Americana Across the Empire State

Olcott Beach Carousel Park

Like a boomerang, I completed a 33-hour trip across New York State and back last weekend, leaving Penn Station on Friday at 1:20 pm on a Buffalo-bound train, returning by car to Staten Island at 10 p.m. Saturday night. The Hudson River Valley, Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, downtown Buffalo, Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes all sped by in an often-rainy blur–but there were plenty of highlights.

Olcott Beach LighthouseThe Olcott Beach Lighthouse (a replica with an interesting history) looks over Lake Ontario at the terminus of highway 78, about 40 miles north of Buffalo. A light rain had begun to fall when I arrived around noon, but it didn’t stop me from walking to the shore line, where small waves crashed against the wall, sending a white spray up and over my head. A cute collection of colorful shops sit just to the south of the lighthouse. But the real treat was just beyond the shops, Olcott Beach Carousel Park.

The park boasts a 1928 Hershell-Spillman two-row carousel, which spins accompanied by the tunes of a mechanical 1931 Wurlitzer Band organ. The organ plays tunes complete with wind, percussion and cymbals–all without computers or electronics, just a simple motor. Also in the park are five vintage kiddie rides:

  • a 1946 Allen Herschell Kiddy Auto / Fire Truck Ride (originally from Olcott)
  • a 1940’s Allen Herschell Sky Fighter
  • a 1940’s Boat Ride
  • a 1950’s Rocket Swing Ride
  • a kiddy Ferris Wheel (originally located at the Whistle Pig in Niagara Falls)

Olcott Beach Carousel  ParkTickets for the rides are only 25 cents, and even on a chilly, rainy Saturday, several families were out enjoying the park. The park’s operators showed great care and interest in each of the rides. The woman standing in the ticket booth looked over at the Ferris Wheel and said “I rode that when I was a child, my children have ridden it, my grandchildren have ridden it and now my great-grandchildren ride it.”

The sign at the entrance to the park says “Building memories for a new generation.” Indeed, the people at Olcott Beach Carousel Park are doing a great job.

Other highlights from the trip:

Amtrak’s Empire Service to Albany and beyond: This is one of Amtrak’s more scenic rides, running north along the east bank of the Hudson River to Albany, and then along the Erie Canal westward through Schenectady, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. I always meet lively characters on trains, and this ride was no exception. About 50 Buffalo residents were returning from a trip at Foxwoods casino, and four of them sat opposite me in the cafe car, playing gin rummy nonstop until moments before the train pulled into their station. I love the camaraderie of folks who hang out in the cafe cae. The train ran about two hours late. Delays are to be expected, and I don’t mind extra time on a train, but I wish I had seen more of Western New York before the sun set.

Dentzel Menagerie Carousel at Ontario Beach Park. The operator of the carousel at Olcott Beach pointed out that five historic carousels sit on the shores of Lake Ontario, two to the west of Olcott and two to the east. Among those to the east is the Dentzel Menagerie Carousel in Rochester. While most carousels feature horses only, this menagerie included 3 cats, 1 deer, 1 giraffe, 1 goat, 1 lion, 2 mules, 3 ostriches, 3 pigs, 3 rabbits and 1 tiger, for a total of 52 hand-carved animals and two chariots, all lined up in three rows–a real treat. Built in Philadelphia, this carousel has been in continuous operation in Rochester since 1905.

Schaller’s Drive-In, Rochester. Opened in 1956 by two brothers who worked for Eastman Kodak, this hamburger joint serves amazing cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches, milkshakes and more, just a block inland from Lake Ontario. The young woman behind the counter listened to orders, repeated them back to customers, then turned around and called out the order loudly to the staff behind the grill. She called hamburgers and cheeseburgers “hamburgs” and “cheeseburgs,” and,  from what I’ve read online, the pronunciation is common in upstate New York, Ohio and Michigan. Generations into the age of fast food and restaurant chains, where everything is the same from one state to the next, it was refreshing to find an establishment so unique to its region.

Finger Lakes region. This is what I was most looking forward to on the trip, but rain and a tight schedule prevented me from seeing more of the area Still, Route 89 from Seneca to Ithaca hugs the edge of Cayuga Lake for much of the route, offering gorgeous views of the lake and the opposite shore. A return trip to visit the wineries here is in order.

Amtrak's Empire Service, running along the Hudson River
Amtrak’s Empire Service, running along the Hudson River
Amtrak along the Hudson River
Amtrak’s Empire Service, running along the Hudson River
Dentzel Menagerie Carousel
Dentzel Menagerie Carousel

Dentzel Menagerie Carousel
Dentzel Menagerie Carousel
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