Monday, January 1, 2018

Disneyland in Danville?

Actually, the story begins in nearby Salem, Virginia.  A 49-acre amusement park there called Lakeside was named after a million-gallon swimming pool opened in 1920.  The pool was surrounded by a beach and was a favorite summer retreat. Amusement park rides were added within a few years.  The park also included a pavilion, which hosted performers such as country artists Tom T. Hall and Conway Twitty and teen idol Ricky Nelson.

By the late 1960s, Lakeside had competition from new large parks such as Six Flags Over Georgia.  Even larger parks such as Walt Disney World, Kings Dominion, and Busch Gardens were in various stages of development.  With no land for expansion, Lakeside’s owners announced a new park in June 1971.  The 947-acre Sugartree entertainment complex was to be built in Axton, 15 miles west of Danville – spanning U.S. 58 and adjacent to Route 855 (Martin Road).

“Sugartree” came from the Sugartree Creek running through the property – so named by our area’s explorer, William Byrd.  The property was once owned by Patrick Henry.  Beginning in 1904, there was a one-room Sugartree school that also served as the community’s church.  The school was closed with the completion of the nearby Brosville school in 1920.

The proposed recreation complex was to include a convention center, an 800-room hotel, camp sites, an 18-hole golf course, and a shopping center in addition to entertainment attractions.  The first of those was to be a 1.4 mile miniature steam railroad modeled after the old Danville and Western (Dick ‘n Willie) line.  The engine was already under construction and was displayed at Lakeside by June 1972.

Needless to say, an undertaking this large encountered many problems.  Perhaps largest was the lack of water and sewer connections – a bone of contention with Pittsylvania County.  As a result, the developers considered relocating to municipally-owned land in Danville, adjacent to the City Farm, in 1972.  Council was cautious because that land was the city’s last available major industrial tract – close to the airport and the proposed Danville Expressway.  It may be the developers proposed the Danville site to prod the Pittsylvania supervisors into a sewer agreement.

Various opening dates for Sugartree were scheduled – first for 1973 and then for 1975.  By that time, the future was in doubt.  The only visible structure was a metal maintenance building erected by Danville contractor Hughes and Dalton Construction in 1973.  And the Kings Dominion complex opened less than 200 miles away in 1975.

Nothing remains of Sugartree today – the community or the entertainment complex.  Most of the acreage remains wooded nearly 47 years after the ambitious plan was announced.

As the result of increasing competition, Salem’s Lakeside park closed after 66 years  at the end of 1986 season.  Missed by the older residents of Roanoke and Salem, that land is now the Lakeside Plaza shopping center.