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Old-Fashioned Amusement Parks Once Beckoned, Have Nearly Vanished

By Bobby Cherry and Kristina Serafini
Thursday, July 8, 2010

A model of Pittsburgh's Luna Park is one of the attractions at the train exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, North Side. Opened in 1905, Luna Park in Oakland was known for its performances, odd attractions and, most notably, its use of electricity. Tribune-Review Archives

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.

Families who went to Kennywood Park packed picnic lunches, which sat undisturbed on tables as folks enjoyed the rides. Rare was the family who bought food at the park. These Ford City picnickers clean up after lunch during the fifth annual Ford City Community Picnic at Kennywood Park. About 6,000 residents of the Ford City area enjoyed a day of fun at the amusement park in June of 1956. Tribune-Review Archives

Luna Park

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.

Inside Storybook Forest at Idlewild Park, Eleanor Clark, of Ligonier Township, portrays the part of the Old Woman who Lives in the Shoe. Getting a hug on their visit are Paige Ohler and her little sister Aerica of Mt. Pleasant. Idlewild Park, which opened in 1878, has to be the oldest continuing amusement park in the Pittsburgh area, if not the country. Tribune-Review Archives

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, opened in 1906, was noted for its community picnics and Danceland, where the Rolling Stones appeared in 1964. Roller coasters were made out of wood and Kiddieland was a big draw for the little ones in the family. Tribune-Review Archives

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.

Alameda Park in Butler County was once an amusement park that opened in 1901. The building at far right in this drawing housed the carousel and is the only original building remaining. Tribune-Review Archives

At one time, train service to amusement parks in the area was common as entire communities or schools spent the day at the park after arriving there by rail. A special train carried more than 1,700 Ford City picnickers to Kennywood Park for an annual community picnic day in 1958. People waited at the railroad station at the corner of Third Avenue and Ford Street at the present site of the town's clock tower to board the train. Tribune-Review Archives

The Steel Phantom coaster at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin makes its way through a corkscrew on Monday, Sept. 4, 2000, the last day of its existence. As time passes, visitors expect more and more -- and bigger, faster and more thrill filled coasters. Parks throughout the country compete to offer riders the latest in coaster technology. AP Photo | Gene J. Puskar

More parks

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

An era that has passed

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.

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