And Then There Was One
Opening the envelope postmarked San Diego, he viewed the photo sent by his old college roommate. Turning it over, he read the handwritten note on the back, “”Know you collect these. Pacific Park, 1921 – 1989.”
“There by the grace of God go we,” Chris Stephens, general manager of Kennywood Park, remarked thankfully to his summer intern, Kaelyn MacDonald, as they looked at the photograph of the deserted amusement park.
“Kaelyn, you may not know this, but the Pittsburgh area has had several amusement parks throughout its history,” Chris began, “the ones I’m most familiar with are Olympia, Rainbow Gardens, West View, and White Swan Parks . In all, there are more than 150 defunct amusement parks throughout Pennsylvania.”
“Olympia, West View, and Kennywood shared their genesis as trolley parks, a specific destination designed by the trolley companies to increase ridership,” he explained. “Once started, they grew and became havens to flock to for thrill rides, skee ball, dances, stuffed animals and picnics. I guess they represent a simpler time, less hurried and complex. Unfortunately, the so-called improvements of the latter 20th century, shopping centers and highway projects have replaced all but us. Now, they remain only in the photographs and fading memories of the many of us who loved them.”
“Olympia Amusement Park in Versailles was a short trolley ride from McKeesport ,once a thriving, growing industrial town. Pulling in people from the entire Mon Valley from 1901 through 1942, it had a bandstand, a common feature in most parks, as well as a baseball field with its small grandstand. My mom shared her stories of going there for school picnics with me.”
“Then there was Rainbow Gardens. It opened in 1928 with only a roller rink. Just a few miles from Olympia, it grew over time to offer an amusement park, pool, miniature golf, and a drive-in theatre. In high school, we used to go to shows on Friday nights for $5 a car with a couple of us stuffed in the trunk. It was actually a profitable venture, but it was unfortunately closed in 1968 for an anticipated PennDot expressway that never came to be.”
“West View Park, located in the lower North Hills, thrilled millions from 1906 to1977. It had an exciting double dip wooden coaster and all the other rides one expected to see in the days before Six Flags, Cedar Point, and Disney World. I used to go there for my uncle’s Thorofare company picnic. It had a great hall called Danceland which held countless dances, then record hops. I bet you didn’t know that it was a stop on The Rolling Stones’ first American tour in June, 1964. Not yet the mega group they would become, tickets were only $1.50 and promoters were hard pressed to fill the hall, many people getting in for free to reach a paltry attendance of 400. That didn’t last long. A year and several “hit songs’ later, the Stones played to a crowd of 9,000 at the Civic Arena.”
“White Swan Park, in Moon Township, opened in 1955 with a mere seven rides. They planned on having swans on the lake, giving it its name, but that never materialized. In my mind, it was always the ugly duckling of local parks. It was closed in 1989 when it was bought by PennDOT to make room for another expressway project. At least this time, unlike with Rainbow, this road was built.”
Chris and Kaelyn left the air-conditioned park office to make their daily afternoon rounds of Kennywood, the part of his job Chris liked the most. It was a perfect day, sunny, not too hot, and not a cloud in that wonderful blue sky.
“Wow, I didn’t realize we had a rich history of such parks,” Kaelyn said, “Tell me a little bit about Kennywood.”
“Well, it was originally called Kenny’s Grove. Part of the Kenny family’s farm, it was a popular picnic spot as far back as the Civil War. In 1898, the Monongahela Street Railway Company leased it to build a trolley park at the end of their streetcar line. Over the years, we grew by adding rides and games, bringing in celebrities from time to time. I saw the Lone Ranger, the actual TV actor, here in the late 50’s. He shook my hand and my mom had a hard time getting me to wash it for at least a week. We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the years, especially trying to keep up with the bigger, regional theme parks. But all in all, we’ve survived because of the great people in the area who keep supporting us. Our school picnic and ethnic days are still our best events. Once on an Italian Day, we had to close the park to any new arrivals because we were so packed. That’s a great problem to have. You know that we were designated a National Historical Landmark in 1987. Not too many parks can say that.”
As they walked through the park, greeting employees and checking for any issues, Chris began to reminisce. “Yes,” continued Chris “Kennywood will always be a special place for me and not just because I work here now. I used to come here for grade school picnics myself. What a great time. Planning on which girl to ask to be your ride partner, coordinating what clothes to wear so your group would be the “coolest,” deciding where everybody would meet up throughout the day. Then, in high school, like so many other local kids, I got my first job here. As you now, you usually start out with the easy jobs, working the games or the simpler rides like the Old Mill. Then, as you gain seniority, you move up to the other rides and coasters.”
Their rounds completed, Chris and Kaelyn returned to the office. Sitting at his desk, Chris added the new photo to his album, a collection he had been building for years, memorabilia of a bygone era. He wasn’t exactly sure why Kennywood, so close to his heart, had outlasted all the other local amusement parks, but he was certainly glad that it had.