By KAITLYN NAPLES
Starting this weekend, anyone who visits the Bristol History Room on the second floor of the main library will be able to see how Lake Compounce has evolved over the years with photographs that date back to as far as the 1800s.
Lake Compounce didn’t always have the water park, or the Zoomerang, or Boulder Dash, or the annual Haunted Graveyard. It is, however, the oldest, continuously-operating amusement park in North America, when it all began in 1846.
In the Bristol History Room at the library, there are thousands of old photos on all kinds of topics about Bristol. Manewitz said he and LaPorte have been working on photo galleries for the history room for about three years, and decided to have a “rotating theme wall” in the room to display different topics.
This Saturday, March 23, the History Room will unveil its first themed wall which is devoted to Lake Compounce.
“Lake Compounce is the oldest running amusement park in the country, and it is right here in Bristol,” Manewitz said, adding that he and LaPorte decided that it should be the first to show off to the public.
The photographs go back to when it was nothing more than “the Lake,” which then evolved into the well-known entertainment destination that it is today.
LaPorte, a Bristol native, said he remembers going to Lake Compounce after his eighth grade graduation with his friends.
“That was the thing to do; the only thing to do in Bristol was to go to ‘the Lake’,” LaPorte said as he reminisced about his favorite ride, the bumper cars.
In 1846, scientist Samuel Botsford, persuaded Lake Compounce property owner Gad Norton to allow him to perform an experiment on the property. Thousands of people showed up for the experiment, which ended up being a failure. This failure, however, sparked Norton’s creativity to create a place where people can gather.
According to Lake Compounce’s website, “He put a path around the lake, set up picnic tables, allowed public swimming and rowing on the lake and built a gazebo for lakeside band concerts. Lake Compounce had officially opened to the public as a picturesque ‘picnic’ park.”
The first building on the property was “the casino,” where there was a restaurant downstairs and a ballroom upstairs, and public transportation into the park was formed. LaPorte said the trolley went from Lake Compounce into the center of Bristol, and possibly into Terryville. Lake Compounce eventually purchased a carousel, built its first rollercoaster, which was replaced in 1927 by the still in operation “Wildcat.”
LaPorte said there were Sunday afternoon concerts in front of the gazebo at the park, and then later in the 1950s, big bands would play at the ballroom. The most visitors at the park of all time, LaPorte said, was when Tommy Dorsey and his band performed and drew in 5,000 people. Visitors of Lake Compounce would park inside of where the entrance is today, and would pay-per-ride, rather than a total admission fee.
“It used to have a very laid-back atmosphere,” LaPorte recalled, adding that he remembers a handful of rides, a penny arcade and three motor boats that people could rent. “There are very few people under the age of 70 who couldn’t tell you stories about the lake,” he said.
The themed wall will be up for about eight months, LaPorte said, before another topic takes its place. LaPorte said there are endless options for themed walls, like old schools, factories, churches, homes, streets, and more from the city. He added that he and Manewitz welcome public input on what they might like to see displayed.
“The room is for the public,” LaPorte added.
Members of the public are also welcome to bring in or donate memorabilia and old photos of Bristol if they want, to share with the community.
On Saturday, March 23, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., anyone is invited to attend the opening of the Lake Compounce photo exhibit at the Bristol History Room, on the second floor of the Bristol Public Library, 5 High St. Family members of J. Harwood “Stretch” Norton, a former owner of Lake Compounce, will be in attendance.
The Bristol History Room is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m., and then again on Wednesday from 6 to 7:45 p.m.
Comments? Email knaples@BristolObserver. com