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The early 20th century was a transformative period for Toledo, the Great Lakes region and the US. In the final decades of the 19th century, Toledo became a thriving industrial hub. Plentiful factory work brought unprecedented migration, and between 1880 and 1900 the city’s population nearly tripled. Industrialization also brought enormous wealth (and wealth disparities) to Northwestern Ohio. Whether born of genuine ideological conviction, guilt for past exploitative practices or fear of labor uprisings (and probably a bit of all three), philanthropic contributions of Gilded Age capitalists continue to shape the cultural landscape of the city. It’s no coincidence that many of Toledo’s most iconic institutions were founded between 1890 and 1910, notably including the zoo (1900) and art museum (1901). Even as businessman-industrialists accumulated astronomical personal fortunes, factory work still put a modest disposable income in thousands of Toledoans’ pockets. With a critical mass of consumers, attractions, entertainments and amenities sprung up to capture Toledo’s pocket change.
Industrialization and its spoils came with costs; among the most significant was the rapid deterioration of environmental conditions in and around the city. Industrial waste directly contaminated land and water; coal-fired power stations and steam engines filled the air with smoke; even the workforce itself presented severe environmental challenges of its own, from untreated sewage to disease outbreaks in crowded housing.
The Lake Erie Park and Casino was a product of this era’s explosion of industrial wealth and industrial pollution. It offered urban workers and their families seeking respite from the smoke-choked city a place to spend money and enjoy the lake’s clean(er) air.
The casino first opened in 1895. In addition to gambling, live music and performances, the casino operated a menagerie of amusement park-style entertainments in parts of what are now Bay View Park and the Detwiler Park Golf Course. A landscaped “midway” promenade led patrons past a merry-go-round, hall of mirrors and miniature railway ride, among a rotating cast of attractions on approach to the boardwalk. A streetcar line running along Summit Street connected Point Place (a separate municipality until 1937) with downtown Toledo in minutes, and the casino entrance formed the line’s terminus.
After just four years in business, the entire boardwalk was destroyed in a fire, the cause of which was never determined. Reconstruction started quickly, however, and in 1900, an even grander casino was nearing completion…when it caught fire, too. This series of unfortunate events would continue when, in 1901, it burned a third time. Still, the owners refused to give up, and in 1902 the casino reopened grander than ever. It sat on a lengthened boardwalk extending over 1,200 feet into Lake Erie and included an auditorium with seating for 3,500.
Despite its owners’ persistence, the casino’s fortunes soon soured again. In 1906, the Toledo Beach resort and amusement park opened in Monroe County, Michigan. The rival resort was newer and located on a beach with sand; the casino boardwalk stretched over marsh and reeds before reaching clearer lake water. Even worse for Toledo Casino, Toledo Beach was both further from the city (and thus the pollution) and still easily accessible by trolley.
In 1907, Toledo Railways and Light Company (or, more familiarly, “The Big Con”) purchased the casino. The Big Con owned the streetcar line that served the casino—and most of the other public utilities across the city. The Big Con also owned Toledo Beach (as well as the trolley lines connecting Toledo Beach to Toledo and Detroit): perhaps vertical integration could revitalize the troubled park.
However, we’ll never know if the Big Con could’ve saved Lake Erie Park and Casino. After years of financial troubles, in June of 1910, it burned for a fourth time. In less than 45 minutes, the palatial complex had turned to ash. The new owners opted to collect the insurance check and walk, and the casino was never rebuilt.
The casino has long since faded from living memory, and more recently, Hollywood Casino Toledo began to crowd it out of online search results. Though nothing remains of the casino or its boardwalk, a small vestige of the park survives today. Artificial ponds that once lined the Lake Erie Park midway are now “water features”—obstacles in the Detwiler Park Golf Course.