Word quickly spread this week at Chestnut Ridge Park that the long-idle toboggan chutes are scheduled to reopen next week, bringing huge grins to grown-ups who recalled careening down the hill as a child, clutching onto a sister, brother, friend or cousin for dear life.
"It was the wildest experience when you were a little kid," said Ken Schroeder, 40, whose parents would bring him, his three siblings and two neighbors out to Chestnut Ridge from their Cheektowaga neighborhood at least twice a winter. "You'd get down to the end of the hill, and snow would be flying up at your face."
He brought his fiancee's children, Joshua and Helen Toledo, and three neighborhood kids out sledding on Thursday for what he said was an annual trek to the hill he loved so much as a boy. When he heard the toboggan runs would be open next week, though, he was ready to go out and buy a toboggan and come back to introduce the kids to tobogganing.
"I'm kind of hoping I can get my brother and everyone together to do that," said Schroeder, who manages a food court at the University at Buffalo.
County officials are hoping plenty of Western New Yorkers join Schroeder and jump on the chance to pass the tradition along to their children. The toboggan runs have long been a staple of local childhood memories. They were built in the 1930s, around the time the Works Progress Administration erected stone walls, pavilions and other amenities in the park.
"This is one of only a few parks in the country with toboggan runs," said James Hornung Sr., Erie County's commissioner of parks and recreation. "That's why we're doing what we can to preserve them."
A lack of regular maintenance over the years, exacerbated by budget constraints, led the county to close the runs four years ago, he said. And for several years before that, the chutes had been only partially operational.
The county has spent about $175,000 to repair the steel toboggan runs. "I think this is the first real overhaul they've had," Hornung said.
Contractors have spent two months working. Officials had hoped to have the runs open by Dec. 1, but delays in getting some of the materials pushed the opening back. Many of the repairs were structural. The upgrades most obvious to visitors likely will be the renovation of the dark green wind huts at the top of the chutes, designed to shield tobogganers from the elements once they're at the top, about 25 feet from the ground.
"You're still outside, but the floor is made of open steel, so snow falls through and you're not slipping on ice when you're out there," Hornung said.
Julie Zulewski, a Snyder mom, recalled as a child trekking up the metal steps to the top of the toboggan run, piling onto a six-person toboggan with her cousins, then waiting for the attendant to hit the release lever that sends the toboggan cruising across 10 feet of rollers, then descending the chute down the hill.
"I remember being scared to death going up those huge stairs," she said. "You get on top, and they pull the lever. It goes 'ka-ching,' and then you know it's all over. They just shove you down. You go really, really fast -- at least, that's what I remember as a kid."
She bought a foam and plastic toboggan for her 9-year-old triplets, David, John and Sarah, this Christmas. But county officials say only wooden toboggans will be allowed at Chestnut Ridge. Zulewski said she's willing to pay another $150 or so to buy a wooden one, just so her kids can have the same fond memories of Chestnut Ridge that she does.
The toboggan runs will be open on weekends when there's at least about 6 inches of good packing snow, Hornung said.