Stupid Question ™
July 1, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Were there ever real-life Tunnels of Love?
A: There sure were, and eight of them remain in operation.
But none of them were actually called a Tunnel of Love. And the rides that were called Tunnels of Love were something a bit different.
Amusement parks were invented at the turn of the last century. One of their main functions was to dispel Victorian sexual tensions.
Many rides were sexually suggestive, putting strangers in close contact and purposefully blowing women’s skirts upwards.
For young couples, who in regular life were never given any privacy, a trip to the park could be a boon.
Every park had an Old Mill—a slow boat ride down a dark, enclosed canal. Aside from some token exotic scenes inside, the entire ride was dark and quite suitable for hand-holding and smooching.
The Old Mill’s romantic angle was rarely overt. But the psychological symbolism of entering a dark, wet tunnel is hardly subtle. And memories of kisses stolen in Old Mills are innumerable.
“What else is there to do if you’re in a boat in the dark?” said Art Corey, who grew up as the son of the Iowa State Fair’s manager in the 1920s and saw the fair’s Ye Old Mill in action. “All you do is feel!”
Old Mills seem to have been known in industry slang as “tunnels of love,” but they were never named that.
British parks of the 1880s had Tunnel Railways—circular outdoor train rides that were partially covered, no doubt for privacy.
Another attraction was known as the Barrel of Love—a revolving tunnel patrons would walk through, often rolling into each other. It dates to a 1926 English ride called the Tonneau de L’Amour, or Cask of Love, which pretended to be French. (“The Parisians like it!” boasted ads.)
In any case, the first ride called the Tunnel of Love was built around 1945 at New Jersey’s now-closed Palisades Park, notably on the site of the original Old Mill.
It had no boats, no water and no tunnel. It was a zigzag haunted house ride in a metal car. It did have a room with fake stars on the ceiling that might be good for a kiss, but the ride was hardly romantic.
However, Palisades was great at publicity, and many East Coast parks soon adopted the Tunnel of Love name for similar rides.
Meanwhile, the Old Mill rides started dying off as teens gained more sexual freedom and parks grew more sterile and speed-oriented.
Kennywood park near Pittsburgh has the oldest Old Mill—but now has employees observing Old Mill riders.
And an outraged Art Corey said the Iowa State Fair now illuminates Ye Old Mill with strings of Christmas lights.
“Who the hell’s gonna kiss a girl in a lit-up tunnel?” he asked.