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Trolley Park beginnings

Arguably, there is no place in Pittsburgh with a higher tourist appeal than Kennywood Amusement Park in West Mifflin, a place where "having fun" is all but guaranteed!

A popular Pittsburgh destination since 1899, the entire park today holds National Historic Landmark status, and many of its vintage features, from the magnificent carousel to the charming "Noah's Ark," remain in operation.

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The park began over a century ago as a "trolley park," an idea created by trolley companies hoping to inspire patronage for their cars. At a time when most of the region's residents lived, worked, shopped, and worshipped on the same city block, trolley companies situated amusement parks and picnic facilities at the very last stop on the trolley lines, with the hope of encouraging riders to stay on the trolley for more than just a few blocks.

Postcard of Kennywood c 1912
Collection of Rick Sebak
Kennywood Park c 1912.

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Owned by the Kenny family, Kennywood's original plot of land offered outdoor recreation facilities. In 1902, the park added its first roller coasters . . . although they were much tamer versions of "The Thunderbolt" and "The Steel Phantom" that thrill riders today! Kennywood also featured an athletic field and a bandshell as well as a free playground for children. By 1924 , the park established a "Kiddieland" filled with rides fit for the littlest leisure-lovers –but more and more amusements were being added regularly to thrill the adults in the Kennywood crowd, too.

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"The Jack Rabbit," a roller coaster with a wooden track and an exhilarating "double dip" drop, claims the distinction of being the oldest ride that still operates in the park, built in 1921. Construction of the coaster cost $50,000, a significant investment at that time. Still in operation today is the nostalgic crowd-pleaser called "The Turtle." It was originally named the "Tumble Bug" when it was constructed back in 1927 in Beaver Falls at the Travers Engineering Company. Perhaps the best-known of the park's attractions is the roller coaster known as the "Thunderbolt." Its precursor was a 1924 coaster called "The Pippin," which was designed in 1924 by John Miller. In 1967, the Pippin was redesigned by Andy Vettle, Jr., and became known thereafter as "The Thunderbolt." It is widely acknowledged as Kennywood's greatest coaster – and as one of top roller coasters in the world! In fact, Kennywood claims a collection of roller coasters – including a two-train masterpiece known as "The Racer" – that is positively revered by serious coaster enthusiasts, and the park has been dubbed "the roller coaster capital of the world."

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Postcard of the Kennywood Racer Rollercoaster, c 1970.
Postcard of the Kennywood Racer
Collection of Rick Sebak

Along the rivers' edges, in areas further outside the city, many docks house privately owned boats, many of which carry fishermen up and down the water in search of trout and carp, just to name a few. In addition to our rivers, many of the region's lakes and creeks provide plentiful opportunities for fishermen, as well. And Pennsylvania's vast wooded areas provide game for those who choose hunting as their sport.

One of Pennsylvania's more famous roadside attractions is in Pymatuning, where a spillway to Pymatuning Lake attracts record numbers of carp. Since 1930, this well-aerated spillway has attracted huge carp. . . huge because they are so well-fed! Tourists flock to the area to see the fish, and throw plenty of bread to them in the process.

Photo of Reyna Foods, Strip District
Rick Sebak

Producer Rick Sebak and some of the WQED crew try out one of the Kennywood 'coasters.

Carousel

The beautiful "Grand Carousel" has been a Kennywood centerpiece since 1926; and another Kennywood classic, the "Auto Ride," was built in 1930. It allows drivers to navigate brightly painted electric cars on a wooden track. Kennywood's first train ride came to the park in 1945, featuring train cars that were built for Gimble's Department store and shown at their 1939 World's Fair exhibit.

Of course, ask anyone who has attended Kennywood over the years and each one will recall fond memories of a favorite ride. From the Silver Airplanes to the Turnpike to the Old Mill water ride, Kennywood retains its old-time charm by blending vintage and newer amusements. But some of the Kennywood showpieces from earlier days have been retired to make room for modern updates.

Photo of Reyna Foods, Strip District
Collection of Rick Sebak

Kennywood's entertainment stages brought in many of the big name dance bands.

 

One of those showpieces was a large dancehall. In this era of roller coasters and high-tech thrill rides, it's difficult to imagine an earlier time when Kennywood was renowned as a hot night spot. KW18But in the mid 1900's, the park's dancehall attracted couples in party dresses and dinner jackets! (That's quite a contrast to the Kennywood "uniform" of shorts and T-shirts worn to the park today!) Even though the dancehall closed in 1953, it was a large part of the park's survival during the Great Depression because it attracted Big Band performers.

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Other musical shows took the stage at Kennywood's great "Bandshell," but that burned in a fire in 1961. The "Bandshell" was replaced by the "StarView Plaza," but by 1985, Kennywood faced the challenge of keeping the park competitive as newer and more thrilling rides were making their appearances in other theme parks around the country. The "StarView Plaza," along with the "Little Dipper" roller coaster in KW15"Kiddieland," were torn down to make room for the Raging Rapids, a rough water ride meant to call to mind the "raging rapids" of Western Pennsylvania rivers. Today, the Garden Theatre offers a stage for original Kennywood musical reviews, presented by teen performers hired for the summer, and a platform stage at the park's central "lagoon" stages stunt shows nightly.

Even without the dancehall or the "Bandshell," many "informal" musical events happen at Kennywood each summer. The park has been host to countless ethnic groups, community groups, and schools over the years, and its picnic pavilions frequently take on the air of a party hall! One of the largest annual picnics is Italian Day, which has been a tradition at Kennywood since 1935. The event includes plenty of traditional foods, music, and invariably, a couple of spontaneous performances of the traditional Italian dance tarantella.

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And for those who prefer a different kind of entertainment, Kennywood sports a variety of arcade games and mid-way attractions. For those with a roll of quarters and a fear of roller coasters, there are games of chance and skill. The Penny Arcade features Skee-Ball, a small arcade version of bowling, mixed in with the more contemporary video games. Several antique movie viewers still pepper the Penny Arcade, but there was a time earlier in the century when rows of them filled the pavilion, along with antique fortune-teller kiosks and photo booths offering souvenir Kennywood pictures.

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Like every other public institution, though, Kennywood was not without controversy. In 1925, the park added a giant swimming pool to its list of attractions. For many years, it was the site of the Miss Pittsburgh Pageant, and also hosted Baby Pageants from time to time. However, in the early 1950's, when racial tensions and issues of discrimination confronted communities across the country, Kennywood's pool became the centerpiece of a racial battle. Faced with the challenge of desegregating the swimming pool, park officials chose to instead convert it to a water ride, similar to bumper cars. By 1956, officials opened it once again as a swimming pool – this time for all swimmers, regardless of race. The pool operated that way until the 1973 season, when it closed for good. Today, the route of the Turnpike ride covers the site that was once the swimming pool.

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Why the enormous popularity of Kennywood? Maybe because "leisure" is not necessarily synonymous with "relaxing." If work is commonly thought of as a "daily grind," then one may prefer to spend leisure time in an environment like Kennywood, where "thrills and chills" provide the exhilaration and stimulation a desk job lacks. The atmosphere is cheerful and unique, making it a perfect location to mark special gatherings, like a family reunion or community picnic. And because so many adults in this region recall going there as a child, it has come to hold a place in their hearts as a Pittsburgh tradition, one that must be shared with their own families as they grow.

Whether your pursuit of fun is a distraction from distasteful work, or your reward for a job well done – or even your first priority in a life that rushes by all too fast – it is certainly a far cry from the animals who are blind to the concept of "leisure." Only the most social and sophisticated of mammals has exhibited the desire to find joy and satisfaction in their existence, and among them, only humans have the tools and intelligence to pursue "fun" not just as a distraction but an entitlement.

One particularly popular bumper sticker graces many of the cars in America, and it asked the question, "Are we having fun yet?" Perhaps we continue to ask the question because the bar for "fun" continually gets raised. How would an 18th century farmer view an Extreme Sport such as skateboarding on a half-pipe? How does cable TV compare to Native American storytelling? Do you think a keelboat operator would readily volunteer for a ride on Kennywood's Thunderbolt?

From the grandest pursuit to the simplest pleasure, what constitutes "fun" is an intensely personal decision, one that could only be defined by the individual engaging in the activity. And that just may explain the popularity of another well-known American bumper sticker.

That one says, "To each his own."

 

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