Thursday, December 27, 2007

Kennywood Park

Long Ago and Far Away

I often write about the Valley of the Dollars as I call Las Vegas. But I grew up in another valley, one called the Monongahela Valley, or Mon Valley for short. The towns that lay along the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh south to Monongahela and beyond were collectively called the Mon Valley. Homestead, Braddock, Munhall, Duquesne, McKeesport, Glassport, Clairton, Elizabeth, Monongahela, Donora, and Monessen are among the Mon Valley - all steel towns that raged with open hearths and open hearts. Poles, Czechs, Slavs, Italians, Greeks, Russians, African-Americans, Irish, Anglos.... all worked side by side, attended schools together and played together. And at least once each year made the obligatory trip to Kennywood for the annual "Kennywood Picnic."

Kennywood Park is nestled on the edge of West Mifflin, just above the Monongahela River's Lock and Dam #2. It has been standing there for more than 100 years. It predates Disney World, Disneyland, Seven Flags, or any of the other major parks. Each year each community would have their "Day" at Kennywood. Tickets were presold at schools and a train was available to take kids from Clairton, in my case, To the Kennywood station. We'd trudge up a long hill then spend the day at the park riding the Pippin, Racer, and Jackrabbit roller coasters, pitching woo in the "Old Mill," or frightening the younger kids about snakes allegedly found there, rowing on the pond, etc. Each ethnic group also had its designated day at Kennywood. Italian Day, Slovak Day, Irish Day, etc. It was part of the culture of every kid who was lucky enough to grow up in the Mon Valley.

The steel industry began to fade in the 1970s and mills began to close in the 1980s but still family-owned Kennywood Park was a haven to the kids of the area. Through the 1990s and into the 21st century the area continues to struggle economically. Homes can be purchased for less than the price of a new car. Still, Kennywood, albeit a little faded, remains a haven to take the kids and get away, at least for a day, from those economic woes. The Steel industry might have gone overseas and foreign investments might have taken over many of the large businesses in the area, but at least Kennywood Park was still locally owned. NOT.

Kennywood Park was recently purchased by a Spanish firm that also purchased several other theme parks in the area. Quicker than you can say, "Potato Patch Fries," (a Kennywood staple) the bumper cars, merry-go-rounds, and Laugh-in-the-Dark added a Spanish accent.

The park was actually started in 1898 when the Monongehela Street Railway leased a picnic grove from Anthony Kenny. In 1902 Fredrick Ingersoll built one of the first figure-8 roller coasters at Kennywood and in 1906 two families, Henningers and McSwigans bought the park and the families owned it for more than 100 years. In 1910 a second roller coaster, the "Racer" was build at a cost of $ 50,000 and was the world's largest racing coaster at the time. The double dip Jack Rabbit and the other coasters at Kennywood became legendary.

Over the years the park has been updated. Swimming pools, Noah's Ark, dance halls, rides for romance, rides to scare you, and places to picnic are all standards of Kennywood. Multiple generations have enjoyed the park and taken children and grandchildren. As the community has grown and the bi-lingual immigrants have died off, the park has updated and changed. Whether the sale to a European company is simply another change, another upgrade, or a fiasco remains to be seen. But those of us who have enjoyed many a summer's day at the park will continue to treasure those memories.

A little blogging music, maestro.... How about the "Since I Don't Have You," by that old Pittsburgh group, Skyliners.

Dr. Forgot

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