Medina senior citizens hear about history of amusement parks in WNY

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 15 March 2023 at 8:41 am

Photo by Ginny Kropf: Erica Wanecski tells Medina seniors about the history of amusement parks in Western New York at their monthly dinner meeting Monday.

MEDINA – If it’s about history, particularly Western New York history, Erica “Joan” Wanecski is interested in it.

Wanecski has researched everything under the sun, from foundries to amusement parks.

On Monday, she was the guest speaker at the monthly luncheon of Medina Senior Citizens, and she chose to speak on amusement parks which once flourished in the Western New York area.

Amusement parks, she said, were a spin-off of the circus, following the popularity of expositions, such as the Pan Am Exposition of 1901.

The local connection, Wanecski said, was Andrew Downie, who lived on the corner of Gwinn and West Oak Orchard streets and started the first circus. His name was actually Andrew Downie McPhee and he moved to Medina from Canada with his parents at an early age. He is credited with launching the traveling circus, which other circus owners, including Ringling Brothers, copied.

A rail line was built to Olcott when an amusement park was started there, giving rise to the name Railto, or “rail to…”

Locally, Indian Falls Amusement Park was a popular place in the 1950s, located on the bank of the Tonawanda Creek. Its rides included an iconic merry-go-round.

In the 1960s, Fantasy Island was developed and thrived for many years. After a decline, it was purchased in recent years and is being revived with emphasis on a water park and new rides. A popular attraction there was always the Wild West show.

Darien Lake began in 1976, developed by the owner of Freezer Queen. Wanecski recalled when Lockport veterinarian Doc Lewis had bison there and they got out. Lynn Creasey, president of the Senior Citizen’s board, recalls at the time he was worked for Chapman’s at Johnson’s Creek and they butchered two of the bison.

Then there was Crystal Beach across Lake Erie from Buffalo at Fort Erie. It was famous for its roller coaster located on the bank of the lake. The boat ride on the Canadiana to Crystal Beach was a highlight. The Glen Park Casino in Buffalo also offered great entertainment, Wanecski said.

Other favorite entertainment spots in the area included Herschell’s Carousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, which is still a popular tourist attraction, and the Whistle Pig in Niagara Falls, famous for its hot dogs. The original owner also had small rides for children. When the place closed just a few years ago, the rides went to Olcott and to Herschell’s, Wanecski added.

One couldn’t talk about amusement parks in the area without mentioning Charles Howard’s Santa Claus School and Christmas Park in Albion. Started by the Albion resident to train Santas, Howard added small rides and animals to his park on Phipps Road. The school has since moved to Midland, Mich. and still bears Howard’s name.

Wanecski said the baby boom fueled these parks and kids today should be encouraged to seek these kinds of entertainment and not be so involved with technology.

The April dinner meeting will be an Easter dinner catered by Chap’s Diner in Elba. Reservations should be made as soon as possible, because space is limited.