A look back at Ludlow’s ‘big days’: A circus, a streetcar and motorcycle racing

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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Before Ludlow was Ludlow, it was English traveler William Bullock’s idea for a utopian city he called Hygeia (Greek for “health”).

Born in England, Bullock got his start in London as one of the first people to show rare artifacts. He took Egyptian Artifacts to London in 1812 and commissioned Egypt Hall, an exhibition space for the artifacts.

“He was one of the richest men in the world at the time,” Paul Miller said during the Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour Wednesday night. “He inspired P.T. Barnum to create the American Museum. The circus, showmanship, and destination creation, really we can thank William Bullock and all the Londoners for going and seeing these oddities and for inspiring P.T Barnum.”

The museum held a history hour on Ludlow’s destination economy’s past, present, and future and Miller, a Ludlow business owner (Bircus Brewing), was this week’s speaker.

“[Bullock] had so much money he visited Cincinnati and bought all of the land that was modern-day Ludlow,” Miller said.

Miller said Bullock had a real estate plan to try and relocate Londoners to Ludlow. Bullock purchased the land in 1827 and had British architect John Buonarotti Papworth map out the town, which he named Hygeia.

Map of Hygeia. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

The plan included public buildings, a school, library, museum, baths, churches, and several squares, according to Kyatlas.com.

During this time, Bullock had invested in a silver mine and went bankrupt. Bullock never built the development, and he sold the land to Israel Ludlow Jr. in 1846.

Ludlow went on to found the city we know today in 1864.

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Ludlow’s Father, Israel Ludlow, Senior, was one of the first to survey Cincinnati and became one of 27 people that founded the city.

After Ludlow was incorporated, its destination economy followed suit.

Ludlow Lagoon amusement park was built in 1894 and was the second-largest amusement park in the world at the time. In today’s terms, the Lagoon sat where Sleepy Hollow Road connects Ludlow to Ft. Wright. 

“One of the reasons that the lagoon came to be is one of the investors also invested in the streetcar,” Miller said. “It was a huge fortune to outlay the capital to lay this rail in Covington, Newport, and Cincinnati, and people told him, ‘No one is going to ride your streetcar.’ This is a horse and buggy town.”

The streetcar’s Green Line, where current Route 8 runs between Covington and Ludlow, took a hit financially, so they decided to build the Ludlow Lagoon to bring in more weekend traffic, which was the time people least used the streetcar. 

“Saturday through Sunday, some 30,000 would take the streetcar from Hyde Park in Cincinnati, down to Fountain Square, get on the green line, go through Covington, go through Ludlow, and it was really fascinating,” Miller said. 

The Ludlow Lagoon was inspired by the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Items were brought to Ludlow from the fair, such as the carousel that ran rides at the Lagoon, which was very high-tech for the time. 

Photo of the carousel. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

They also brought down little boats from Chicago and held mock naval armada battles on the Lagoon. 

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The boats. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

The amusement park had hot air balloon rides and a roller coaster-type ride that went through the treetops, which was the only of its kind in the world. 

The roller coaster. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

The Motor Drome was in operation at the Lagoon during this time. People would come from Cincinnati to see motorcycle races. It was a wooden track with gas lamps. At one point, a motorcycled crashed into one of the gas lamps, causing the place to burn down, killing eight people. It was later rebuilt. 

The motor drome. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

The Lagoon Park also hosted shows.

Popular circus performer Charles Kilpatrick, whom Miller called the “Justin Timberlake of his day,” performed there. The Enquirer at the time ran a full-page advertisement for the show. He was a one-legged performer known for swimming across the Mississippi River and riding a bike with one leg.

The advertisement posted in the Enquirer. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

Miller said people during the time wanted to “drink beer, see some circus acts, and watch some motorcycle racing.”

The Lagoon was the top seller for Bavarian beer. Ludlow Lagoon’s downfall happened around World War I, when they had to stop selling the beer due to the war. Ludlow Lagoon was torn down in 1917.

Over the years after the closure of Ludlow Lagoon, various other attractions came and went through the city. 

The Ludlow Springs Hobo Club was the next “place to be” in Ludlow, Miller said. It began running in the late 60s.

The Ludlow Theater was also built in the late 60s. It started by running adult films and short films. The theater eventually closed, and Mach III Clutch converted the theater into a manufacturing company in the late 80s early 90s. Miller purchased the theater in 2009.  

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The Ludlow theater in the 1960s. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

The Ludlow Boat Dock also popped up in the city around the late ’60s.

The movie “Lost in Yonkers” was filmed in Ludlow in the late ’80s.

“Those were big days and big times to be here in town,” Miller said.  

Miller has contributed to the present-day destination economy. After he purchased the Ludlow Theater in 2009, he opened a circus arts program there called Circus Mojo. Miller previously toured with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus as a circus clown and wanted to bring his knowledge of the circus back to Ludlow.

Today, Miller operates the first crowd-funded brewery Bircus Brewing Co. out of the theater.

Opening night at Bircus Brewing Co. at Ludlow Theater. Photo from Behringer-Crawford Museum’s history hour zoom.

“Yelp named us one of six must-visit breweries in the United States, so we get a lot of traffic from here and the airport,” Miller said.

The circus-themed brewery has hosted circus artists from 43 countries, from Antigua to Australia.

Miller got the theater listed on the state and federal historic registry. A process he said took seven years to accomplish.

“It’s so neat to be in a space with such rich heritage,” Miller said.

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