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Port Dalhousie’s Lakeside Carousel – A century of family fun

September 2019

The Port Dalhousie community of St. Catharines, Ontario, is home to a unique tourist attraction. For a century, visitors to Lakeside Park have been able to ride the Lakeside Park Carousel, one of only nine antique hand carved carousels still operating in Canada and one of approximately 350 in North America. The cost to ride is still only 5 cents.

Designed by Charles I. D. Looff, a German master carver and builder of hand-carved carousels and amusement rides, between 1898 and 1905, the carousel was originally located at the Scarborough Beach Amusement Park in Scarborough, Ontario. Looff built over 40 carousels in his life, including the first carousel at Coney Island, along with numerous roller coasters, Ferris wheels, several entire amusement parks and the Santa Monica Pier.

The carousel, an example of Looff’s “Coney Island” style of carousel carving, was relocated to Lakeside Park in 1921 to become part of Port Dalhousie’s own amusement park, which had 58 attractions at the time. More than a quarter million people would make the trip each year across the lake to Port Dalhousie by the steamships that crisscrossed the lake each summer. 

The Lakeside Park Carousel has 68 animals in four rows, including horses with real horsehair tails, lions, camels, goats and giraffes, plus four chariots, with animals that were carved by Looff’s factory workers, including Marcus Charles Illions, who also went on to become a famed carousel-maker in his own right.

The carousel music is played by an antique, late 19th century band organ built by Frati & Company, which uses a system of paper music rolls to create the sound. However, on very hot and humid days, carousel employees usually opt to play recorded carousel music, since the high temperature and humidity have a tendency to de-tune the organ.

The Lakeside Park Carousel is the only remaining attraction at Lakeside Park, which closed in 1969. By this time, ferry service had drastically declined due to increased automobile use, but the final blow seems to have been the increasing pollution in Lake Ontario that made the beach at Port Dalhousie unappealing.

The City of St. Catharines, which had annexed Port Dalhousie in 1961 had been uninterested in maintaining an amusement park and opted to convert the property into a passive park. The rides and buildings, except for the carousel and the picnic pavilion, were eventually dismantled, although the dance pavilion was destroyed by an arson fire on 20 December 1974.

Unfortunately, the carousel was also damaged in a fire in 1974. Twenty of the animals had to be repaired and eventually the entire carousel was restored by volunteers. A new brick building to house the carousel was built further back from the lake. The original building that housed the carousel was demolished.

Another interesting fact is that the “Looff lion” on the carousel is one of only five existing ‘Looff lions” in all of North America and it is the only one that has its head turned to watch onlookers as it circles by. The second lion is a replica, carved in 2004 by the Friends of the Carousel, replacing the second lion that was stolen sometime in the 1970s. 

For fans of Canadian progressive-rock band Rush, Lakeside Park is the reference for the song of the same name from the band’s 1975 album, “Caress of Steel.” Drummer and lyricist Neat Peart grew up in Port Dalhousie and spent summers working and playing at Lakeside Park in his youth.

Sources: https://www.stcatharines.ca/en/experiencein/lakesideparkcarousel.asp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_I._D._Looff, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeside_Park_Carousel, https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=8348, http://cec.chebucto.org/ClosPark/Lakeside.html

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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