In the good old summertime, city dwellers yearned to escape Cincinnati’s stifling temperatures by seeking the gentle breezes of a shady grove somewhere near the water. Around 1900, locals had a lot of choices. Everyone remembers Coney Island, of course, but that famous amusement park, now in its second life as a concert venue and water park, had some stiff competition back in its heyday.
Just down the river, on the opposite bank, Queen City Beach drew aquatic enthusiasts to Bellevue. Billing itself as “The Atlantic City of the West,” Queen City Beach extended half a mile in length along the Kentucky shore. The owners claimed it was the largest inland freshwater bathing place in the world. A huge clubhouse more than 350 feet long contained 1,500 private dressing rooms and laundry facilities capable of washing 1,000 bathing suits an hour. The clubhouse contained a pavilion where refreshments and meals were served. Steam launches and rowboats were for hire at the pier.
Queen City Beach operated its own ferry to shuttle 20,000 bathers per weekend to the sandy banks of the Ohio River and used carbon-arc lamps to illuminate the beach at night. It was not uncommon for 20,000 bathers to gather along the river in Bellevue. A squib in The Cincinnati Post [July 31, 1909] suggested that one of the big draws for this riverside resort was feminine pulchritude:
“Sun baths on the sandy beach at the Queen City are becoming quite the thing for the ladies. For exercising the skin and hair there is nothing better than a frequent sunning. August is the best month for bathing, and the beach from now on until the end of the season will be well patronized.”
Queen City Beach boasted a thick layer of pure white sand extending almost 1,000 feet from the shoreline. The Ohio River was significantly cleaner on the Kentucky side than the Cincinnati side, and bathers reported crystal clear water through which they could still see their feet after wading out to chest depth.
The south shore beach business suffered during the 1920s as development of Northern Kentucky towns resulted in more sewage being dumped into the Ohio River. The death knell came in the 1930s as flood-prevention measures increased the regular depth of the Ohio River from 9 feet to 26 feet. Whatever was left of Queen City Beach is submerged today beneath a much deeper river.
Further downriver in Ludlow, Lagoon Park occupied 20 acres centered on a five-acre, stream-fed lake. A huge theater supported its own summer stock company and hosted concerts by leading symphony orchestras and opera stars. An immense dance hall featured the leading bands of the era. There were rides, of course, including a roller coaster and a merry-go-round, but the big attraction was a gigantic racetrack on which patrons could take a horseless carriage for a spin without worrying about a speeding ticket. At night, the track roared to life with automobile and motorcycle races.
A top-class restaurant drew diners from miles around, and brewery wagons formed a never-ending parade to the Lagoon’s famous saloon. F.W. Brown’s 1898 guide, Cincinnati and Vicinity, describes The Lagoon thusly:
“A very beautiful summer pleasure resort, about two and a half miles down the river on the Kentucky side. Contains a large lake of running water, clubhouse, rowboats, electric launches and a multitude of attractions. The grounds are charming in their natural beauty, and afford the most delightful rambles.”
The Lagoon’s prime lasted only about 20 years after its opening in 1894. A string of bad luck landed in 1913 when a motorcycle speeding along the track during a night-time race went out of control and crashed into the grandstand. Thirteen spectators died, either from the crash itself or from burns caused by gasoline spraying onto the electric arc lights. Just as The Lagoon readied to re-open in 1915, a tornado plowed through and demolished most of the buildings and many of the trees. Lagoon Park never recovered its former glory.
Perhaps the most significant competitor to Coney Island was Chester Park, located on Spring Grove Avenue opposite Clifton Avenue. Chester Park was founded in 1875 as a horse-racing track, its initial purpose buried in its name—Lady Chester was among the prize fillies of the park’s original owner, Captain George N. Stone. Horse racing attracted a betting crowd, and gamblers back in the day really enjoyed boxing, so it’s no surprise that a number of pugilistic contests were staged at Chester Park. Perhaps the most legendary bout took place on August 29, 1885, when one of the first prize fights held under Marquis of Queensbury rules was presented here. It made national headlines when John L. Sullivan, a resident of Boston but idolized in Cincinnati, defeated Dan McCaffrey of Pittsburgh in a highly controversial decision under the blistering late-summer sun.
In addition to sports, Chester Park attracted a more artistic crowd with dazzling productions of opera and musical comedy. In the park’s center was a large lake bisected by a midway, so that boating could be enjoyed on one side and swimming on the other. Circling the lake was the boardwalk, and rides, restaurants, and saloons drew thrill-seekers from throughout the region. One of the highlights was The Tickler, a ride combining a roller-coaster and a bumper car. It was so wild, the ride had to be redesigned to take the sensation down a notch. Always ready for a crowd-building gimmick, Chester Park featured six bathing beauty contests in one summer.
Under the ownership of Colonel Isaac M. “Ike” Martin from 1900 and into the 1920s, Chester Park was a serious contender to steal Coney Island’s crown. Mildred Miller, columnist for The Enquirer, reminisced [September 6, 1955]:
“The Chester Park of Colonel Martin was a fabulous place in the first quarter of the century. It enjoyed a wide and enviable reputation for its many and unusual attractions. It was on the must list of places to see for visitors to the Queen City.”
After Martin’s death, the park was sold in 1926 and a rotating roster of owners and inconsistent marketing squandered the park’s legacy and momentum. For a few years, the place was renamed Rainbow Park as the result of a contest, but it closed in 1932 because of unpaid bills. For the rest of the 1930s, the rides and concessions were shuttered and disassembled, leaving only the swimming pool and skating rink in operation. Chester Park permanently shut down in 1941.
Today nothing is left of these once-crowded amusement venues, not even fond memories of youth and summer romance.