People say that the Hotel Conneaut is inhabited by the wispy shadows of tragic women and children. They say if you are in a room quiet enough, that you may find yourself face-to-face with a ghost. They say that Hotel Conneaut is haunted… and I agree. However, I believe it’s haunted by the spirit of ineptitude.
Situated on the edge of a glacial lake is a crumbling gem of an old hotel. It had once been elegant in black and white, but now the paint was peeling, the windows were leaking, and the awnings were propped up with naked two by fours. I had read about these Gilded Age resorts; healthy hideaways for the glittering affluent. I accepted that they, at one time, had existed.
Had existed. I had been unaware that anything like this still existed in this area, let alone continued to be utilized for its original purpose. Its contemporary was the foundation of the Stephen King story ‘The Shining’ and also Stanley Kubrick’s psychological thriller film of the same name. Hotels like these were rare and fast sliding into the land of legend and certainly not accessible to the casual day tripper. Nonetheless, there it stood in all of its surreal splendor and dripping with character.
It’s been mentioned before that I have an appreciation for the things my ancestors would have built. Things built to last, not built to fold up neatly when a stiff wind blows. The Hotel Conneaut appealed to me in this way. I was certain that, once inside, I wouldn’t find vinyl-casement windows and gypsum board walls, but I never expected what I had found.
Beyond the fact that the hotel was daring to provide meeting space and sleeping rooms to the public, it was also smack-dab in the middle of a decrepit amusement park and a half-abandoned village of summer homes. I drove around, agog at the feast of exploration that lay around me. An initial wrong turn had taken me through that village of summer bungalows. Some were nothing more than over-sized storage units now; others appeared to be full time residences. A high chain-link fence drew a line right through the middle of town and, in several places, collided with the walls of these summer homes, keeping the remaining town residents from drifting across a seemingly arbitrary boundary.
More chilling still was the fence’s turnstile. It had a medieval appearance about it that further suggested some sort of sinister authority, dictating who was fit to come and go. Who puts a fence up in the middle of a town? It gave me the sense that I was in the middle of quarantine or a prison camp. However, there was no way to tell which side was which; were the hotel and amusement park under quarantine, or were they trying to keep tainted townsfolk out?
Where was I? What was this strange and unkempt wonderland I had arrived at? I couldn’t dream of such a place, let alone believe it truly existed.
I retraced my steps and made the correct turn, placing myself on the other side of the tall fence and in the shadow of the hotel.
I bypassed the amusement park to wander the grounds of the hotel for an hour or more. I made studies of the windows and their panes of beautiful, imperfect glass. Through them, I could read the labels of liquor bottles and count the light bulbs in the rickety fixtures. Through some windows I could see nothing but an incandescent glow.
A large, open veranda facing the graphite grey water caught my eye. It could be a lovely place in summer. It was the sort of place I could see Countess Olenska spending time. It was the kind of place I wouldn’t mind spending time.
I could imagine standing there at the rails, wearing lace and silks in shades of cream and white, letting a warm summer breeze push the hair from my face. I would drink jasmine tea and taste sugared violets and let the modern world fade away. Then a chilled breeze came through and pulled the daydream from my eyes.
In, out and around I walked observing what the hotel was and what it could be. It was truly beautiful, but in its current state I couldn’t imagine sleeping there. Stepping inside had been an experiment in risk-taking. There were stairs with steps seven inches tall that brought me closer and closer to a musty smell as I ascended. The carpets wrinkled and bubbled, begging to be tripped over. I felt I was meeting a star long past their glory days; sorting through a cross section of original architecture and inappropriate upgrades. All the while, I was waiting for the ceiling to drop on me.
When I had ended my rendezvous with the Gilded Age artifact, I answered the call of the amusement park purlieus. There, I found more to satisfy my interest in worlds forgotten. Where there was a sadness in the hotel’s degradation, the very beauty of this disused area was dependent on its ruined state. Without it, it would have been mediocre.
The tangled forest of an old wooden roller coaster had been visible from the main road, but from this point of view it was entirely hidden. Here, close to the hotel, any part of Conneaut Lake Park that still functioned was obscured. Here were the things the park discarded.
The Toboggan was the only ride standing. Garish in plastic toy turquoise and taffy pink, it was the protector of a sole sapling which grew up through the rusting remains of its mini track. Ward and protector both were surrounded by a mote of dead leaves and broken light bulbs. A tower, like something from a fairytale, rose some fifty feet from the ride platform with a track winding around it from the top to the bottom.
It took me a while to recover from the visual overwhelm to realize that the small hole cut at the base of the tower was the passageway for the ride’s only car. The car, which is now permanently fixed at the beginning of an upward journey, would pass through that entryway and the passenger would begin a horrifying, completely vertical climb to the top of the tower. When they reached the very top, they would begin a corkscrew descent that would frighten any veteran of the Mad Mouse. Then the rider would take a quick trip around a short section of track and the ride would be over.
It was an incredible feat of engineering, all designed to fold up and roll away to the next town.
Besides this damaged monument to summers passed, the midway and a circular information center were the other two features of amusement park limbo. The information center, comprised of a bizarre arrangement of public address speakers on a rotunda, maintained its integrity but only some of the midway was intact.
At the midway, I found another boundary and could only advance so far. Red, white and blue supports held the extended roof line of the midway’s buildings up for the few hundred feet they covered. I couldn’t tell much about the separate stores and, honestly, they weren’t that interesting to me. Living in and traveling through the rust belt means I’ve seen a few too many empty strip malls and the midway looked precisely like that. Only one out of all of the empty buildings captured my attention.
A dark ride had burned and left an interesting subject of study behind. Like a severed head, it’s face- consisting of windows and doors-remained, but at the back there were only portions of the beams and supports that made it work as a building. Both sections were fascinating.
At the front of the facade was a clutch of picnic benches, some stacked on top of others. They blocked a doorway with the word “OUT” formed in rust. Along a ledge was an empty cup that had long since become a near permanent part of the building, a strange yellow substance gluing it there. At the back of the facade were indentations for beam work and a barricaded door to nowhere.
The door was an endless source of visual delight. It had a character all its own and was almost as awe-inspiring as the hotel was in its entirety. I couldn’t get close enough to the textures that lit up little places in my brain like a string of fairy lights.
Parallel to that door was an open doorway leading from what had once been the interior of the dark ride into an entirely intact garage-like structure. I slowly wandered over to it, soaking in the sights as I went. On the door frame was a hook with a torn piece of clothing swinging from it in the breeze that blew by. I leaned into the room, pushing past a tiny whirlpool of wind, and silence took over. The dusky light that filtered through the dirty windows showed a polished and sealed cement floor. A few storage containers were spread around the room. I shifted my attention back and forth from the grimy windows to the recesses of the dark chamber, listening to nothing. Then a breeze blew through the back door making it squeak open and ‘thunk’ shut again like a sound effect from Scooby Doo. I smiled to myself. It was the salute of the haunted house, a sound that can’t be recreated in those palaces of animatronics people call a haunted attraction.
I withdrew my head and returned to half daylight.
I cannot say I liked Hotel Conneaut, the little town and its neighbour, the graveyard of Conneaut Lake Park. The peeling paint, the loosened carpets, the two-by-four support beams and the musty scent carried on the breeze through the parking lot from the hotel all point to continued negligence on the part of the owner. If the deserted outskirts of Conneaut Lake Park are any indication, that province of dystopia also suffers from the same malady. And I cannot tell you, dear reader, that I ever intend on going back. But I listened to what they had to say and told my own story.
“At once, all man thought land was strange
And so he turned his hand to change
And once all that change had begun
He removed his hand and announced himself done
Done with change and cause affected
Done with buildings he’d erected
Left behind for dust and grime
All changes become strange in time”