Lake Compounce: All About the Oldest Amusement Park in America — Which Turns 175 This Year
Lake Compounce opened its gates in 1846, welcoming stars like Frank Sinatra and Whitney Houston through the years
Did you know that America's oldest amusement park has weathered not one, but two global pandemics? Lake Compounce in Bristol and Southington, Connecticut, first opened its gates in 1846, offering thrills and chills and now holding the record as North America's oldest theme park in continuous operation.
Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, the history of Lake Compounce is a bit of a roller coaster ride itself.
The park's name derives from John Compound, a Mattatuck/Tunxis Native American Chieftain who signed over "Compound's Lake" to settlers in 1684. Local legend states that Chief Compound died soon after trying to cross his eponymous lake in a large, brass kettle, according to the park.
Nearly 200 years later, in 1846, scientist Samuel Botsford convinced Gad Norton, the property owner and a descendent of the settlers, to let him host an electrical experiment to wow local crowds.
The event reportedly drew thousands, and Norton was inspired to spruce the grounds up into a "picnic" park with swimming, boating, a concert gazebo and more. It would grow to evolve into one of America's first modern amusement parks, seen here.
A revolving swing and bowling alley were added the year after, and a casino opened its doors for business in 1895. A trolley path, hand-cranked Ferris Wheel and row boats were also added around that time, Palace Entertainment's Northeast Marketing Director Amy Thomas tells PEOPLE.
Over time, the attractions became more sophisticated and continued to draw the adventurous – like these women checking out a ride from afar.
A carousel was added in 1911, what Thomas calls Lake Compounce's first "traditional amusement park ride." Today, the historic attraction is on the National Register of Historic Places – and still in operation!
The wondrous, wooden "Wildcat" roller coaster was added in 1927. The 94-year-old ride is also still in operation today.
The park has also welcomed star-studded entertainment and musical acts through the years. Even Harry Houdini worked his magic there.
"In the '80s and '90s we had Cher, New Kids on the Block, Ringo Starr, Whitney Houston, Jimmy Buffet, so that was a huge part of our history as well," Thomas tells PEOPLE.
Lake Compunce was also the infamous scene of the incident in which German R&B duo Milli Vanilli got caught lip-syncing during a performance broadcast live on MTV in 1989.
As Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus performed their hit single, "Girl You Know It's True," the recording of the track jammed and skipped, repeatedly playing the partial lyric "Girl you know it's…" over and over again. They continued to pretend to sing and dance for a few moments, before rushing offstage.
Months later, Morvan and Pilatus were forced to return their Grammys after it was revealed they did not actually sing any of the songs on their album of the same name. At the time, the disgraced duo were the first artists to ever to have to return the award.
The theme park hosted pint-sized pageants for toddlers in the early 1900s, as seen in this period photo.
"We had baby shows where we would crown the most handsome baby, the most beautiful baby," Thomas says of the various categories. "So funny."
Tally-ho! In another amazing act, Lake Compounce also welcomed King and Queen, two white horses famously trained to dive from a 50-ft. platform into the lake. At the turn of the 20th century, the swimming steeds were the most popular attraction in the history of the park.
Breaking bread to bond, the Crocodile Club was established at Lake Compounce in 1875. The annual bipartisan dinner tradition for local Democrats and Republicans has continued ever since.
According to local legend, founder Gad Norton himself dictated that "there will be no serious politics allowed, no post-mortems from the last legislative session, just pleasant sociability, good fun, and good food," according to the club.
When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the leisure travel industry last year, it marked the second public health crisis of its kind that Lake Compounce had been through: The amusement park was in operation during the influenza pandemic of 1918.
As for what's remembered, Thomas says: "We don't have much records of the first pandemic that happened. There's a noticeable void in those dates so I think it was kind of quiet, similar to how this past pandemic went."
The park is now open as COVID-19 restrictions continue to lift.