It might have been the creepy clown that towered over me, its mouth wide enough to swallow me whole, that sent shivers down my spine. It might have been the chill in the December air that clung to my skin. It might also have been one of the many spirits who call the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park home arriving to welcome me to their final resting spot. Looking around at the other wide-eyed guests joining us on our Saturday afternoon tour, I knew that whatever it was, I wasn’t alone.
The reason Adam and I sought out abandoned Lake Shawnee as a daytrip destination is that we’re not alone in our fascination with its remarkable history. Dozens of TV shows have filmed segments on the grounds, and thousands of guests stop by to explore each year. In the past, our interest in eerie and deserted places has taken us to plenty of abandoned spots as far away as Bulgaria’s Buzludzha and as close to home as Pennsylvania’s Centralia, and we’re no strangers to haunted locations like the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum or the Whaley House in San Diego. With our world still very much in the midst of a pandemic, though, we decided to close out 2020 with a bit of a Nightmare Before Christmas experience; after all, most spirits are natural social distancers, and an outdoor history lesson sounded like a wonderful way to spend a day.
History reigns supreme at Lake Shawnee, where a small team shares a powerful mission to educate the world about their small corner of West Virginia. Whether you are planning a trip of your own or are wondering what you might get from the experience, one thing is for certain: a day at Lake Shawnee will create some incredible, lasting memories.
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park: a Brief History
Technically, Lake Shawnee Amusement Park’s history dates back to 1926, when the park first opened its doors to visitors. More specifically, though, Lake Shawnee has roots that stretch hundreds of years into the past—but it took more current events to uncover some of the area’s incredible history.Lake Shawnee Amusement Park opened its doors in 1926 when proprietor Conley Snidow, Sr. purchased the land. His vision to build a place for local families to relax and enjoy time together was realized as the coal miners from local towns descended on it each year, making it a destination for summer vacations. The park brimmed with activities: it featured a manmade swimming lake, race track, concessions, and cabins for visitors desiring overnight stays. The cornerstones were the Ferris wheel and the swings, two rides popular with everyone who spent time at the park.
Tragedy began to grip Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in the 1950s, when several deaths shocked locals. A young girl’s life ended on the swing ride when a delivery truck backed into her seat, killing her in place. Another young boy lost his life when the drowned in the swimming pool after his arm got stuck in a drain pipe. By 1966, Lake Shawnee Amusement Park closed its doors to the public, and the land sat dormant for decades.
In the 1980s, the park again welcomed visitors when Gaylord White acquired the land and set out to restore it to its former glory. In addition to purchasing a Ferris wheel, he found a swing ride that seemed to be just like the swings that once thrilled guests. When they installed the swings on the property, they realized the serial number matched that of the swings that were on the property from the 1920s until the park closed in 1966. It was a serendipitous homecoming that made the grand opening even more poignant.
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park welcomed tens of thousands of visitors during its second run, which ran for just three years in the 1980s. Unfortunately, high insurance prices forced the White family to close their doors for the second and final time after a few short seasons, forcing them to pivot to other activities to keep the land active. They hosted fishing tournaments in what used to be the swimming lake, and they planned to create a space on the property for mud bogging, a motor sport the family knew would draw crowds to watch. While excavating a mud bogging track, though, the White family made a series of surprising discoveries that added depth to the property’s already rich history.Together with a team from Marshall University, the White family discovered artifacts that told the story of the people who originally called the land home: the Shawnee tribe. In the 1700s, the property was the active home base for the Native Americans until they seemed to suddenly disappear. Among the bracelets, clothing, and tools that excavators found, they also found mass graves that suggested as many as 3,000 Shawnee may have been buried on the property. It was a shocking discovery that furthered yet another story that played out on the land: that of the Clay family.
In the 1770s, Mitchell Clay, his wife Phoebe, and their children became the county’s first English settlers. Sorrow did not spare them in their new home; in 1783, members of the Shawnee tribe murdered two of their children, Tabitha and Bartley, on the property. Mitchell tracked the tribe members into Ohio, where he found a third child, his son Ezekiel, burned at the stake. All three children were buried on the property, and a monument now stands on the location of their tragic death as a memorial to them. While it may have been the first violent tragedy to take place on the property, it certainly was not the last, especially with regard to children. And it started to make people wonder: is Lake Shawnee Amusement Park haunted?
Is Lake Shawnee Amusement Park Haunted?
As Gaylord White’s son Chris would ask, what’s your definition of haunted? Many visitors to Lake Shawnee Amusement Park have stories that suggest there are some spirits at play.
Many people report interactions with the little girl who died on the swings. Because the White family acquired the original swing set when they reopened the park in the 1980s, it seems possible—likely, even—that the girl’s spirit might spend time near the spot where she took her final breath. Sure enough, some eerie interactions have taken place near the swing. Her swing is marked by a red ribbon, although she seems to prefer an adjacent swing where an owl ornament hangs down. On a still day, the owl seems to dance in a breeze only it can feel; we watched it shake and spin on an otherwise still day, when not even the leaves in the trees above seemed to move. Curiously, the owl will often stop in its tracks, falling limp as if someone hit a switch—or as if a child dropped it as she moved on to other toys.The boy who died when he drowned in the lake it also reported to move throughout the park, seemingly preferring the area at the front of the park where he can welcome and protect visitors in a way that he could not protect himself when he was alive. Close to the lake, a white plastic pinwheel attached to the side of an old ticket booth may be his connection from his world to that of the living. Like the owl ornament, the pinwheel moves even when there is no wind, suggesting that someone we can’t see might have the ability to control it. During our visit, Chris showed us a video featuring a woman asking for the pinwheel to move—to speed up, to go faster, to stop—and it does, even without the help of the wind.
Is Lake Shawnee Amusement Park haunted? While it may be impossible to separate the suspicious from the supernatural, one thing is for sure: there doesn’t seem to be any evil spirits on the property. Despite the Shawnee burial grounds just across the field and the resting place for the Clay children who perished in a violent attack, there are only stories about playful ghosts who only seem interested in human connection. Your visit might connect you to your own ghost stories, but they are more likely to bring a smile to your face than fear.
Visiting Lake Shawnee Amusement Park
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is most popular in the fall, especially close to Halloween, but it’s a great place to visit any time of year.
These days, the park itself is quiet; you can’t ride the rides or swim in the lake. We met Chris, our guide for the day, who escorted us along the property first by car and then by foot. He starts with the oldest stories the property has to share, those of the Shawnee, and gave us some time to explore the excavation area before taking us into the park. Visitors are encouraged to leave an offering as a sign of respect to the Shawnee, and many people do just that. I intended to leave a small metal keyring that has brought joy to me since I acquired it in college, and although I held onto it for the rest of the tour, I told Adam I planned to leave it on our way out of the park before heading home.Our second stop was the amusement park itself, a walking tour that took us past the Ferris wheel, the swings, the trail that leads to the Clay children’s burial spot, and the swimming pool. It’s quiet and peaceful, but it’s not without a certain creepiness: the Ferris wheel and swings have vegetation growing around and through them as they almost become one with the land, while dolls and small toys are strategically placed as offerings to the spirits of the children who seem to be just around the corner.
Chris does a masterful job of bringing Lake Shawnee’s history to life. Through expert storytelling that combines his knowledge with his passion for preserving the property, he makes it easy to imagine thousands of guests in wool bathing suits sauntering about almost a century ago. We were captivated by the tales he told of summer vacations spent in the sun, unexpected tragedy, rebuilding, and even pivoting when protecting the land required reinventing how it was used. In fact, Lake Shawnee is staffed entirely by people with strong connections to its former glory, including several people who worked there in their younger years. It’s one of the aspects of the experience that makes a visit to the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park special: the park was always about making people happy, and today that tradition is continued by those positioned to do it best.
Lake Shawnee: What to Know Before You Visit
► Tickets are required
There are three primary ways to visit Lake Shawnee Amusement Park: a daytime tour, a nighttime experience, or a trip to the Dark Carnival. The daytime tour is a guided opportunity to learn about the history through storytelling before taking some time for independent exploration, which was our preference during our visit. If you’re hoping for a ghost encounter, you may enjoy the overnight experience, when guests have a chance to sleep in the park—if you dare. Lake Shawnee Amusement Park really shines during the Halloween season when it transforms into the Dark Carnival, which draws thousands of visitors for activities ranging from fortune telling to a haunted house that may truly be haunted. Purchase tickets for any event in advance to ensure your spot is saved.
► Bring your camera
Pictures are encouraged, and the park is beautiful—especially in the winter, when the domant trees frame the rides and add a gloomy, creepy ambiance to the experience. Some visitors have even discovered some photobombers when reviewing their pictures after leaving—unexplained shapes, orbs of light, and faces occasionally appear, so your pictures may ultimately connect you to the ghosts that call it home.
► Dress for the weather
The entire park experience takes place outside, so be sure to dress for the weather—you’ll want layers for cold weather and plenty of sunscreen during warmer months.
Where is Lake Shawnee Amusement Park?
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is close to Princeton, West Virginia. It is located on private property, and Chris, Roger, and their team provide plenty of help when you’re en route, including pictures of what to look for and where to go when you arrive. Most visitors seem to drive by the location because it is almost hidden in plain sight, so build in some extra time to ensure you arrive on time—or even a few minutes early.
Visit their official website for more information or to book your tour.
More Information: WVlakeshawnee.com
Where to Stay Near Lake Shawnee Amusement Park
The closest town to Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is Princeton, where you’ll find several hotels if you’re not planning on an overnight stay in the park. We love to find hotels using Booking.com, which helps us to select properties that meet exactly what we want from each stay (free breakfast and wifi are a must for us!). Take a look at Booking.com to see if there is a hotel that will be the right fit for your trip as well.
Enjoy Lake Shawnee Amusement Park!
Although I meant to leave an offering for the Shawnee, I found myself leaving one on the swing with the red ribbon after our Lake Shawnee Amusement Park tour concluded. As Chris told us about the little girl who died there, I felt my hand go cold and numb as if someone were gripping it tightly while he talked about her. In that hand, which was in my pocket, I was clutching the key ring. The key ring had the cut out of a butterfly with an inscription that read Friendship Token: Good for a Lifetime. When the tour was over, Adam and I returned to the swing, where I left the key ring by the ribbon. I stepped back, wondering if perhaps the little girl wanted it more than I did. It may have been a breeze I couldn’t feel, but the red ribbon began to twirl and bounce while I watched from a few feet away. Nothing else moved in the gust, and just as quickly as the ribbon began to move, it stopped. I looked at Adam and shrugged; perhaps it was a coincidence, or perhaps the girl was excited for a new possession. That’s not for me to know.
What I do know is that Lake Shawnee Amusement Park is a fascinating place to visit. If you love local history and a good ghost story or two, you’ll enjoy every moment of your visit just like we did. But don’t be surprised if you find your world colliding with a world inhabited by the spirits of those who enjoyed it decades ago—they may be the best part of the experience!
Here are a few more spooky places to visit around the world!