Sunday, July 10, 2016

7 Peculiar Tales from Conneaut Lake

From a 1907 postcard, Conneaut Lake's main thoroughfare (Water Street) facing west. 
With summer now if full swing, many area residents and vacationers have already made their way to Conneaut Lake to enjoy the many activities the lake has to offer or to revisit the nostalgia and fun found at the park. The lake has been a drawing force for centuries, going back to its earliest inhabitants.

Over such a span of time, it should be of no surprise, then, that the lake would be the setting for an infinite number of stories across cultures, eras, and generations, the vast majority of which are never recorded. Those that have, however, then serve as the mechanism that provides context to our past. And while that context can be captured in many ways, there’s more than a handful that speaker to the quirky and peculiar moments of an era.

Here are seven from the early days of Conneaut Lake.

1. Swimming the Lake

Marion Christy featured in the St. Louis Republic
The natural obstacles found in the natural world have, throughout time, been viewed by humankind as challenges for us to conquer and Conneaut Lake is no exception. In September of 1900, 16 year-old Marion Christy of Ashtabula, Ohio made national headlines by swimming back and forth across the width of the lake, a distance of 2 miles which she covered in just over an hour. The following year she began training to swim the length of lake. No record can yet be found that she ever accomplished this, but in 1909, Joseph Young of Pittsburgh is credited with the feat. Starting at the Bath House, Young used the overhand stroke to reach the Navigation Company docks at the foot of the lake before returning to the Bath House in 3 hours and 40 minutes. With the width and length conquered, a new challenge was required to make a splash in swimming the lake, and Jack Herbert of New Castle knew what that challenge was. In 1913, Herbert swam the same route and distance as Young, but with his hands tied behind his back. Upping the ante, the very next year Herbert swam from Exposition Park to the east shore and back, this time with his hands and feet tied! Unbeknownst to all these athletes, they were not the first with a notion to swim the distances of the lake. According to The Record Argus, in July 1891, nine years prior to Miss Christy’s finish, a horse set out to cross the lake. It made it most of the way, but unlike Christy, the creature failed in its endeavor.

2. The Wild Man of Conneaut Lake

Inspiration for the Conneaut Lake Wild Man?
In 1909 residents in town and around the lake were anxiously on the lookout for a “wild man” witnessed by numerous people aghast at his unsightly appearance. Speculation as to the wild man’s identity were just as wild—a variation of the Wild Man of Borneo, a ghost of the “Last Mohican,” an escaped convict of Sing Sing Prison or the sulphur mines of Russia, a lunatic from asylum in Warren, and even a racists reference to the “personified embodiment of the Yellow Peril," Leon Ling who had recently been arrested for kidnapping and brutally murdering a young woman in New York City. However, in a Meadville Messenger news clipping we learn that the truth of the alleged wild man was, as one would expect, much less sensational than reported. Apparently, an Evansburg man happened upon several children who were cruelly killing birds. When his admonishments went unheeded he resorted to another, “goblin method of obtaining obedience.” Upon arriving at his home, the man changed into, what the story refers to as, “fantastic garb,” and then returned to the scene where he proved quite effective in scaring the little murderers off with all intended effect. Whatever comprised this so called fantastic garb, thought was mistakenly interpreted by witnesses as no garb at all. This lack of clothing combined with his frightening antics became the basis for the wild man story. And when a couple of pranksters relayed with great sincerity, their wild man encounter to a local reporter, the story, you could say, soon went viral within the community.

3. The Lake’s Sea Monster

Large sea snake pictured in Japan in the 1980's
Could Conneaut Lake have had its own version of the Loch Ness Monster? A 1902 brochure on Exposition Park and the history of Conneaut Lake claims just that with the lake being home to a “sea serpent.” The brochure explains in scant detail how numerous parties described seeing what looked like a “great section of a telegraph pole” moving across the surface of the water and then disappearing once their steamer neared it. Like most tales of its kind, no “adequate description” or “satisfactory sight” of the creature can be produced. The writer, who refers to himself as a local historian, does express doubts given he cannot find anyone who can vouch for the creature’s authenticity, yet its importance, he feels, still “requires its introduction… in the book.” While prehistoric sea animals have been discovered in the modern era and Woolly Mammoths remains have been dug up at the lake, one could speculate that this mysterious beast’s existence was more of a promotional tactic built on sensation to draw in curious crowds hoping to spot the Sea Serpent of Conneaut Lake during their time at Exposition Park.

4. The Deserted Village

Evansburg, 1860's
According to a short article printed in the Republican Farmer, dated November of 1844, residents living around Conneaut Lake were suffering from an unprecedented sickness. “Deplorable scenes have been presented where whole families have been stricken down at once, unable one to help the other.” Other sources confirm that indeed this was the case. As early as 1840, cases of the disease started to manifest itself in the canal areas, but by 1844 the spread was so great it had some even claiming the illness was the black plague. It was later determined, however, that this sickness was, in fact, malaria spread by the growing swarms of mosquitoes living in the newly flooded areas created after the canal damn at the lake was destroyed. The disease’s mysterious nature and high death toll prompted many to leave, and as a result the town of Evansburg, once thought to be the second largest in the county during the height of the canal days, was decimated to such an extent people called it the "Deserted Village." Eventually the malaria faded, and residents returned. In 1892 Evansburg would be renamed as Conneaut Lake.

5. Something Fishy

Fish at Conneaut Lake weren't always so pleasant
Residents were not the only species to be affected on a mass scale by sickness. The Inquirer and National Gazette of Philadelphia reported in July, 1849 of strange phenomena involving the lake fish. “It is said that the fish in Conneaut Lake are dissatisfied in some way, that they are dying by the thousands and floating ashore, that they cause a horrible stench at the lower end of the lake, and that the people are collecting as many as possible and burying them. The disease appears to exist in the head, and when attacked, the fish will rise to the top of the water, make a few weak struggles and die.” Undoubtedly this would have been a summer never to forget.

6. A Wild West Fight 

Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show Poster
Traveling shows at Exposition Park were a regular attraction, and as the region’s premier summer resort, the park brought in some of the best entertainers of the day like Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1900, a series of performances billed as the “Wild and Wool West” was set for the July 4th holiday; little did attendees know just how wild the show actually would be. The Record Argus reported that as the show set to begin, an usher attempted to persuade a Mr. Mont Gruber he would have to set on the grass as no other seating existed. The disgruntled Gruber mumbled something—no one was quite sure what, but whatever he said was enough for the usher to throw a punch at Gruber which he parried, dropping the usher to the earth. Gruber was quickly clubbed from behind and employees hustled him from the tent. Once outside the violence didn’t stop. Show hands continued their assault to the point Gruber drew his revolver to keep his opponents at bay. In turn, someone produced their own pistol, immediately firing off rounds that pierced an actor’s hand. During the panicked confusion that ensued, Gruber was hit with a tent stake that “put him out of the game.” Control eventually was restored after bystanders came to Gruber’s defense. This, however, wasn’t the first wild west fight at the park. In 1893 a Native American actor from a traveling Indian show company that also sold medicine at Exposition Park drank a little too much of his own product. With a shrieking Kickapoo war cry, the actor attacked Fred Shellito, a boat Captain who piloted the Gull. According to the Olean Democrat, Captain Shellito blunted the melee handily, and “the copper-colored son of the land of the sinking orb was in need of a medicine man, and it [would] be many moons ere he again goes on the war path at Conneaut Lake.”

7. Thwarting a Spanish Insurrection 

On a mid-July evening at the Midway Hotel, located along Conneaut Lake’s eastern shore, a sizable group of unidentified guests, presumably intoxicated, hatched a plot to raise the flag of Spain for all to see. The plan, according to The Record Argus, was not simply to hoist the colors up the large flagpole at end of the Midway’s boat dock, but to actually steal the pole itself, haul it to point near the middle of the lake (possibly Wolf Island), and then raise the ensign of Spain where if could be seen from most points around the lake. Just as they began dismantling the flagpole, however, the schemers were thwarted by the Midway’s proprietor, Amos Quigley who, after overhearing the rabble-rousers planning, suddenly appeared with a shotgun leveled in their direction. Needless to say, the fleeing conspirators abandoned their original plan. To discourage any counterattack, Quigley remained on guard at the dock until sunrise. It is not known who the guests were, why they were intent on raising the Spanish flag specifically, or how they even had such a flag in their possession to begin with, but it should be noted that the date of this incident was July 17th, 1898. Two weeks earlier, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders had earned immortal fame at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and by the time the sun had set on the same day as the Midway incident, the Spanish flag flying over the garrison in Santiago, Cuba had been replaced by the Stars and Stripes of the United States.

The Midway Hotel (far left) and dock (foreground) as it looked in 1901

…and there are more tales like these that are yet to come.

Stories compiled by Ron Mattocks

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