with a maximum depth of 8 feet. A space of 40 by 125 feet has been provided for children, and ranges in depth from 2 to 4 feet. The Lake is surrounded by a sand beach along which a numerous benches. . . and thousands of electric lights illuminate the entire grounds. The pump used in furnishing the lake with water has a capacity of 20,000 gallons per hour. . . In the pavilion will be found cloak rooms for both men and women, a soda fountain, a newsstand, and also restaurant service. The bath houses are equipped with individual dressing rooms fitted with lockers and shower baths.” Lakeside later claimed to run the world’s largest swimming pool.
The original Lakeside charter called for the pool, athletic fields, and a planned hotel. No mention was made of rides. Yet within a few years, Lakeside had added a “Twirl- around” (Ferris wheel), “Lindy Planes” (named for heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh), pony rides, and other attractions. Probably most popular was a roller coaster known successively as the Thriller, Mountain Speedway, and the Wildcat.
Lakeside became a center of controversy in the 20s when local Judge W. W. Moffett decreed that the pool opening to “half naked” swimmers on Sunday was detrimental to public morals. The local sheriff disagreed, saying that Lakeside prevented law-breaking, since skinny dipping along the creeks and Roanoke River had diminished as a result of the pool. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that Lakeside could remain open on Sundays. Park manager Robert Lynn (also president of Heironimus) soon closed the park on Sundays anyway, claiming that he had proven his point but didn’t want to offend anyone.
In 1936, Lakeside was purchased by H. L. Roberts, whose family would own the park for the next 45 years. One of his first acts was to abolish alcohol in the park, determined to foster the family image the park would keep for the rest of its history. He also considered a radical course of action that fortunately did not pan out. Convinced that the pool was the money maker and the rides a waste of space, Roberts tried to convince a movie company to burn down the roller coaster for a film. Luckily for thrill seekers, Roberts could never find a taker, and the Mountain Speedway kept rolling.
The Roberts family were entrepreneurs of clean family fun. Through the years, they jealously guarded Lakeside’s reputation as a family park. Alcohol was prohibited, disruptive visitors were evicted, and marketing was aimed at families or groups looking for an affordable outing. Unlike most other amusement parks, Lakeside allowed visitors to bring picnic lunches into the park, sacrificing some concession revenue to draw the desired type of crowd. The park also offered cheap no-ride admission tickets to parents who only wanted to watch their children have fun. Church groups, school groups, family reunions, class reunions, and company picnics were also welcomed.
Lakeside was always looking for new and innovative ways to pack in the visitors. Novelty acts such as parachutists and Marvelo, who set himself on fire daily, were frequently seen at the park. One of the most important draws was music in the summer, and through the years Lakeside was visited by dozens of well known celebrities. The early jazz and big band concerts were eventually replaced by rock and country music performances.
In 1967, the Roberts family decided to embark on a $1 million renovation program, replacing virtually everything in the park over the next few years. The old pool had become unprofitable, a fact many attributed to whites’ unwillingness to swim with blacks, but also due to the growing number of backyard pools and private clubs. After a brief stint as a private pool, the colossal concrete lake was unceremoniously filled in to make space for more rides.
The center piece of the new Lakeside was an immense new roller coaster, the Shooting Star, replacing the old 1920s Thriller. At a cost of some $225,000 and a length of 4,120 feet, the Shooting Star claimed to be the world’s fastest roller coaster when it took its first ride in 1968. The Shooting Star was designed by the legendary John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Coaster Company, who has been credited with a renaissance of wooden coaster development in the 60s and 70s, designing 19 coasters in 20 years. According to design specs, the Shooting Star was 84 feet tall and 4,120 feet long. It took approximately 120 seconds for loading, running on track, and unloading in the station. It had two trains (red and blue) consisting of four cars per train, and carrying six passengers per car (24 passengers per train). The coaster required 320,000 board feet of lumber, 19,000 lbs. of steel, 1,600 gallons of paint, 7,000 lbs. of nails, 14,000 lbs. of bolts, and 600 feet of lift chain powered by a Westinghouse 100 horsepower motor.
In 1981, an era for Lakeside ended when the Roberts family sold their interest in the park to the F. S. Management Company for $3 million dollars. Despite a program of renovations, bringing in several new rides and activities, the new owners found themselves in a dispute with the city of Salem over admission taxes. By 1984, Lakeside had sold again to Mountain Park Inc., who also began to remodel. The most noticeable change was an artificial pond for paddle boating, dubbed Lake Roberts in honor of the family that had made Lakeside what it was.
Many factors have been identified in bringing about the demise of Lakeside. Competition from larger parks in the state, rising costs, and hikes in the minimum wage all took their toll. The disastrous Flood of 1985, when Mason’s Creek made Lakeside’s name temporarily accurate, did immense damage. Still, the park reopened after the flood, and even continued to remodel and innovate. Another final straw was an accident in which a maintenance worker was killed in 1986 during a test run of the Shooting Star. The resulting lawsuit helped to convince Mountain Park Inc. that the park was no longer tenable. But ultimately Lakeside closed for a more simple reason, to which all the others contributed: it had stopped making enough money, and like any business not making a profit, the gates soon closed. Lakeside closed forever on October 19, 1986.
What became of the rides from Lakeside? Originally, the Shooting Star was to be dismantled and reassembled at Emerald Pointe in North Carolina. Parts of the superstructure and the trains were moved to the new park, but Emerald Pointe went bankrupt before the Shooting Star was reborn. Much of the framework still sits along Mason’s Creek, the red and white paint peeling. The beams sent to Emerald Pointe were eventually sold for fencing. The cars were sent back to the manufacturer, PTC. The red train was scrapped, but Lakeside’s blue train was sold and still runs at Sea Mist Park in Myrtle Beach. The Frontier Railroad train is still in use at Busch Gardens, and other rides seem to have been sold overseas.
The Roanoke Times printed an epitaph for Lakeside on Oct. 22, 1986: “Just as children won’t part with toys they’ve outgrown, the Roanoke Valley didn’t want to lose Lakeside. . . An amusement park is one of the few places where children and adults can relate on the same level. Kids are free to act like kids, and so are adults. Without Lakeside, there will be a long drive to put a child on a merry-go-round for the first time. . . The valley now has one less place where people of any age can be young.”
But Lakeside lives on in memories of speed, cotton candy, and carousel music on hot summer nights.