JAMES E. CASTO ∙ For the State Journal
HUNTINGTON — Camden Park, West Virginia's only amusement park, has been attracting fun-seekers for more than 100 years.
Opened in 1903, the historic family-run park is located on U.S. 60, five miles west of downtown Huntington. A jumbo sign showing a smiling clown stands at the park's entrance and is hard to miss even if you're a first-time visitor.
Manager Jack Boylin says the 23-acre park has more than 30 rides and attractions, including a carousel that dates to the park's earliest days, a recently refurbished Haunted House and the Big Dipper, a vintage-1958 wooden roller coaster that attracts coaster fans from all over the country.
Another certifiable antique ride at the park is The Whip, built by the legendary William F. Mangels Co. of Coney Island, New York. It's one of a handful of these classic flat-rides still in existence. A vintage train chugs its riders around the park, while an aerial tram whisks its way overhead, providing people an airborne glimpse of what's below. On summer days, people stand in line to take a ride — and a refreshing dip — at the West Virginia Logging Company, a log flume ride.
Over the years, Camden Park has been the setting for an almost bewildering list of events and activities — marathon dances and roller derbies, baseball games and horse shows, a swimming pool and a zoo, plus concerts by such country music superstars as Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart, who took the park's stage early in their careers.
As Boylin explains, Camden Park originated as a "trolley park." By the end of the 19th century, most towns of any size had streetcar lines, and many of those opened picnic groves somewhere along their routes in order to boost summertime traffic on weekends and holidays. That's what prompted U.S. Sen. Johnson M. Camden, the principal stockholder in the Camden Interstate Railway, to establish Camden Park.
A 1919 estimate put the nation's number of trolley parks at more than 1,500. Virtually all have long since vanished. The few still open have been able to survive because, like Camden Park, they grew from picnic groves into full-fledged amusement parks.
The streetcar line hired Col. E. G. Via as Camden Park's manager when it opened in 1903. Via bought the park in 1916 and ran it until his death in 1946. Jack Boylin's grandfather, Huntington furniture dealer James P. Boylin, then purchased the park. When Boylin bought it, the park had nine rides and a number of buildings still damaged by the 1937 flood. He repaired the damaged buildings and expanded the park, adding a number of rides and other attractions.
In 1980, the Boylin family sold the park to out-of-town owners, a move that proved disastrous. The new owners neglected essential maintenance and, when they found themselves drowning in debt, even sold off the hand-carved wooden horses that once graced the vintage carousel, replacing them with metal replicas. By 1994, the park owners owed $2 million to their creditors, including the Boylins.
In 1995, the Boylins reclaimed the park. Since then, Jack Boylin and his mother Jane have invested time, money and effort to bring the park back from the brink.
Their effort got off to a rocky start when a $1 million fire in 1996 destroyed the park's office, Skeeball area and Roller Rink. But since then, the Boylins have been able to catch up a long list of maintenance projects, then started adding new attractions.
Swan Lake, a lake filled with pedal boats, was added in 2002. Then, to celebrate the park's 100th anniversary in 2003, the public was asked to vote on the next ride to be added. The public picked the Sky Rider, which sends two dozen riders flying around high in the air — while lying down. Other recent additions include a hillbilly-themed 18-hole miniature golf course and the Camden Princess, a ride that rocks and whirls its riders back and forth.
Fans of the park's vintage Ferris wheel will regret to learn that it's dismantled and gone, a victim of old age. But it's been replaced by the park's newest attraction, The Rattler. Installed last year, The Rattler is a pendulum ride that sends 16 riders head over heels through dual swinging and spinning motions.
For information on Camden Park, including hours of operation and admission, visit www.camdenpark.com or call (304) 429-4321.