Old-Fashioned Amusement Parks Once Beckoned, Have Nearly Vanished
By Bobby Cherry and Kristina Serafini
Thursday, July 8, 2010
For more than 100 years, American amusement parks have entertained and thrilled those looking for summertime excitement. But as cultures shifted and competition increased, the thrills, fun and family gatherings at many parks stopped, leaving only memories behind.
From the late 19th century through the mid 1950s, there were almost two dozen such parks in the Pittsburgh area. Few have survived.
Opened in 1905, Luna Park in Oakland was known for its performances, odd attractions and, most notably, its use of electricity.
More than 67,000 lights illuminated the park’s attractions situated near Craig Street and what now is Baum Boulevard.
“At the time, most people had one, maybe two lights in their house if they were lucky,” said Jim Futrell, amusement park historian.
Owned by Frederick Ingersoll, an inventor who owned 38 similar parks across the country, Luna Park offered concerts, foreign landmark replicas and rides.
In 1995, Kennywood Park paid homage to Luna by re-creating the Shoot-the-Chutes ride and water fountain features in its Lost Kennywood addition.
Attractions such as Infant Incubator dazzled visitors.
A 1906 brochure for the park advertised, “Little mites of humanity, whose lives were despaired of, were taken to the incubator, where, under the care of learned physicians, and the gentle ministrations of trained nurses, the park patrons saw them grow strong and sturdy again.”
Ingersoll filed for bankruptcy in March 1908. The park closed in August 1909, nearly two years after a lion escaped, killing a visitor.
White Swan Park
White Swan Park had everything from roller coasters to skee ball — but not white swans.
“Dad always wanted to put white swans on the lakes in the park,” said Bill Kleeman, son of White Swan Park owners Edward and Margaret Kleeman. The park also was owned by Margaret Kleeman’s brother, Roy Todd.
Like the rest of the park, the lakes are gone. Rides and attractions were torn down nearly 20 years ago as the park was forced to close in 1990 after state Department of Transportation officials relocated the Parkway West to the new Pittsburgh International Airport in Findlay.
The summer of 1989 would be the last for the park, which entertained locals for 34 years.
“Every time I drive past it, I look up and realize I’m driving over White Swan Park,” said Steve Mcateer, who worked most of the rides before becoming a maintenance man for the park in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“It was a grand old thing. It was like one big family.”
Known for its Galaxy, Mad Mouse and large slide, White Swan Park entertained celebrities heading to and from the airport and children from around the West Hills.
“There was a constant flow of picnics, too,” said Mcateer of North Fayette. “There was always something going on at the park.”
West View Park
The factors that made West View Park prosper contributed to its demise.
During the beginning of its 71-year run, the park, located on Perrysville Avenue in West View, was a hot spot for community picnics. More than 100 picnics were held there the first season the park opened, according to Heinz History Center archives.
Founded by Theodore M. Harton, West View Park boasted many popular rides — most of which were built by the T.M. Harton Co. — including the Dips, the first coaster built in Pennsylvania with drops of more than 50 feet.
The park was passed down through the Harton family, and though the 1920s started off slow, by the end of the decade, the park had undergone a renovation to add a new roller coaster, the Racing Whippet, to the landscape, as well as several other new rides and renovations to existing ones.
Dancing became a popular pastime in the 1920s, and West View Park’s ballroom provided much of the financial stability during the Great Depression. During the evenings, a capacity-sized crowd often crammed into the dancing pavilion for music from local and national bands, including the Rolling Stones, who played at the center in 1964.
Perhaps the park’s most successful period arrived when George M. Harton III took control in 1945. The next year, three new rides — a miniature railroad, flying skooter and Ferris Wheel — were added. In 1947, the ballroom was renovated to include new lighting and air conditioning and reopened as Danceland in 1948.
Though dancing started losing its popularity in the 1950s, many of the couples who used to dance there were starting to bring their children to the park’s Kiddieland.
But the good times wouldn’t last forever.
In September 1965, the Pittsburgh Railways Company discontinued trolley service to the park. Then, in 1966, George Harton III died, the park was passed on to his 80-year-old mother, and it fell by the wayside.
“The family grew increasingly detached from the park,” said Jim Futrell, amusement park historian.
Without improvements to the park, people began turning to Kennywood Park to host picnics.
West View Park was dealt a major blow on Oct. 3, 1973, when a fire destroyed Danceland. The park closed before the 1978 season.
Many amusement parks opened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Pittsburgh region:
1878 — Idlewild Park, Somerset
1897 — Calhoun Park, Lincoln Place
1898 — Kennywood Park, West Mifflin
1901 — Maple Grove Park, Pittsburgh
1901 — Eldora Park, Eldora
1901 — Alameda Park, Butler
1901– Homestead Park, Homestead
1902 — Oakwood Amusement Park, Crafton
1903 — Southern Park, Carrick
1903 — Oakford Park, Jeannette
1904 — Interurban Park, Pittsburgh
1905 — Luna Park, Oakland
1906 — West View Park, West View
1906 — Dreamland, Pittsburgh
1906 — Coney Island, Neville Island
1906 — Dream City, Wilkinsburg
1924 — Rainbow Gardens, White Oak
1927 — Burkes Glen Park, Monroeville
1927 — Harmarville Park, Blawnox
1928 — Mapleview Park, Canonsburg
1955 — White Swan Park, Findlay
Source: Tribune-Review News Service research
The turn of the last century “was the time when trolley companies were expanding and opening parks at the ending of the line to generate traffic on evenings and weekends,” said Jim Futrell, author of “Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania” and historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association in Lombard, Ill.
“They were a much different animal than what parks are today,” he said. “They offered picnics, dances and maybe a roller coaster. It was a much different type of environment than what you see today.”
The number of parks in the region — about two dozen opened between 1878 and 1955 — was uncommon for its size, Futrell said.
“It was a testament to the topography and the industrialized nature of the region that so many parks existed,” Futrell said.
In 1906 alone, four parks opened: West View Park, now a plaza that houses Giant Eagle; Dreamland in Pittsburgh; Coney Island in Neville Island; and Dream City in Wilkinsburg.
White Swan Park — opened in 1955. Situated on the Moon-Findlay border, it was designed as a roadside stop along the Parkway West to the then-Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
“At the time, people would travel from miles and miles away to drive on the parkway,” said Bill Kleeman of Sewickley, whose parents, Edward and Margaret Kleeman, and uncle, Roy Todd, owned White Swan.
When trolley companies merged into larger entities, many owned multiple amusement parks, such as the Pittsburgh Railways Company that at one time owned Calhoun Park in Lincoln Place, Oakwood in Crafton, Southern Park in Carrick and Kennywood Park in West Mifflin.
The trolley company sold the parks to the Henninger family, who eventually sold or closed three of the four parks. Kennywood opened in 1898 and is among one of the few old-fashioned amusement parks to remain open.
Few records exist from many of the parks in the region, including Coney Island, a short-lived park that opened on Neville Island on June 27, 1907. The park featured a 50-foot boardwalk, shoot-the-chutes ride and a 1,000-foot beach.
The Great Depression threatened the local amusement park industry, leaving a handful of parks, including Kennywood, Idlewild Park and West View, Futrell said.
As time passed, visitors expected more and more, he said.
“The industry was maturing, and people wanted more thrill rides,” Futrell said. “Smaller parks didn’t have space or funds for thrill rides.”
Today, the family-owned amusement park is an anachronism. The region’s last — Kennywood and its sister parks Idlewild Park and Sandcastle Waterpark — were sold in 2007 by longtime owners the Henninger and McSwigan families to Spain-based Parques Reunidos.