Okay, all you dark ride fans, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. First, the bad news: Savin Rock amusement area, in West Haven, Connecticut, had a Pretzel, a R.E. Chambers Laff in the Dark, an original installation Old Mill, a PTC Mill Chutes, a PTC Death Valley model funhouse, a NAD funhouse, a Noah’s Ark funhouse, a Bluebeard’s Castle funhouse and a makeshift funhouse. But the bad news is that they’ve vanished, as did the amusement area.

Now here’s the good news: You can view some remnants of them, plus learn more about the former largest amusement area in New England at the Savin Rock History Museum in West Haven. Before I get into the dark attractions, write down or cut and paste this museum information, as you’ll definitely want to refer to it later.
Savin Rock History Museum 
Tuesday 9:00 AM - 11:45 AM,  Saturday and Sunday 1:00 PM - 3:45 PM  For Tours Call 203-937-3959 or 203-937-3635
FROM NORTH: Turn RIGHT at end of ramp. Continue on that road 1.5 miles to the last intersection (Captain Thomas Boulevard and Kelsey Avenue). The Savin Rock Conference Center, Museum & free parking lot will be directly ahead on the right, next to Jimmie’s Restaurant.
FROM SOUTH: Turn LEFT at end of ramp. Follow the directions above.

Okay, now that you’ve done that, meet Harold Hartmann, that’s him with me in the photo. Harold was Chief of Maintenance for the Savin Rock Park Company which meant he did everything from patching leaky root beer dispenser barrels to mending broken skeletons in Death Valley. Harold is now a historian for the museum and nobody knows more about the rides, including the dark ones, than him.
“I lived near the park and at age four I wandered out of my back
yard into the amusement area and got hooked.” he recalls. “I started work at age 12 and worked right through the amusements’ closing in 1967.”
Alas, this author was only 12 in 1967 - too young to drive out there from Rhode Island. The closest I ever got was 15 miles away - my cousins’ house in North Haven. But I knew nothing of the Savin Rock back then. So close yet so far. Fortunately Harold’s vivid memory and his old photos make me feel like I was there. So here, with the help of Harold, are profiles of Savin Rock’s dark attractions.

L.H. McDaniel installed the Old Mill in Savin Rock’s Railroad Grove amusement area, operating through 1967. Like other Mills, it made use of a large wooden paddle wheel to keep the water flowing through the 1012-foot concrete tunnel. Riders aboard wood boats drifted by dioramas depicting American history such as the Mayflower’s voyage to America and a Native American village.

Recalls Harold, “None of the scenes were animated and they never changed over the years, just maintained. I never heard anybody complain about seeing the same stuff year after year. I suppose everybody saw it as American history - how can you change that?”

This Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) installation featured a 600-foot tunnel, which housed an Indian Village very similar to the one in the Old Mill. However, the highlight of the ride was a Shoot-The-Shoots style splashdown.

Just one look at this flashy façade and you had to take a ride. It was installed on Beach Street by R.E. Chambers who had purchased the rights to this ride and others years earlier from legendary designer and marketer Harry Traver. The building itself, a former dance hall/boxing area, was moved from Washington Street in three sections. The façade, featuring a giant clown head over the exit, was designed and built locally. The interior featured the standard Traver plywood stunts as the Kicking Mule and the Fighting Cats. But like most other LITDs across the nation, three-dimensional stunts were added over the years.

“The owner, Mr. Tiernan, would change the format every few years to keep people coming back,” recalled Harold. “I recall the cutouts being there until the end, but there were a number of papier mache heads as well. For sound effects, there was a laugh track inside and out.”
Today, you can find a Chambers car in the museum. It was pulled from a swamp near the ride’s site years ago and restored by James Kelley and Beth Stewart. It is the only known Traver/Chambers LITD car on public display.

Photo: Philadelphia Toboggan Co.
Mr. James Smith lived the dream of dark ride fans. He lived in a mansion next to a Noah’s Ark funhouse on Beach Street. This Ark was a standard installation of its time with Noah and family on the deck, interior gags such as Lily Pads, Shaker Boards, and a Barrel of Fun, and animal stunts that startled patrons in the dark corridors. Unfortunately, the Ark burned to the ground in 1934. Some say that remnants were salvaged and trucked up to Old Orchard Beach for its Ark that was erected in 1929. But Harold debunks that myth. “I saw it after they put out the fire and there was nothing left but ashes,” he recalls. “Even the machine that rocked the boat was completely destroyed.”

This was a patented PTC funhouse installation that debuted on Beach Street opposite the Upper Grove in 1937. However, the façade’s Skull and Crossbones lasted one year. “We thought it was too sinister for a fun house, “ recalls Harold. So, in 1938, the façade was redone as the “New Death Valley Funny House.”
Photo: Philadelphia Toboggan Co.

Harold purchased a Laffing Sal, a former New York City theater prop, and installed it in the façade’s far left hand corner. Interior gags included a swinging bridge, a stretch of floor covered by a pillow, and a tilt room. PTC’s famous Magic Carpet conveyor carried patrons to the exit. Death Valley also had a very elaborate stunt for its time: A skeleton that slid forward on a pole towards patrons as a blaring horn sounded.

PTC provided the blueprints for Death Valley and Savin Rock carpenters constructed it. “Harry Coxter and Dick Gray built it,” recalled Harold. “I helped add a second floor to it later.” The only known survivor of Death Valley, is Sal, who Harold believes resides in a New Hampshire pub. However, the laugh track can still be heard in the museum - in the restroom foyer of all places!

This funhouse was found in other parks throughout the country, including Revere Beach, Massachusetts. Savin’s has special meaning to Harold - his father operated it for two years on the Liberty Pier section. Patrons entered and exited through the mouth of the infamous Bluebeard pirate

“I remember two tilt rooms, a floor with rollers and lots of air holes. The stunts were plywood cutouts of Bluebeard and his gang,” recalls Harold. The short-lived funhouse burned with the rest of the pier in 1932. However, the memory lives on in the museum where visitors can walk through the mouth of a small-scale replica of the Bluebeard entrance.

A two-story installation by National Amusement Devices (NAD), this funhouse featured a animated clown band on the façade. Inside tricks included an attacking gorilla, two chutes and moving stairs. It was owned by Mr. Franke whom Harold says was known as the “King of Popcorn” for his marketing of the snack.

One of Pretzel’s original installations, it was owned by Frank Wilcox. “It had a combination of plywood cutouts and papier mache heads,” recalls Harold.
“It was kind of worn out by 1949.”
This was a makeshift funhouse created by Ed McDonald, who purchased stunts and floor tricks from other parks that had closed their dark attractions. “It wasn’t as good as the other funhouses here, so it didn’t catch on with the public,” says Harold.


So there you have it. If only we could travel back in time and experience this smorgasbord of dark attractions. But could we ever see another amusement area like Savin Rock?
“No,” replies Harold. “There were nine or more different owners of the amusements and attractions down here back then. That could never happen today.”

So why not check out the Savin Rock History Museum. Not only does it have dark ride memories; it has other Savin artifacts, like a Harry Traver Auto Race car, a vintage PTC carousel house, plus dozens of old photos.
And be sure to say hello to Harold, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War - and an all-round great guy. While the site of the Savin Rock amusement area has long since been redeveloped, it lives on through the museum and Harold’s recollections.

The author wishes to thank:
• Harold Hartmann, for granting me a personal tour of the museum, providing rare photos and sharing his memories of this once great amusement area.






• The staff of the Savin Rock History Museum for allowing me to take up-close photos
of the exhibits and for keeping the memories alive for generations to come.

• Our creative director Bill Luca for designing this feature
and for sharing his collection of PTC photos.

©2003 Laff In The Dark/www.laffinthedark.com