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Historic Wood Floor vs. Lake: Why the Buckling After Almost 100 Years?

Stephen Diggins
9 27 Canobie Postcared

9 27 Canobie PostcaredFrom 1969 until today it has been our family’s tradition to close the school year and start the summer with a trip to Canobie Lake Park, a circa-1902 amusement park in Salem, N.H. The park is conveniently located just up the road from our Derry, N.H., Wood Pro Inc. location, and beyond being a fun place to go, the park has become a very important wood flooring client for our customers.

I found out a few years ago that the park has over 15,000 square feet of vintage rock maple strip flooring as well as a fair amount of outdoor mahogany decking. In the spring of 2016, I first inspected 10,000-plus square feet of original maple flooring that was installed directly over large truss beams with absolutely no subfloor! During the spring runoff, there is enough water collecting to raise the lake under the facility containing the hardwood flooring (see the photo below). How has this floor survived almost 100 years? Because of the initial impeccable design-engineering and planning nearly a century gone ago.

9 27 Canobie LakeThe historic Dancehall Theater, which houses most of the park’s hardwood flooring, has all the design and construction elements of a WWII airplane hangar. During that era, hardwood floor installers who served in the armed forces could trade their rifle for a flooring hatchet and install seven days a week, 10 hours a day in military airplane hangars, barracks, and offices throughout the country. Installers used cut nails dripping with machine oil, peppered with metal fragments, driving them with the broad end of a hatchet and then setting them with the honed end of the tool. Installers reportedly laid and nailed 500–600 square feet per day, which would still be quite an accomplishment even with today’s technological improvements.

Since the 1930s, Canobie’s Dancehall Theater, with its thousands of square feet of maple and fir flooring, was a popular hot spot for entertainers such as Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, and later, Sonny & Cher and Aerosmith. It was in this theater where I had the honor of becoming involved. Its flooring was in need of renovation to improve performance, and this is where modern engineering collided with good old Yankee ingenuity. Nearly 10,000 square feet was almost lost to the scrap heap forever.

The front entry area of the Dancehall, roughly 4,000 square feet, has several double fire-door entries that open into an area approximately 20 by 75 feet containing maple strip hardwood flooring that had worn out from heavy foot traffic. A similar area at the back of the facility contains sections of fir flooring that was originally partitioned off and used as backstage dressing rooms and offstage wings.

9 27 Canobie Buckled Wood FloorEach spring, melting snow, salt, sand, and general foot traffic would grind away the area, making it harder and harder to keep neat and presentable. The decision was made to remove the flooring and carpet the area so grit and debris could be easily collected and the carpeting cleaned. The only problem was that the original maple flooring was laid out and installed to accommodate drastic changes in heat and humidity throughout New England’s sweeping climate changes. When spring arrived in 2016, and the floor was ready to move, it literally ran into a wall for the first time in over 100 years. The subfloor material used for the carpeting installation, ¾-inch plywood, did not allow for the movement the hardwood flooring needed. The historic flooring began to buckle, and buckle something ugly!

As Canobie luck would have it, after the first 40 or so feet of flooring, there is a 7-inch step down the entire length of the dancehall. Thus, the buckling was contained within the entry area, saving the remaining 10,000-plus square feet. The flooring was repaired and weaved with original material saved from the carpet project, and the floors were sanded for the first time in ages. How much life is left in this floor? Just about none! Refinishers had to be cautious, as they could spot all the original flooring nails, which had been blinded for decades.

9 27 Canobie Expanse DancehallOnce the sanding was complete, dust and refuse was taken “off-campus” to prevent possible spontaneous combustion, and that was a smart move. The dust from the sanding was moved to our dumpster a mile or so away, and next thing we knew we were missing half an oak tree! Our dumpster erupted in smoke, then flame, totally melting away the plastic lids, then leaping up one side of a red oak tree about the age of Canobie Lake Park itself! It happened so fast, by the time we were warned, the fire had already been extinguished thanks to security cameras and a rapid response from our Salem Fire Department. Losing a dumpster is one thing, but the thought of torching a historical landmark is just plain frightening. Firefighters believe someone tossed a cigar into the dumpster, or the polyurethane and wood dust simply ignited in the heat of the sun.

Today, Bona Traffic is used to maintain the flooring until the time comes it should be replaced. Replacement will take some modern-day engineering and planning since there is still an actual lake below portions of the facility. The floor looks beautiful thanks to C & L Flooring of Tyngsboro, Mass., and the park remains as vibrant and pristine as it has for decades.

In Part 2 of this blog we’ll look at the extensive decks that also had to be sanded at the park.

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