A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: The Ludlow Lagoon was once a major recreational center for Greater Cincinnati

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By David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

Imagine a large lake with sandy bathing beaches, a roller coaster over water, a carousel with hand-carved wooden figures, a miniature railroad ride and a bustling midway right in the heart of Northern Kentucky. It existed in Ludlow and was called the Lagoon Amusement Park. The Lagoon was a major recreational center for the Greater Cincinnati area between 1894 and 1917.

In 1894, workers began constructing a lake on Ludlow’s western edge near the Bromley border. Something big was happening, and oddly enough, it was the streetcar company that was behind it. The Green Line was looking for an attraction at the end of the Ludlow line, and an amusement park fit the bill. The lake was produced by damming the Pleasant Run Creek, which emptied into the Ohio River. The streetcar terminated at what is today Laurel Street between Park Avenue and Lake Street. Here a castle-like entrance pavilion with turrets and spires welcomed visitors.

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The original attraction at the Lagoon was the lake. The lake was so large that five islands dotted its surface. The clear fresh water provided for excellent fishing and boating. The promoters also constructed a wide sandy beach that was used extensively for swimming.

Other early attractions included the large clubhouse for dining. This Victorian structure sported wide verandas that wrapped around the building. The clubhouse was constructed on high ground, which offered sweeping views of the lake and other attractions. The Lagoon dance pavilion also drew thousands to the park. This pavilion provided space for hundreds of dancers and large orchestras that were popular during the Jazz Age. The Lagoon even played host to the Royal Hungarian Orchestra.

Many rides were added to the park. Among these were a $10,000 merry-go-round, a large 100-foot Ferris wheel, a replica gold mine, an elevated automobile ride, a circle swing and a Chute the Chutes. One of the earliest and most popular rides was the Scenic Railway (or roller coaster). LaMarcus Thompson, who had earlier designed New York’s Coney Island Scenic Railway, also oversaw the plans for the Lagoon’s Scenic Railway, which was unique in the Midwest. Passengers climbed to the top of a platform where they were seated in cars. The cars glided over iron rails, undulating across the lake. Over the lake the cars entered a circular building, completed several corkscrew twists and turns, and returned to the starting point
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The first general manager of the park was John Noonan, who held the position from 1895 to 1902. J.J. Weaver was his successor.

Various entertainments also drew large crowds. The park boasted a 2,500 amphitheater where live productions were held. A large moving picture theater was also very popular, as was the vaudeville stage. The park featured a Japanese Fair that included an authentic teahouse and a small exhibit space. Here, immigrant women from Japan served tea to park guests surrounded by Japanese porcelain and silk, while Jujitsu instructors gave lessons.

Other activities included a large midway with various games, refreshment stands, picnic grounds and several miles of walking trails. The midway included acrobats, games of chance, high-dive aerialists, musicians and various kinds of other performances. By the early 1900s, the Lagoon was attracting thousands of visitors each day during the summer, and, by some accounts, the streetcars were leaving Fountain Square every five minutes for the park.

Four events between 1913 and 1920 led to the closing of the park. First, a flood in 1913 damaged many of the Lagoon’s attractions. A large financial investment was necessary to restore the facilities. In that same year, tragedy struck the park. Lagoon managers constructed a large motorcycle racetrack called the motordrome. This wooden quarter-mile track had seating for 8,000 spectators. The motordrome was an immediate success, drawing substantial crowds. However, in July 1913, a serious wreck brought notoriety to the Lagoon. A driver lost control of his motorcycle and veered off into the stands. The cycle hit a gas lamp, causing fire to spread throughout the grandstand. Panic set in as the 5,000 spectators tried to flee the fire. The result was horrific. Nine people were killed and over a hundred were treated for burns.

In July 1915, a third disaster occurred, as a large tornado ripped through Ludlow. Over $20,000 in damage was done to the buildings in the park. The final event that spelled doom for the park was the First World War. For many years, the Lagoon served Bavarian Beer (Covington made) at various stands and buildings in the park. Grain, however, was needed for the war effort, so the United States Government halted the manufacture of beer. The loss of beer sales proved to be the final blow. The Lagoon closed after the 1917 season.

Part of the Lagoon property was developed as a residential neighborhood by the last general manager J.J. Weaver (who also owned Ideal Supply Company near the park – the company still exists today). Parts of Lake Street, Laurel, Stokesay, Deverill, and Ludford Streets were built on the site of the former park.

J.J. Weaver used the clubhouse for his private residence. Eventually it was transformed into an apartment building. The lake was filled in over time, but for many years was a popular place to ice skate in the winter months.

You can still find remnants of the Lagoon if you look closely. The clubhouse still stands at the corner of Lake and Laurel Streets – it has been restored into a lovely home. The old caretaker’s cottage stands at the corner of Lake and Deverill Streets, and a set of stairs that once linked the upper and lower portions of the park is hidden in the woods behind Lake Street. Where once women in long Victorian dresses and parasols and men in suits and straw hats took long boat rides and played games of chance stands a tidy little neighborhood, a baseball diamond, woods and open fields.

David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library, the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), and coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015).

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4 Comments

  1. I enjoyed Mr. Schroeder’s piece on the Ludlow Lagoon amusement park, particularly the mention of LaMarcus Thompson. LaMarcus Adna Thompson was the husband of my 2nd great aunt, Ada Nixon, who was the daughter of Irish-born James M Nixon of Ludlow, who was a foreman who ran a construction crew building the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.

    Ada Nixon’s older sister, Mary Ella, is my great grandmother and wife of J. Edward Donaldson (born in Cincinnati as Justus Edward Schwab), the son of a Civil War veteran (Sgt. Justus Schwab of the 2nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regt.), and the adopted son of William Donaldson of Ludlow. Edward Donaldson found his way to New York City as a vice president and director of the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company. He lived in Sea Cliff on Long Island (my home town) until his death in 1936.

    Most all of the aforementioned rest in Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum.

  2. Jane bresser says:

    When is ludlow holding a 100 yr commerative celebration For the amusement park in 2017

  3. Karen says:

    Loved the article. Thanks for posting and not letting our history be forgotten.

  4. Such memories of that area. Our family lived in Ludlow for eleven years. In the mid 1950’s, myself and my two sisters ice skated on Lagoon Lake many, many times. After skating for a few hours, some of the male skaters would start a bon fire on one of the small islands in the center of the lake and we would all warm ourselves before going back on the ice. I enjoyed seeing the photos of what the amusement park looked like when it was first built.

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