The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By W.H. Evans
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio, today covers 450 acres of which about 250 acres are occupied by various facilities including Hotel Breakers. The resort is a part of the huge land grant made to the Colony of Connecticut in 1662 by King Charles II of England.
Cedar Point, one of the oldest resorts in the United States, traces its origin as a vacation spot back to 1882, but its recorded history began some 60 years earlier – and it is part of a region known to explorers, priests, hunters and trappers for a century-and-a-half before its actual settlement. La Salle, for example, passed through the area in 1679 en route to Lake Superior on a fur trading mission. In 1760 Major Robert Rogers and his Rangers, in search of the Northwest Passage, camped overnight at what is now the foot of Columbus Avenue in Sandusky, on the site from which today’s pleasure seekers embark on ferries bound for Cedar Point. It was important Indian Country, held by the fierce Eries until their extermination by the Iroquois.
The history of the Sandusky region is a colorful tapestry, woven of the threads of Indian, French, and American pioneer adventure. The War of 1812 interlaced a few British strands into the picture, for it was at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island – within view of the mouth of Sandusky Harbor – that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry headquartered his fleet for attack on Britain’s Commodore Barclay in the decisive Battle of Lake Erie. This American naval victory turned the tide of war and was the first in a chain of events leading to a satisfactory peace settlement.
Actually, it was another front of the War of 1812 that caused the founding of Sandusky. Certain residents of Connecticut, whose homes were burned by British invaders, received land grants – which came to be called the “Firelands” – in the Sandusky area, and formed a settlement in 1816. Eight years later the little community was incorporated. Cedar Point today is within the, Sandusky corporate limits.
Long a famous landmark, the Cedar Point peninsula remained a fishing and hunting ground for the white man, as it had been for the Indians, for many years. In the words of one 19th century local historian, Aldrich, in his History of Erie County, Ohio: “Cedar Point then (1820s) was a bit of wild land seven miles long sheltering, in its long arms, Sandusky Bay. It was covered with timber, and a sandy beach edged the shore. There was at that time no large amount of navigation on the lake, and no lighthouse reared its head on the Point”
A more vivid description of the peninsula of that era appeared in a quaint advertisement in the Sandusky Clarion, January 30, 1830:
For Sale: — All that valuable tract of land commonly called and known by the name of Cedar Point — this point of land in all 1200 acres, (one of the peninsulas that form Sandusky Bay), embraces many advantages to the Speculator or farmer, it being principally covered with cedar, pine, oak, elm, white wood, basswood, and other timber, not necessary to mention; together with two prairies, where can be cut with ease one hundred tons of hay, The pine grove is young and thrifty. And a good part of the cedar is fit for staves and shingles — the land fit for cultivation after having been cleared is about 80 acres. The fishing ground is probably the best within the boundary of the spacious harbor of Sandusky Bay.
Call and see. — F. Devoe.
Mr. Devoe, a leading citizen in the upcoming village of some three hundred souls, sold the property in about a month, and any subsequent Cedar Point activity is obscure until 1839 when Colonel A. M. Porter purchased for $292.80, at sheriff’s sale, 440 acres appraised at $439.22. That would be approximately 66 cents per acre!
Although Porter did nothing to develop it, simply allowing people to fish there in return for one-eighth of their catch, his name lends color to Cedar Point’s history. As proprietor of the Steamboat Hotel in Sandusky, he was host to Charles Dickens during the latter’s first tour of America in 1842. Dickens wrote to his friend, Forster, in England, “We are in a small house here, but a very comfortable one, and the people are exceedingly obliging.” Local legend has it that the author was highly pleased with the food at what he called the “Porter House” and that this was the origin of the porterhouse steak.
The wisdom of the Supreme Court and fishing rights notwithstanding, Sanduskians were rowing and sailing across the bay in growing numbers to picnic at Cedar Point and enjoy the beach. No doubt sensing the potential value of this kind of activity, one B. F. Dwelle leased the Point from its owners in 1882 and set about making improvements to attract pleasure seekers.
Perhaps the first commercial enterprise at Cedar Point was started by Louis Zistel, a German immigrant who settled in Sandusky as a cabinet maker. During the Civil War, Louis Zistel built two boats and obtained a contract from the government to transport Confederate officer prisoners to the Union Prison on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, After the war, he needed business for his two boats and used them starting in 1870 to haul persons to Cedar Point where they could dance and have picnics.
First he built a dock, and promptly a steamboat went into operation between Sandusky and the Point. “Then,” says historian Aldrich, “after partially clearing a part of the land, a walk was built across the bay to the lake; a house was erected on the side near the bay, and later bathing houses were put up on the lake shore, and Sanduskians began to enjoy their resort by forming parties and excursions to Cedar Point.” According to present owners, Dwelle’s facilities included a covered dance platform, picnic tables and benches, refreshment stands and simple amusements such as swings, see-saws and sliding boards. Historian Peele says that by 1884 there were 16 bathing houses on the lake shore and that on the bay side was a dining hall with dance room above.
Dwelle had a five-year lease, expended $5,000 on improvements, paid no rental the first season, a moderate amount the second, and each succeeding year paid an increase equivalent to the second year’s rent.
“All this time,” says Aldrich, “the resort grew in favor. The steamboat [R.B.] Hayes, made frequent trips, and the bay was a-flutter with white-winged sailing vessels through the summer months. So popular did Cedar Point become that boats could scarcely be supplied to meet the demand, and newer and better sailing craft were added to the stock on hand.
Dwelle’s original lease presumably expired in 1887, and what was then negotiated, or why, is not clear. Aldrich, in 1889, says only, “Under a new agreement the Point is now leased to a company of five gentlemen, including its former proprietor, Mr. Dwelle.”
He goes on to say: “These men are alive to the possibilities of the place and enter heartily into its development until the Cedar Point of the future will rival any of the resorts of our sea-boards in attractive features.
“A building is to be erected on the farther shore to combine all the features of amusement and entertainment to be found at the fashionable watering places. The old walk across the Point will then be taken up and re-laid by a plank walk twelve feet wide; grounds will be cleared and beautified and the delightful stroll to the lighthouse made more agreeable. This company expects to make an outlay of $20,000 the coming season. The new building will be one hundred and fifty feet long by eighty wide.”
In 1897 the Cedar Point Pleasure Resort Company was incorporated in Indiana, with five original holders and a capital stock of $250,000. Dwelle was one of the five; among the others were A. J. Stoll and Louis Adolph, who appear to have been owners of the peninsula.
While for natural reasons it was perhaps inevitable that Cedar Point should become a resort of some prominence, its rapid development into a flourishing, fashionable, large-scale showplace was due to the creative and promotional genius of G. A. Boeckling.
In 1897 Boeckling was sent from Indianapolis by the Michigan Central Railroad, for which he worked, to search Sandusky for a suitable spot for pleasure train excursions. Discovering Cedar Point, he promptly secured an option for himself, reported to his superiors, “I have found just the spot and you can come to it. It’s mine,” and resigned his position with the railroad. The rest of his life he energetically devoted to Cedar Point. Until his death in 1931, Boeckling was the driving force behind the entire operation.
Displaying an extraordinary talent for showmanship, Boeckling did everything in the grand manner. Over the scoffs of financiers, he built a 1,000 -room hotel, the Breakers, and kept it filled with guests. When his fellow directors refused to endorse the installation of a midway, Boeckling went ahead on his own and, it is reported, “made so much money that the directors begged to be ‘let in.’” Reflecting the grandiose tastes of the late Victorian period, the hotel and other major buildings were elaborate in rococco ornamentation.
He built a theater and booked the nation’s top musical, dramatic and vaudeville talent. Playing to big crowds every night in the enormous ballroom, another mammoth-scale Boeckling installation was a succession of the country’s most popular dance bands. In the ground-floor arena under the ballroom, waiters glided about on roller skates, serving drinks to the customers. It is typical of Boeckling that when he grew impatient with soft drink bottlers he built his own beverage plant!
Boeckling promoted more and more excursion business through the railroads, and at times as many as 14 trains would pull into the Sandusky dock, delivering passengers from all over Ohio and neighboring states. Beckling put a 3,000-passenger ferry boat into operation. Landing at the ferry dock on Cedar Point, passengers were taken to the Breakers on a small, narrow-gauge train, which also served to deliver fuel and supplies to the hotel.
On the tip of the peninsula Boeckling built large docks for luxury steamers arriving from ports all over the Great Lakes. As many as three liners at a time would be tied up there. Between the Breakers and the docks lay a network of lagoons, and steamer passengers for a time were taken to the hotel by barges. Later, Boeckling built a concrete road to the tip of the peninsula and brought passengers from the docks in “Toonerville Trolleys.” These quaint vehicles may still be seen at Cedar Point.
Boeckling also went after convention business in a big way and succeeded in making Cedar Point highly popular for such meetings. When he booked Judge Rutherford and his International Bible Society it brought more than 50,000 students from all over the world.
Master promoter Boeckling took advantage of every possible timely event. When he learned in 1910 that Glenn Curtiss was going to try for the longest over-water flight in a pusher-type plane from Cleveland, Boeckling gave Curtiss $2,500 to fly over Lake Erie to Cedar Point. The pioneer aviator did make a record and more than 20,000 people were on hand when he landed on the beach. Even more spectators came to cheer when Curtiss repeated the stunt, this time sponsored by The Cleveland Press, though he didn’t succeed in breaking his earlier record.
Among the many prominent figures belonging to Cedar Point lore is Knute Rockne, who, with other Notre Dame students, worked there during summer vacations. He was a lifeguard, and during off hours he and Gus Dorais practiced endlessly with a football on the Cedar Point beach, perfecting the forward pass play that revolutionized American football and shot Notre Dame into national prominence in 1913. Years later, in 1949, the Notre Dame Club of Cleveland, in a ceremony attended by Rockne’s Four Horsemen, erected a bronze memorial plaque on the beach.
So it was with Cedar Point until Boeckling’s death in 1931.
In 1950, Cedar Point was leased for ten years to Terrence Melrose, Cleveland Hotel chain and real estate operator, and the following year he conveyed his interests to his own general manager, D. M. Schneider. The latter operated the resort until 1959, when new ownership negotiated termination of the lease. Under Mr. Schneider, Cedar Point was promoted as a wholesome, family attraction, and reportedly it began to show a good profit again.
In 1956, trustees of the Boeckling estate optioned the controlling interest to a syndicate headed by George A. Roose of Toledo and Emile A. Legros of Cleveland, who announced plans to convert Cedar Point into an exclusive residential area. The announcement loosed a storm of public protest all over Ohio. The Governor, legislators, other public officials, the press and the letter-writing public were not about to lose the resort to homesites.
The State appeared determined to acquire the Point and operate it as a state park — through condemnation if all else failed, according to one announcement of the Governor. But the people of Sandusky disliked the prospect of a state park at Cedar Point almost as much as the proposed residential development. For one thing, as a state operation, Cedar Point would have become essentially a beach and picnic ground, ceasing to be a real resort. For another, the city of Sandusky would have lost about $40,000 annually in tax revenue.
At the same time, the option itself was contested by three heirs. Ultimately, the common pleas court of Erie County approved the option, and in February, 1957, the completed sale was announced. With the purchase announcement the new owners assured an anxious public that, far from closing down the resort, they would undertake a vast redevelopment program to restore Cedar Point to its previous status as a showplace of America.
The same day this announcement appeared in the papers, the press reported that a special legislative committee recommended to the Ohio General Assembly that the State should take over Cedar Point only if there were “imminent danger” that it would be “forever lost” to the public. The Assembly reserved action at that time. The clamor died down.
While the Point continued to be operated by Mr. Schneider, the new ownership began laying redevelopment plans, and immediately saw to the completion of the delayed causeway project by mid-1957. This gave direct road access from Sandusky to the peninsula, and a year-and-a-half later the causeway entrance was linked to Ohio State Route 2 by a new access road.
By agreement with Mr. Schneider, the new owners assumed direct management of Cedar Point in early 1959, and proceeded promptly to make certain improvements in time for opening of the season. Since 1959, management has spent millions of dollars to modernize every facet of the resort. A 1,000-boat Marina, a giant new Funway, new and spectacular amusement rides, a new Space Spiral which serves as a guide for Lake Erie yachtsmen, and modernization of Hotel Breakers represent only part of total capital outlay.
A tremendous promotional and advertising campaign is bringing people to the Point not only from Ohio and adjoining states, but from all parts of the country. During 1966, visitors numbered 2,340,500 in a 101-day season, and one out of every five cars entering the resort came from outside Ohio. Beginning its 98th season on May 27th this year, Cedar Point is now considered our Nation’s No. 2 Amusement Park.
About the Author: Mr. W. H. Evans is a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and for the past seventeen years has been Public Relations Director of Cedar Point.