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Also known as
The "Ontario Methodist Campground" and
"Grimsby Camp" / "Grimsby Beach".
This park began as a religious campground, as would Crystal Beach several decades later. in the early 1800s, John Bowslaugh inherited from his grandfather farm land which ran from the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario, just east of Grimsby. His family were devote methodists and in 1846, he offered a grove on property near his home for a giant, outdoor Temperance meeting. These were held so that methodists from a given area might have church services where none were available in a permanent building, and as a way for persons of a like-religion from widely separated areas to get together.
The meetings were usually held in different locations each year. They were as much social gathering as religious ones for those friends that would not see one another, save for these yearly assemblies. This organization was known as The Hamilton District of the Methodist Church.
The grove had a beach on the lake, pasturage for horses, large stands of fir trees and more than 100 varieties of nut trees. Fresh water was available from a spring. More than 2000 attended the 1846 meeting which included other religious denominations that were acquaintances of the Methodists, or those whom were simply curious.
The meetings then moved on to other places, but by 1859 The Hamilton District had separated into the Hamilton and Niagara districts. The Niagara chapter wished a permanent place to assemble, and at an 1859 meeting at Bowslaugh's estate, he offered the same land as had been used 13 years previously. The new committee accepted. They advertised in various newspapers an event to be held in the last week of August, and then set about readying the area. One of the committee members was Noah Phelps. He was instrumental in the new area's development and was to become president of the company that would eventually be formed to manage and own the property. He would remain with the park until the end of the 1899 season, half a year before his death.
The main area was cleared and fenced in. It had benches and a podium upon which religious lecturers would stand and speak on various religious topics. This would become known as "The Auditorium". Lighting was provided by six raised platforms on which fires were lit. Pine knots from the construction were soaked in pitch and used to stoke these fires. They would burn for hours.
For those first years, there were no fixed buildings. A tenting area surrounded The Auditorium that had log platforms to raise the tents off the damp ground for those intending to camp out for the week-long event. Tent rentals with bunks were also offered for those not bringing their own equipment.
People played at the lake, cooked over open fires and listened to the lectures. The yearly event was run this way for 16 seasons, save for a gap in 1862 when the meeting was held in Drummondville, close to Niagara Falls. The park became known as "The Ontario Methodist Camp Meeting Ground".
In 1874, John Bowslaugh's home near the park burned. A new one was built on the remaining foundation and despite a fire in 1982, this house still exists today at 245 Main Street East, now part of the Grimsby town. As the park grew, it became apparent that more permanent structures would be needed and that entertainment was necessary during times when no lectures were being given. Also in 1874, the committee formed The Ontario Methodist Camp Ground Company to administrate a newly refurbished grounds, which was already generally being referred to as "Grimsby Park". The company went public with shares at $25 and purchased the campground part of Bowslaugh's property.
The Area Expands
The campground was divided into lots to be leased to prospective patrons and over 50 furnished cottages were built, many by John Bowslaugh's brother, Edward. They were typically 1.5 stories consisting of a dining room and living room, with a fireplace on the first floor and bedrooms on the upper level. Many sported small balconies off the bedrooms and all had decorative exterior woodworking called "fretwork". They became known as "gingerbread" cottages because of these decorations. A kitchen was in the rear of each. Lighting and cooking heat was provided by coal oil. Total ground floor space was only about 25 square meters and the cottages were also very close together, having been built on the original tent lots.
To achieve greater privacy and more space, some persons leased land away from this area and built private cottages. At some point around this time, a windmill was installed to draw water for the cottages, presumably from the spring.
Because of the permanent dwellings, summer-long residency would now be available, thus extending the season from two weeks (to which it had grown), to more than twelve, as the park would be open from late June until September's end. The extended season meant that non-methodists would attend the park for no other reason than a fun day picnicking. This was all completed for the 1875 season.
Access via Water
Rail Service Improves
An 1876 ad shows a pier (also constructed by Edward Bowslaugh) for water-transported patrons to land at the park via ferries from Hamilton, Port Dalhousie, and Toronto. The dock was just below an area called "Victoria Terrace", from which steps led to the beach and pier. The Terrace was lined with trees and each had a circular seat upon which to rest and enjoy the scenery.
Great Western Railway had completed its Niagara-to-Hamilton route in 1854, and since they had tracks running past Bowslaugh's estate, had begun a stop for park patrons. Now they built a station with steps to the park's entrance. This entrance lane was called Grand Avenue, and was lined in poplar trees. Later, an additional service by bus from Grimsby Village to the park would be started by newspaper publisher James Livingston. That was running by 1888.
Other attractions in the ad show a heart-shaped garden surrounded by a moat with arched bridges to gain access to it, flowers, paths to Echo Point or Spoony Bridge, and to accommodate shorter-stay visitors, a hotel called The Lake View House. (Some sources show it as "Lakeview".) It was three stories with verandas on the first & second levels, and it included a restaurant. An illustration appears to show a basement story aligned with a lower ground level where the terrain slopes away, but it is not evident in other illustrations or photos.
All trees in the ad seem to have the circular seats. Activities displayed are boating/sailing, fishing, picnicking, and archery. Another source says there was a second hotel called The "Park House", which housed a telegraph office, and offered swimming at the beach, tennis courts, and an athletic field with football, lacrosse, quoits, and exercise programs. A windmill and pump were installed to draw water from the spring. Since no starting dates are given, it's not entirely clear if these were available in 1876 or came in succeeding seasons.
Being leased space, The Methodist Camp Ground Company had control over the area. Cottage leasers were required to keep their dwellings in good repair, not remove fences or cut down timber, nor might they run any unsuitable or nuisance businesses. There was to be no alcohol or foul language, and a lights-out/quiet curfew of 10:30 PM was to be observed (except for Saturday night.) On Sundays there were to be no sports or work performed. When boat and rail service became available to the park, no one was permitted to travel on that day as those services were not allowed to stop at the park on the Sabbath. All guests were expected to attend church services.
The park prospered and grew. By 1877, constables patrolled the park, keeping the strict methodist rules in force. There was even a small jail built under The Park House Hotel. One story relates that a boy was locked up there for playing a mouth organ on Sunday!
In 1878, a 5-cent day admission, or 25 cents for a season pass was being charged. In later years, this rose to 10 and 50 cents, with children in free. A small Boys' Tabernacle was erected that year. A post office opened with Noah Phelps as postmaster. First postmarked "Grimsby Camp", that would change to "Grimsby Park" in 1886.
By 1879 there were some famous preachers booked for oratations - some from quite far away. The park was so popular that the parent company had Vivian Printing house in London, Ontario print exclusive Grimsby Park Hymn Books.
The Community Grows
In the early 1880s, a new water works was installed consisting of a motorized pump to draw water from a new source for the cottages. The old pump and windmill were abandoned. Although the original fresh-water spring was still used, it was no longer the main source.
By the mid 1880s delivery services had begun to be instituted from nearby merchants for coal and wood, and milk and ice. Then the merchants actually opened stores in the park for barbering, groceries, and straw sales (for mattresses), while local farmers set up a market near the park's entrance.
In 1884 a bell was installed in the garden with the moat. It was used to call people to daily worship and for other events. As a result, this little area became known as "Bell Park".
New for 1886 was J.H. Ford's photographic and portrait studio. Ford had been associated with the Dominion Art Gallery in Toronto for many years. His in-park studio offered photographic portraits or ones done in crayon, ink, oil, or watercolour. As well, he may have been the first to offer candid shots of people in a park much as the modern theme park has a photographer at the entrance gate offering to sell you your picture. He took his camera to gatherings and documented them, later offering photos to those wishing a record. This is likely why this park has so many photos available of its earlier times. At some point his wife also joined in the operation and she stayed until her death in 1917.
1888 saw the building of The Temple. It replaced The Preacher's Stand, which had been a little covered podium with a lectern that grew out of the original raised platform built in 1859. This new temple was a 37-meter diameter circular building with a central dome that topped out at 30 meters. Capacity was 7,000. The building was fraught with troubles from the start. The roof leaked, and although patches and fix-ups occurred over the succeeding years, it never was completely dry. As well, being a round building, the acoustics were very live. This likely made speakers' voices unintelligible for many. Sawdust was placed on the floor in an attempt to deaden the sound, but one would imagine it was still difficult to completely discern speech at the farthest seating positions.
That year saw the expansion of the cottage area with new buildings. Dominion Day (now Canada Day) celebrations on July 1st included a program with a choir accompanied by a cornetist and no less than 39 preachers, lecturers and speakers, including six American imports. Canadian Prime Minster John A. MacDonald was advertised but did not appear. Controversy arose when some claimed the park's president, Noah Phelps, had not actually secured MacDonald's appearance but used it as a publicity stunt. This possibility was furthered in their minds when the following year, another advertised speaker failed to show. It was actually due to an error on the speaker's part, but the press once again accused Phelps of "religious fraud". Regardless, it was never resolved if fraud had been the case or if John MacDonald really had been booked and simply not shown up.
1889: Newspaper delivery service was now available. The Park House and Lake View House hotels are enlarged and refurbished. Porters were advertised as available to meet all trains and ferries, along with stables for horses for those travelling by road. Rates were $2 per day for Lake View and $1 to $1.50 per day at The Park House.
By the early 1890s, entertainment was being relaxed to feature non-religious programs. Science lectures were given on astronomy and botany. Speakers often recited on self-help topics like "The Model Home", "The Model Wife/Husband", etc. Orators gave readings from popular books. Art, literature, music, poetry, theology, and science were interspersed with concerts, fireworks displays, recitals, phonograph listening sessions, and stereopticon viewings. This last device consisted of a viewer through which one looked to see two post cards or photos taken a slight distance apart. A single, 3-D image was the result, much as is seen with modern Viewmasters.
1894: Ferries "Eurydice" and "Greyhound" (later refitted as "Argyll") serviced the park with two daily round trips. Charge was 50 cents for adults, 30 cents for children which included park admission. Grand Trunk Rail rates were 70 cents from & to Hamilton, and 10 cents for Beamsville. New that year was The "Philadelphia National School of Elocution and Oratory" holding classes there on diction, voice, gestures, etc, and streetcar service was inaugurated from Hamilton to Grimsby.
1895: Camp goer Alexander Logan was paralysed in a diving accident in shallow water beside the pier. He died a week later.
Entertainment booked for 1896 included The Salvation Army's Evangeline Booth, vocalists Eddie Selmen & Agnes Forbes and a string band providing background music for taffy pulls. Lecturers included Ontario Minister of Education G.W. Ross and social reformist John Wooley.
1900: Noah Phelps died in January of that year (1901 from another source), after being with the park for 41 years and president of the company for 25 of them. Park Road was renamed Phelps Avenue, part of which still exists today. 14,257 tickets were sold for the 1900 season including multiple-day and season passes, plus additional admissions were had for picnics and excursions.
1901: The new century began with the election of a new board of directors. Noah Phelps' vacant position was filled by W.C. Wilkinson, and photographer J.H. Ford became secretary-treasurer. The business name was changed to The Grimsby Park Company Limited. The grounds had been known by the public as that for decades, anyway.
New that season were motion pictures using The Projectorscope by Thomas Edison. Before this, most people saw motion pictures through single-person viewers. Newsreels shown included Queen Victoria's funeral and Boer War action. Entertainment booked for that year included Jack Cook (a 24-year old preacher from England), ventriloquist H. Simpson, and the Grimsby Park Mandolin and Guitar Club.
Electricity had come to Grimsby Village in 1893 when Edgar Elmo helped build Grimsby Village's first electrical system. It was finally installed in the park in 1904, making the coal lamps obsolete. The park was then electrically lit, although one report says that the coal lamps were initially kept for backup due to frequent power outages. Edgar worked in the park during summers as the electrician.
1906: A large Emancipation Day Picnic was held commemorating the abolition of slavery in Canada (and the entire British Empire) from 1833 onwards. These picnics became popular at other parks in later years, as well. Ferries servicing the park were "Carmonia" and "Turbinia".
With Phelps out of the picture and so many non-methodist persons visiting the park in the preceding decades, the rules began to become more relaxed. The "lights out at 10:30" rule had already been extended to 11 PM, and with the advent of electricity, The Park House began having midnight meals on its verandah.
In 1909, the postal service became year-round and was moved out of the park to a location at the corner of Marlow Avenue and Park Road.
Throughout the 19-0s, the park remained much as it had for decades and patronship was declining despite the relaxed rules. This decline resulted in The Grimsby Company declaring bankruptcy in 1910. It was bought by Harry Wylie, whom had been a public relations man for The Stearns Bicycle Company. He had initiated many publicity events to promote Stearns and saw a chance to use his talents in the amusement park business. Wylie purchased the park, and proceeded to modernize it. He dropped the curfew and relaxed, or eliminated, other rules. He removed the fence and established a midway along the entrance street with two carousels, a fish pond, a miniature railway, a shooting gallery, a snake charmer, and an octopus tank. Another attraction was The "Exciting Electric Lady". She had a wand that touched people and gave them electrical shocks! Yow! Talk about a novel way to use the new power source...
He built a dancehall at the foot of Park Road right on the lake (which at some point took on the name "The Casino"), and also had his friend, Albert Moore, construct a permanent motion picture theater which opened May 18, 1910. It was said to be the first between St. Catherines and Hamilton. Theater admission was 5 cents. Off season, Moore took his equipment to the town hall and later Snetsinger Hall, where he still charged 5 cents for children, but adults paid 10 cents. In 1914 he built a permanent 500-seat theater in town for motion pictures and live performances. His wife and daughter often played piano to accompany the silent pictures until sound equipment was installed in 1927.
As roller coasters were becoming very popular, Wylie had a Figure 8 coaster built. It was supposed to have been the first in Canada, but this is wrong. Canadian parks that had, or may have had, Figure 8 rides earlier than Grimsby were:
Erie Beach Park 1901 or within a few years Crystal Beach Park 1902 or 1905 Hanlan's Point 1905 Riverside Park (Que) 1905 Happyland (BC) 1906 (May not have been built) Happyland Park (Man) 1906 Frontier Park (National Park) 1909 Port Stanley Park (Stanley Beach) 1909
Although a few of the above have questionable dates, there are plenty of those which are well enough documented to dispel Grimsby's claim. The only thing that might justify such a declaration is if the Grimsby claim refers to a specific manufacturer. It's possible it might have been *that* company's first Figure 8 design built in Canada, but it was clearly not the first of *any* type of Figure 8 roller coaster in the country. On the other hand, it may have simply been a deliberate exaggeration for advertising purposes.
The actual date for Grimsby's coaster is based on the claim of having opened "four months before the Canadian National Exhibition's first roller coaster". The CNE's first coaster opened in the 1880s, so this part of the claim is definitely bogus. The CNE also never had a Figure 8 model but did have one which had a layout in the arrangement of a figure 8. That was The Royal Ascot Racer, a twin-tracked racing coaster built by Lynn Welcher. Dates for that ride are either 1910 or 1912, so the time period is closest to the Grimsby ride. As the former date appears to be correct, this means that Grimsby's coaster opened in early 1910, likely May. (Note that one reference gives 1911 for the Grimsby ride, but I feel 1910 is correct.)
At any rate, Grimsby's did not open before Wylie bought the park in 1910 and there were apparently as many as eight other similar designs that may have been, or were, running in Canada by that year. As mentioned, given Wylie's publicity background, it is suspected this was a false claim used to boost the new park's reputation.
Wylie was a master at promotions and once organized a 30-piece band to march through the streets of Hamilton to publicize the park. Regardless of the coaster controversy, which few people would investigate anyway, his schemes worked because crowds became so great that those arriving late in the day on horseback would often find no trees left available at which to tie up their horses. He hired circus performers for the park. One girl swung from the top of a tall tree to the ground hanging by just her teeth, and trapeze artists performed from beneath hot-air balloons.
A map drawn after these renovations shows the attractions, but is undated. Curiously, the dancehall is not shown next to the lake, but near the park's entrance. Perhaps the lake side restaurant was also used for dancing and a second hall was added before the map was drawn. As well, the roller coaster and Park House Hotel are not shown at all. Attractions on the map include:
Auditorium Circle with the Temple Beach with two Locker Buildings Bell Park with Fountain and Covered Spring Bowling Green Two Carousels Culvea's House (?) Dance Hall "Electric Lady" Ferry Wharf Fish Pond Grape Vineyards Ice Cream Stand Lake View Hotel Lily Pond Market Photo Booth Two Restaurants Spoony Bridge Souvenir Stand Tennis Courts Theater
In 1911, George Fair, Harry Wylie's brother-in-law, was hired as park manager.
1912 and 1913
Here are the obverse and reverse
of two park tokens. The upper one was
likely a promotion given to people
to be used as general park "money".
The token below may have been a locker one. The hole would allow a lanyard or wrist band to be attached so that people might wear the token when dressed in beachwear having no pockets. However, the lack of a number may negate this assumption unless `1913' is that number and not a year.
The park again prospered. Entertainment for 1914 included The "Knickerbocker" and "Sarah Gibson Stock" theater companies. They performed in The Temple.
The 1914 season was marred by a bad fire. The cottages had always been built too close together and a small fire had damaged one in 1910 but was put out before it could spread. This fire was much worse. Despite the fact that electricity had been in the park for almost 11 seasons, cooking was still on small coal oil stoves. One of these had tipped over in the Perry Family cottage starting a fire. This spread to 34 other cottages before it could be contained, but fortunately no one was injured. Estimate of damage was $60,000, a large sum for the time. George Fair placed those without dwellings into the park's hotels until new cottages could be built.
One report says that the Park House Hotel was lost in a fire but no date is given. 1914 may be the year it burned and if so, might explain its absence on the map. If the coaster was lost in the fire, that too, may explain why it's not on the map. These clues mean the map was likely drawn later than 1914.
In 1916 Harry Wylie died at age 45. Canada Steamship Lines, which wanted to get into the amusement park business, had recently leased Wabasso Park in Burlington, and bought or leased Grimsby as a second park. Both parks either had dock service for ferries or the company upgraded existing piers. This was for the purpose of generating extra business transporting persons to those parks on off days.
"Macassa" serviced the park that year and also offered sunset cruises on the lake. Mark Allen became the manager while George Fair was kept on as Superintendent.
There is no reference to any improvements made by the steamship company, but a bowling alley is mentioned that wasn't before.
Entertainment booked for that year were singer/dancer John Medlock, magician Great Jasen, the Manley Family comedy act, and comedienne Mary Canyon. Motion pictures were "The Woman Next Door" with Jenny Gay, and on Labour Day weekend "Shanghaied" (Charlie Chaplin) "The Hazards of Helen" (a 1915 serial with Helen Gibson), "Children of Eve" and "The Indian" -- a western. Admission was 5, 10, & 15 cents, and pictures were shown in The Temple (now just called "The Auditorium"). It would be the last season for movies there. The building was deteriorating and became a storage facility after this.
1917 saw the death of Mrs. Ford. She and her husband ran the photographic studio from 1886 until this season. Captain Hamilton Fleming bought the Bowslaugh house sometime around now, and the nearby road into the park was oil-coated. Police protection was requested by The Cottagers' Association. I assume the first patrol was dropped after the park changed hands. This may have been when the association was formed, as well. Movies were being shown that year in the converted bowling alley.
Fire struck again. On June 30th, 1918, The Lake View Hotel, which had just completed major renovations and was to have opened July 1 for the season, was gutted. It was never rebuilt.
Business Falls Off
With the above losses and no new attractions, the park was declining. In 1922, The Temple building was demolished. It was in too bad a shape to save and had become dangerous. All those years of leaks had rotted the wood. In a move that today is commonplace, dynamite was placed around the supports to knock them out and gravity did the rest. Good wood was salvaged, while the rest made a huge beach bonfire.
People still came for the sports, dancing at The Casino, and a day at the beach, but the huge crowds of earlier decades were going elsewhere. Ferries servicing the park were "Argyll" (was "Greyhound"), "Corona", "Macassa", "Mojeska", and "Northumberland", which also serviced Lakeside Park.
In 1922 or 23 the Figure 8 coaster was demolished, if it had not been beforehand, or lost in the 1914 fire, and in 1923 a Miller/Baker Deep Dipper replaced it. This may have lasted until 1929. However, little backup to these facts can be found in any major sources. This may not be a factor, as most books on a given area do not discuss amusement rides in detail, if at all. Until information arises to disprove this information, it will be included here.
It was definitely there in 1928 because photos of the time show it. As seen below, the first photo is of Park Superintendent George Fair and his wife, Mabel standing in front of the "Deep Dipper". It was their wedding anniversary, and so the exact date is known: 1928, June 23.
1928, June 23
|George and Mabel Fair Celebrate their wedding anniversary. Their home was close to this ride.|
The Fair's daughter, Winona, poses
in front of the coaster.
In the late 1920s, yet another disastrous fire occurred. A coal-oil stove exploded in July of 1927 and almost 30 cottages were lost in the resulting fire, many around The Auditorium Circle. On-going beach erosion contributed further to the park's decline. A memorial fountain was placed in Bell Park. Around this time, the park was taken over by the Cottagers' Association and deeds issued for the properties formerly leased. The change-over was handled by George Fair. Presumably, the burned cottages were rebuilt.
Moving in a Different Direction
By the early 1930s, the midway had been discontinued, as had ferry service, the shops in the park and the Casino. They were probably finished off by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but people continued to go to the park for its natural offerings. As a result, the park maintained the tennis courts, and offered shuffleboard courts starting in 1931. Apparently these were the first in Canada not located on board a ship. Despite no midway, boat swings were offered that year which were like a mini "Pirate Ship" of today, but self-propelled.
The Boys' Tabernacle was refurbished with a hinged rear wall so that people outside could be audience to meetings held inside when the wall was swung open.
In 1936, the Casino reopened under new management. Bands were hired and the swing era saw lots of new business. Softball and shuffleboard were still being played.
1939 saw a new entrance to the park made with stone & wooden pillars sporting a wooden banner on top reading "Grimsby Beach". The name "park" had been substituted with "beach" during the previous decade. It was a memorial arch made to commemorate the visit to Canada by King George and Queen Elizabeth. Also placed in the park was a cairn marking the former location of The Temple. A large section of park property on the north side was lost when The Queen Elizabeth Highway went through.
During the 1940s, the park cottages became year-round residences as the park property became absorbed into the town of Grimsby. By 1948 most things at Grimsby Park had closed. The dancehall burned December 31st. Remaining park property began to be sold off to developers, who then built houses. A recreation hall was built in 1949 on Grand Avenue where the shuffleboards had been.
Today, a cottage dating from 1879 remains, along with The Auditorium Circle and The Temple Cairn, the entrance gate pillars, Bell Park with its fountain, the Recreation hall building, the concrete footings of the restaurant, and a deteriorating pier. St. Phillips Church, completed in 1961, stands where the Figure 8 had once thrilled riders a century earlier.
I wish to credit author Dorothy Turcotte of Grimsby, Ontario for much
of the information on this park.
Thanks to The Grimsby Archives and the Grimsby Historical Society for the "Deep Dipper" photos and appreciation goes to Sharon Lutz for the image scans.
Appreciation goes to Larry Laevens of Cambridge, Ontario for the park token scans.
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