Winter-clad youths chattered excitedly while waiting their turn at the top of the hill. Every 30 seconds or so, the line advanced with an icy whoosh.
The slope looked surprisingly steep for those peering over the edge. Thrills, chills and occasional spills awaited those who dared ride the polar coaster to the bottom.
“The wind whips your face and the blood pounds in your ears as you swoop down the icy hillside with the speed of a meteorite,” Beacon Journal reporter Mabel Norris explained in 1938. “You zoom across the lake for more than a quarter of a mile, and all your cares slip from your shoulders as you experience Old Man Winter’s favorite sport — tobogganing.”
The toboggan chutes at Virginia Kendall Park provided an adrenaline rush at 50 mph through 300-foot wooden troughs that emptied onto the frozen surface of 13-acre Kendall Lake. Riders barreled down an 85-foot incline and skidded across the ice until they reached the other side, a journey of about 1,600 feet, barring a wipeout. Energetic youngsters got up, scrambled back and waited in line to do it again.
On peak days in January and February during the Great Depression, more than 12,000 visitors enjoyed skiing, sledding, tobogganing and skating at the winter wonderland in Boston Township.
Cleveland coal millionaire Hayward H. Kendall (1876-1928) had bequeathed 430 acres to Ohio for a recreation area to be named for his mother, Virginia.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, began work in 1933 on a park between state Route 8 and the Cuyahoga Valley about 11 miles north of Akron. More than 200 workers built shelters, bridges, latrines, a bathhouse, a dam and the lake.
In the winter of 1935-1936, they also constructed a toboggan chute with wood hewn from local timber. The men even built the park’s original toboggans, although some impatient CCC workers later admitted to riding on shovels before the toboggans were completed.
The Akron Metropolitan Park System operated Virginia Kendall for the state and was responsible for its maintenance. Keeping the toboggans running was a major chore for park crews because the operation depended entirely on Ohio’s weather. Tobogganing was not allowed until the ice on Kendall Lake was 5 to 7 inches thick. After a prolonged cold spell, workers sprayed spring water on the chute, gave it time to freeze and covered it with canvas during the day.
“Because the sunshine is considerably clearer at Kendall than it is in the city, it is warmer out there, and it is necessary to cover the slides to keep the ice from disintegrating,” Harold S. Wagner, chairman of the park board, explained in 1938.
Snow had to be shoveled from the ice to allow for smooth passage. Toboggans generally ran from 7 to 11 p.m. with floodlights and flares providing illumination, although day racing was permitted during extremely cold weeks.
Visitors could bring their own toboggans or rent one for $1 for three hours. Park attendants at the top of the hill made sure people kept their arms and legs inside the ride to prevent injuries. And then it was whoosh … whoosh … whoosh ...
Although tens of thousands of people enjoyed the toboggan hill during its debut season, the weather didn’t cooperate the following year and the rides were few and far between. Crews had to patch the chute every autumn before reopening it.
In 1938, the park bought 40 new toboggans, but the hill was abandoned for four years during World War II when gasoline rationing curtailed traffic. A new chute was built for the winter of 1945-1946 and then a second, parallel chute was added in 1947 to accommodate the postwar crowds.
However, weather in the early 1950s wasn’t ideal for tobogganing. During the winter of 1951-1952, the chutes didn’t open. The following winter, the chutes operated for only two evenings.
In 1963, park workers built a new launching pad on a concrete platform. Rides continued smoothly for a decade except for the no-go year of 1967.
Chutes opened in January 1976 for the first time in three years.
“We’re at the mercy of the weather,” maintenance director John Kasarda told the Beacon Journal. “The lake has to be frozen a solid 7 inches and temperatures have to be at last 17 or 18 degrees before we can ice the chutes. Then we cover the chutes with a light colored canvas because the sun will peel the ice right off.”
The park district turned over the land to the National Park Service in January 1978 for the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. Park workers rebuilt the slides for the winter of 1978-1979, which turned out to be the last hurrah.
A burst pipe at Kendall Lake caused 4 million gallons of water to drain, lowering the surface level and forcing the toboggan chutes to shut down. Federal budget cuts in the early 1980s kept the park from reopening the hill.
Unused for a decade, the weather-beaten chutes finally were taken apart in 1990.
And in a whoosh, they were gone.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.