Two of NCPR’s recent Backward Glances historical photos were of long-forgotten roadside amusements: the ruins of The Land of Make Believe in Upper Jay and a 1973 photo of “Home of 1000 Animals” in Lake Placid. I got thinking how just north of the border in Ontario and Quebec, there have been, and still are, a few similar roadside attractions.
Just a few yards north of Canadian customs on Hill Island, the 1000 Islands Tower stands 400 feet/130 metres, giving tourists a panoramic view of the islands and countryside on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Originally known as the 1000 Islands Skydeck, it opened in 1965 and drew hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Gift shops and restaurants opened up by the parking lot. A nursery rhyme and fairy tale-themed exhibit called Never, Never Land sprung up in the nearby woods. The spot became known as Skytown because it surrounded the tower. I barely remember going to the top of the tower with my Dad when I was two years old. Mom was afraid of heights and stayed down below. As for Never, Never Land, I have no memory of it. I do remember the brochure for it that remained in a shoebox of travel information at home for years. It showed a cartoonish drawing of Humpty Dumpty saying “Join me in the fun and frolic at Never, Never Land.” The fun and frolic are all gone, but the tower remains. It continues to draw tourists from all over the world, but not as many as in the past.
The fairy tale theme seems to have really caught on with owners of roadside amusements. From 1966 to 2011, Storyland, just off the Trans-Canada Highway near Renfrew, northwest of Ottawa, was on the itinerary of many a family vacation. Just up the highway a bit further near Cobden is Logos Land Resort. Logos is Greek for the principle of divine reason and creative order, and for the word of God. The biggest building at Logos Land, atop a small hill visible from the highway, is a giant replica of Noah’s Ark. The resort was founded by a religious individual who wanted a Biblical influence in the park’s name and appearance.
Upper Canada Village and the surrounding parks and historic sites are among eastern Ontario’s most popular tourist attractions. They all resulted from the St. Lawrence Seaway project and are owned and operated by public agencies. A couple of private entrepreneurs around Morrisburg also got into the tourist attraction business. On old Highway 2, there was once an antique automotive museum. The large steel building housed several vintage cars but has been closed for many years. Prehistoric World is just around the corner from Upper Canada Village on a road that connects with Highway 401. It isn’t quite Jurassic Park, but instead a woodland walk past colorfully painted concrete dinosaurs.
Little Rays Reptile Zoo is on Bank Street south of Ottawa. Paul Raymond Goulet, aka Little Ray, turned his hobby into a full-time business in 1998. He also does reptile rescue work, travelling shows at public events, and entertains at children’s birthday parties. There’s obviously a demand for this sort of attraction and business. Little Ray’s now has three other franchised locations across eastern Canada.
In western Quebec, there aren’t many unique and quirky roadside amusements. The one thing I’ve noticed though are a couple of places that sell fireworks. One is on Highway 15 southbound just before the Champlain border crossing. Big signs advertise souvenirs and food, but also fireworks. What is an American tourist heading home supposed to do with them? It probably isn’t the best idea to go through customs with a car full of explosives. On the north side of Highway 20 just east of the Ontario border, a fireworks company has a factory that includes a popular outlet store that brings in travelers from the highway. The factory made headlines in June 2013 when it caught fire and exploded, killing two employees.
Attractions like these aren’t major amusement parks, historic monuments, or natural features. With the exception of career reptile aficionados like Little Ray, they are sideshows that enterprising individuals started up to capitalize on the more popular main attraction nearby. In the decades following WW II, more people could afford cars. Interstate highways were built in the United States. In Canada, the 400-series highways were built in Ontario, the Autoroutes in Quebec, and the Trans-Canada Highway across the country. Family vacations by car became the affordable, middle class way to holiday. Small, unique, and often odd attractions like these supplemented the parks, museums, and monuments families went to see. They also were clever examples of entrepreneurship.