Pittsburgh is an ever-changing city. Many places of historical interest have been replaced with something more modern and arguably better. This was the fate for many of the amusement parks that were once scattered around the Greater Pittsburgh area.
Modern day amusement parks got much of their start from trolley parks dating back to the late 1800’s. Trolley parks were created to give streetcar riders a destination at the end of the lines. These parks began with picnic shelters and evolved into amusement rides and other attractions. Families would take the streetcars to them on the weekends to enjoy time together. Many cities had trolley parks, but none had as many as Pittsburgh did. Pittsburgh had nearly two-dozen trolley parks between the late 1800’s and mid 1950’s. Pittsburgh’s topography and industry helped create the unusually large number of parks in the area.
Pittsburgh’s Amusement Parks
George Ferris and the Ferris Wheel
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. lived on Arch Street in Pittsburgh and worked for his own company, G.W.G. Ferris and Company, as an inspection engineer for industrial sites. He attended a banquet in 1891 where he answered the challenge for a structure that could rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Ferris frantically sketched a gigantic wheel on a napkin and showed it to other engineers. Many wrote Ferris off as a crackpot, but he used his own money to prepare the blueprints and found wealthy investors to aid in the construction of the wheel. Ferris wasn’t the first to build a wheel such as this, but he was the first to do so with steel and on such a large scale. He set the bar with his now famous Ferris wheel. Ferris died at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh on November 22, 1896.
Exposition Hall at The Point
The Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society formed in 1885 to create a venue that offered the feel of a county fair but also rivaled the intrigue of a World’s Fair. It purchased land at the Point along the Allegheny River with a 50-year lease. The Exposition Hall opened in September of 1889 and attracted an average daily attendance of 10,000 during the fall months.
The Exposition Hall buildings looked like castles along the Allegheny River. Some of the more interesting sights at the Point during this time were the amusement rides such as the roller coaster, Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and boardwalk that lined the Allegheny River to attract younger audiences to the Exposition Hall.
The final exposition was held in 1916. The Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society accepted money in exchange for giving up the remainder of their lease to the city. The buildings served various purposes until the 1940s. The Music Hall was demolished in 1941, and the Machinery Hall was dismantled in 1942 for scrap metal for the war effort. The Main Hall was finally torn down in 1951 to make way for Point State Park.
One lesser-known amusement park with a great deal of historical significance is Westmoreland County’s Fairview Park. A group of African-American churches in the greater Pittsburgh area came together in the 1940s to find an alternative to amusement parks like West View and Kennywood that were “whites-only” at the time.
In 1945, the group was able to purchase 100 acres in Salem Township (near Delmont) for family reunions, church picnics, and more. They envisioned a place where African-American families could enjoy time together and feel they belonged. It meant a great deal to the people who spent time there that it belonged to them, and they didn’t need permission to enjoy themselves.
When Fairview Park saw most of its popularity, the location featured a roller coaster, merry-go-round, petting zoo, playground, swimming pool, and softball fields. The park also offered hot air balloon rides on Fairview Park Day.
The segregation era was coming to an end in the 1960s and attendance dropped as young people were drawn to the larger parks that once kept them out. The rides were dismantled as interest waned. The park now features a few pieces of playground equipment and is a little more than half the size it once was. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has deemed it a historic landmark and it is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Idlewild was the first trolley park, a park situated near a streetcar line, in the Pittsburgh area. It opened in 1878 and originally operated as a picnic and recreational ground, but it began adding amusement rides in the 1890s. Idlewild is one of very few trolley parks still in operation today. In 1983, Kennywood Park Corporation took over the park and added a children’s area and Jumpin’ Jungle. In 1985, the H2Ohhh Zone, a water park, was added, and in 1989, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe and a trip on the Neighborhood Trolley debuted. With the addition of new water activities and slides and the doubling of the water park’s size in the 1990s, Idlewild was renamed Idlewild & SoakZone! It is the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania and the third oldest in the nation.
The land that became Kennywood started out as part of a farm owned by Anthony Kenny. The land was known as “Kenny’s Grove” and was a popular picnic spot dating back to the American Civil War. The Monongahela Street Railways Company leased the land from the Kenny family in 1898 to build a trolley park at the end of the streetcar line.
Kennywood struggled during the Great Depression, but thrived in the years following World War II. The park struggled to compete with theme parks such as Disneyland in the 1960s and 1970s but remained a front runner in the amusement industry. Kennywood managed to keep up with industry demands throughout the 1980s and 1990s by installing new rides such as the Exterminator and the Steel Phantom.
The park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Lost Kennywood was added to the park in 1995 and featured a one-third-scale replica of the entrance to former competitor Luna Park. The exit sign, a giant heart that reads “GOODNIGHT.” is also a throwback to the former Luna Park. Kennywood’s secret to success is keeping old favorites like the Jack Rabbit and Noah’s Ark while always adding new, exciting attractions. In 2018, Thomas Town opened, the second-largest Thomas & Friends attraction in North America. It features five new rides, certainly making for a great way to celebrate the park’s 120th Anniversary as of one of Pittsburgh’s favorite attractions.
Luna Park opened in 1905 on the corner of Craig Street and Center Avenue. The park was constructed and owned by Frederick Ingersoll, who was from the Pittsburgh area. Ingersoll built the first chain of amusement parks that were known as “Luna Parks.” The Pittsburgh location was the first in the chain of nearly 50 others.
The park operated from 1905 to 1909 and featured roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, shoot-the-chutes, a dance hall, picnic pavilions, a concert shell, carousels, bumper cars, and more. One of the more odd attractions was the baby incubator exhibit, a common practice at that time. The baby incubator exhibit was a sideshow attraction that allowed visitors to witness the growth and development of premature babies in shiny steel incubators. The practice of putting them in amusement parks helped bring attention to premature babies and raised money for the technology. Luna Park was just one of many parks in the United States to feature the exhibit during the early 1900s.
Ingersoll struggled to keep up with the expenses of maintaining the parks and first filed for bankruptcy in 1908. Luna Park in Pittsburgh closed the following year. He filed for bankruptcy again in 1911 and eventually committed suicide in 1927. He was inducted into the International Association of Amusement Parks (IAAPA) Hall of Fame in 1992 for his contributions to the amusement park industry.
Rainbow Gardens opened in 1924 at the intersection of Lincoln Way and Route 48 in White Oak with a roller rink. An impressive pool was constructed in 1926 with a sand beach along three sides of the pool, multiple diving boards, slides, and a two-level bathhouse.
In 1968, there was talk about using the land to connect an expressway. The owners, fearing the worst, prepared to close the park. The Pennsylvania Department of Highways condemned the park on September 6, 1968. The amusement rides and equipment were auctioned off and moved to other parks.
In the end, the expressway was never built. The roller rink, the only remaining landmark of the park, burned in a controlled blaze in 1972. PennDOT offered the owners their land back in 1981 and auctioned off any remaining land that wasn’t repurchased. The Oak Park Shopping Center was built on the location in 1994.
While not an amusement park by definition, Riverview Park also had attractions that have long been forgotten. After Mary Schenley’s donation of Schenley Park across town, residents of what was then the city of Allegheny collected money to purchase 200 acres of Samuel Watson’s farm in 1884. The city of Allegheny became part of Pittsburgh in 1907, only a few years after the land purchase.
The park offered an aviary and a small zoo that was built in 1896. The zoo featured a flying cage, a bear pit, and an elk paddock. The location of the bear pit is now a public works storage facility, but there is a sign nearby that simply says “THE BEAR PIT”. The park also had a carousel featuring wooden carved horses and two giraffes. The zoo closed after Highland Park Zoo drew crowds away. Highland Park Zoo is now known as the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.
Riverview Park also offers visitors pieces of Pittsburgh history. One building that was present prior to the 1894 dedication was Watson Cabin. The cabin dates back to the early 1800s and was the home of Samuel Watson and his family. The cabin later served as a Girl Scout Headquarters and a picnic shelter. Only the ruins of Watson Cabin remain after a fire destroyed most of the structure. Riverview Park is also home to the Allegheny Observatory, which is located atop a hill in the park where it has operated since 1912. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a Pennsylvania state and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation historic landmark.
West View Park was founded by Thomas M. (T.M.) Harton and opened on May 23, 1906. Harton was a Pittsburgh native who owned the T.M. Harton Company, an amusement enterprise. The company had been building amusement rides previous to West View Park and exclusively made the first rides in the park, which were a carousel, the Mystic Chute mill ride, and a figure eight rollercoaster. The park’s open-air dance hall, “Danceland,” was also one of the first structures built. In the 1910, West View Park’s “Dips” coaster made its debut and was the first rollercoaster in Pennsylvania to have dips and drops over 50 feet. The park changed owners and rides over the years.
Danceland was a highlight for many with early acts such as Tommy Dorsey. Bobby Vinton competed in a Battle of the Bands at Danceland in 1960. The Rolling Stones played to a measly crowd of 400 on June 17, 1964, during their first American tour. The tickets cost $1.50, but many were admitted for free in order to fill the room. The following year, they returned to Pittsburgh after releasing their hit songs “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud”. They played to a crowd of over 9,000 at the Civic Arena.
The park was the last official trolley park in the United States. PAT Transit ended operations of the trolley lines that traveled to the park in September of 1965. The 1970s were a difficult time for West View Park. Danceland burned in 1973 due to an electrical fire. The park also struggled to compete with Kennywood across town and other amusement parks with more impressive rides like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.
West View Park closed on September 5, 1977. The rides were dismantled, and many found new homes at other amusement parks. The West View Shopping Plaza was built in 1981 on the land that once was West View Park. The park’s famous Dips rollercoaster has been replaced with a string of restaurants like Subway and Taco Bell. Giant Eagle now fills the space where the Racing Whippet coaster once stood. There are no traces of the park remaining on the site, but the entrance sign to the shopping center features a carousel horse to represent the history of the location. Some local businesses in the area have photographs and memorabilia from the past.
White Swan Park
White Swan Park was located on the border of Moon and Findlay townships near Pittsburgh. It opened in 1955 with seven rides. The park got its name from the original intention of placing swans in the lake at the park. There never were any actual swans at White Swan Park in its entire history. The park closed in 1989 when it was bought by PennDOT to make room for a rerouting of PA 60.
Not There Anymore
Nearly all of Pittsburgh’s past amusement parks have become lost in the mists of time. Defunct parks have been replaced with shopping centers, roadways, and other modern conveniences. Amusement parks weren’t the only ones to suffer this fate; past sports stadiums have suffered a similar fate. Future generations may walk across what was once Civic Arena and never know the significance of where they’re standing. These pieces of Pittsburgh’s history should not be forgotten.
By Janice Lane Palko and Meg O’Malley
Read about one person’s experience at West View Park before its closing.