Submitted by Christine Whelan
July 22nd, 2021 VOL. 2 ISSUE 24
Crystal Beach Then: “The Atlantic City of the Great Lakes”
Happy Anniversary Crystal Beach! You are 100 Years Old! The Village of Crystal Beach, named for its crystal-clear water, was incorporated effective January 1, 1921.
The Friends of Crystal Beach (FOCB), with the help of community donors, have erected a sign on Ridgeway Road near Erie Road. Although Crystal Beach amalgamated with the Town of Fort Erie in 1970, it has retained its unique beachfront persona. The FOCB invites you in remembering this special anniversary.
Friends of Crystal Beach, founded over thirty years ago and incorporated as a not-for-profit in 2001, have a mission to be involved in making Crystal Beach a better place to live, visit and enjoy. Current FOCB Officers and Directors are President, Don Lubberts; Vice President, Gayle Martineau; Secretary-Treasurer, Sharon Bowers; Director, Ruth Bruyns; Director, Jim Merrick; and Director, Ray Rivard.
The community came together to make this plan of celebration happen. Many contributed towards the goal of erecting the large sign on Ridgeway Road.
A Big Thank You To The Donors:
Advancing Crystal Beach, Bay Beach Property Owners Association, Bertie Boat Club, Casey and Ruth Bruyns, Crystal Beach BIA, Crystal Beach Tennis & Yacht Club, Crystal Beach Hill Cottagers Association, Friends of Crystal Beach, Ridgeway Lions Club, and Royal Roofing (Jodee Robins).
Marz Homes let FOCB use the land for the sign and Turkstra Lumber provided the lumber to erect the sign designed and produced by M. J. Sign Craft. The Crystal Beach Beautification Committee placed pots of flowers at the base of the sign and Bob Steckley, from The Crystal Beach Candy Company, provided sugar waffles to attendees at the dedication.
Sharon Bowers added, “The lawn signs were a fundraiser for the FOCB.” You can find these signs all over the village in these days.
Bowers is very excited about the celebration and passionate about ‘the beach’. She shared that her parents came from Buffalo originally but had a cottage on this side of the river. “When summer came, it was time to go to the beach. That was like a habit to me. I didn’t want to go back and I always said, if there was some way I could stay here, I will, even as a kid.” And she found a way. “I’m one of those Crystal Beach cottagers that just stayed on.”
This is a story heard so many times, cottagers who loved their summers in Crystal Beach so much, decided to return to the area to stay. “We have a nice mixture of Canadians and Americans in the village now.”
Sharon and I began to talk about years past. We reminisced about the old roller rink on Erie Road and the movie theatre on Ridgeway Road. Not many know about the movie theatre. Sharon commented, “I remember the theatre because when it would rain or there was a good movie playing, we would go there.”
And about a second roller rink, “There was another rink in the amusement park,” she remembered. “It was the old dance hall.” At one point, they had converted the dance hall into a roller rink.
“There was always so much going on in Crystal Beach. All the stores. There was everything right there.”
So, let me take you back, if I may…
The History Of Crystal Beach: Some Highlights
First, there was the park.
It was rumored that the Crystal Beach Amusement Park began as a religious campground with a beach and sideshow attraction, started by John E. Rebstock in 1888. It was said to be based on the Chautauqua Institute, set near a natural sand dune 60 feet (18 m) high and 1,200 feet (366 m) long, parallel to the shore. Part of the dune was excavated to open up land for the campground.
By 1890, Rebstock had decided to turn it into an amusement park. By then, steamboats shuttled patrons from nearby Buffalo, New York to and from the park.
In 1896, the Ontario Southern Railway began to provide a connection between the park and the mainline rail station at Ridgeway. This service consisted of a unique elevated monorail style train, and ran for only three summers, through 1898.
The Village of Crystal Beach started as a police village with a summer post office in 1898. A year-round post office opened in 1908. The village was incorporated in 1921 with a population of 298.
In 1922, C.J. Pilkey created a publication called the Crystal Beach Guide. It sold for fifteen cents. Resembling a community newspaper, the content was a combination of what might have been the most important information about the village at the time, with an introduction to the village, lists of and advertisements for businesses, banks, schools, churches, and clubs. There were the names of the civic government, a bus schedule, and a long list of cottages for rent and lots for sale that reflected the beginning of a village in its first growth spurt.
The motto of the Crystal Beach Board of Trade was ‘Boost and Watch Us Grow’.
Pilkey tells the story of the amusement park’s conception in his own way, finishing with, “Today, Crystal Beach is known as the ‘Atlantic City of the Great Lakes’, and the greatest of all freshwater summer resorts.
Sometimes reading community publications from years past can give us a good idea of what life was like at that time. Pilkey included a list of what appear to be societal guidelines for 1922 in the village. I’ve included some of the points. Whether they are all serious or not, you be the judge.
Some “Don’ts” To Be Remembered:
Don’t park your auto on Derby Road.
Don’t go through the village without a bathrobe if you are in a bathing costume.
Don’t go through the amusement park in a bathing costume.
Don’t argue with the Police.
Don’t disrespect the “Flag”.
Don’t walk through the street doing the “hugging” act. It shows very bad taste.
Don’t drive to the left of the middle of the street.
Don’t drive past a horse if signaled to stop. The farmers have rights.
Don’t drive faster than 12 miles per hour.
Don’t, oh don’t, let the cop get you.
Don’t knock, boost.
You can find the Crystal Beach Guide on the Fort Erie Public Library website, in the Louis McDermott Collection.
At its peak in the 1940s and early 1950s, the park had about 20,000 visitors daily throughout the summer, from Victoria Day through Labour Day.
Boat service-connected Buffalo with the park until 1956. Later, the main passenger vessels used for these journeys were the Canadiana and the Americana, each of which could carry 3,000 passengers per trip.
One of the events that stands out as being unique to the village is its way of sending off the summer. It started in the ’50s. Each Labour Day weekend, a parade of decorated cars crawled along the streets as the community cheered it on along the curbsides. The finale of the procession was a casket, a symbol representing the sending-off of “old man summer”. The parade, though changed to reflect modern times, has been resurrected over the years, thanks to the Friends of Crystal Beach.
When we think of Crystal Beach, we think of summer. But when it comes to winter, Crystal Beach has a flipside. The winters can be nasty. And Donnie McKenny, childhood resident, remembers the worst winter of all, the blizzard of 1977. He was a teenager.
“We were stuck in the house for three days. We couldn‘t see anything. Just white. For three days.” Donnie and his family lived on the corner of Glenspring and Schooley Roads. The sand dune that parallels the lake had partially protected the village from the lake effect snow. But the dune ends at Schooley Road.
“As soon as the third day was over and we all got out of the house, we first headed toward the cemetery. I remember we had to get to the cemetery at the top of the hill. We were going over houses, heading up Derby Road. My brother Terry and my father had been driving in between Ridgeway and Crystal Beach, trying to get home, when they got stuck. Now that the three-day dump of snow had stopped, they were trying to walk home to my mother and us kids. The cemetery was the closest location that we could recognize. We got sidetracked because we could only go where we were able to go. There were no more roads. Just large drifts.”
Donnie shared another memory of the blizzard, the aftermath clean-up. “The owner of the Ontario Hotel paid $100 per person to come and get the snow off his hotel’s roof, which was piled 4-5 feet high. Then he let us into the bar below for warm cocoa.”
McKenny added, “The building used to be three floors high but is now two floors because the top floor was lost during this time due to the snow damage. The weight of the snow made the outer walls bow out and buckle.”
By 1983, the park was feeling the effects of its competition, Darien Lake, Marineland, and Canada’s Wonderland. Crystal Beach was nearly bankrupt but was saved by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce after going into receivership. New owners took over in 1984 and attempted to save it. However, in 1989 the park closed due to bankruptcy at the end of that season, after providing millions with laughter, love, thrills, and memories — oh, so many memories, for 101 years.
The land where the amusement park stood was then converted into a gated community called Crystal Beach Tennis & Yacht Club in 1992.
Keeping The Memories Alive
The history of Crystal Beach — the village, the park, the people — is a plethora of stories that could never be forgotten, must never be forgotten. Thankfully, there are those who, through the years, have gathered and documented, published, and restored.
Paul Kassay Jr. has lived most of his life in Crystal Beach, raising three children and owning and running Edgewood Photo Studio, taking thousands of photos of Crystal Beach folks and families, getting into local news stories, covering any events or news of Crystal Beach. He loved the amusement park so much, he produced several postcards of it and co-produced two videos about it, The Life and Times of Crystal Beach and One Last Ride.
Paul also belonged to the Crystal Beach Kinsmen, worked as a volunteer ambulance driver, and helped the FOCB out at their concerts and events. Paul has often been referred to Mr. Crystal Beach for his love and dedication to Crystal Beach. He is truly woven into the fabric of this 100-year-old village.
Rick Doan was raised in Ridgeway but spent much of his youth at the Crystal Beach Amusement Park and the fine sands of Bay Beach. With many friends from the Beach, he was very sad when it was announced the Amusement Park was closing. With millions of people that visited it and thousands of people that worked there, Rick wanted to create lasting memories of the park so it was never forgotten. He produced dozens of postcards of the park, as well as co-produced the video, One Last Ride.
Rick also chaired Memories of Crystal Beach three years where he showcased many Crystal Beach Park artifacts that he and Cathy Herbert had purchased and restored, including Roller Coaster Cars, Laff in the Dark Cars, stunts from the Magic Palace, and much more.
Along with Paul Kassay, Rick purchased parts of the SS Canadiana, restored them, and are now on permanent display at Waterfront Park. The two friends also fundraised and had a plaque put at Waterfront Park for the tragedy of LV 82 Shipwreck, had an 1800’s anchor brought there for display, and was instrumental in getting a plaque moved from Queen’s circle to Waterfront Park about ships of 1812.
Often referred to as Ms. Crystal Beach, Cathy Herbert, a Crystal Beacher, has amassed possibly the largest of all Crystal Beach memorabilia collections.
Steve Boyd keeps us reminiscing on social media with his many videos and photos he has created and collected over the years, posting them on his Facebook groups such as Good Ol’ Days Of Crystal Beach. He is also the proud owner of Laughing Sal, the famous mechanical, red-haired woman who could be heard laughing her way through the summers in the amusement park.
Gary Pooler shared on social media, “To commemorate 100 years of Crystal Beach Incorporation (1921 – 2021), and being a retired O.P.P. Officer, I had a smaller replica made of the original Crystal Beach O.P.P. Detachment sign.”
Gary had seen the original sign at an O.P.P. Museum in Orillia. “I was up there on training. I was walking through the museum, and there it was.” That sign is in storage right now.
He more recently found a photo of the original sign on social media. “I took the photo into a shop and had it made on plexiglass.”
The sign was originally from the O.P.P. Detachment that was at the back of the building that still stands on the corner of Belfast and Lincoln Streets. It was then, the Municipal Hall of Crystal Beach. There was a spot on the side for the fire truck until the village got its own station. Over the years, the building became the Crystal Beach Library until the Crystal Ridge Library was built in Ridgeway.
Gary shared this piece of history. “The O.P.P. were in Crystal Beach until 1977. The office was still open in the beach, even after the Niagara Regional Police came into the area in 1971.” This was assumed to be for extra help with the activity and traffic around the park back then.
Gary has written a book on the history of Crystal Beach that will be coming out soon.
According to the most recent record, the 2016 census, the population of the Village of Crystal Beach was at 8,524, a far cry from the 298 at its incorporation 100 years ago. The village continues to grow, especially during these days. It continues to have a life of its own, with a force of heart no economic issue can seem to wipe out. There is no other village, with its history, its people, its energy. We look now, into the future, while we celebrate the amazing story of the 100 years of the village that is Crystal Beach, Ontario.
“The tourist industry that developed in Crystal Beach was a result of John Rebstock’s visionary thinking and turned this village into one of Canada’s most popular destination spots.”