Ride The Dips And Cut A Rug At Danceland: Remembering West View Park
Along Route 19 in Pittsburgh’s West View borough, there’s a sign for a shopping center with a carousel horse fixed to the top. This is one of the only items marking the site of one of the city’s early amusement parks, West View Park.
For more than 70 years, the location served as a favorite entertainment spot for area Pittsburghers.
Up the street from the sign at a nearby Isaly's, Janet Pazzynski brushes her finger against a thick black frame in a back booth. A little dust falls from the frame, as she explains the contents inside.
“We’re looking at tickets that you would have to buy,” she says. “These were regular ride tickets here, these were tax tickets, these were if you had a picnic.”
She passes by black-and-white images of children buckled into wooden roller coasters, toddlers riding in miniature vintage cars and young adults walking toward a large, colorful ballroom. Pazzynski isn’t here for the restaurant chain’s famous chipped ham or swirly ice cream cones. She's here for the proximity: Isaly’s is about a block away from where Pazzynski once made some of her favorite childhood memories at West View Park.
Pazzynski says as a kid, West View was meaningful for everyone who grew up in this part of Pittsburgh. It was the site of school picnics, church dances, and endless entertainment.
“I loved it,” she says. “It was always so exciting.”
West View Park was a staple of the community for more than 70 years. Founded in 1906 by the T.M. Harton Company, the amusement park was a first for the business. The company owned and operated rides at other area parks, according to historian Harry Michelson, including Conneaut Lake Park and Cedar Point. Then, in 1906, Harton decided to open his own park in the growing borough of West View.
“They were becoming a larger company,” Michelson said. “And that area was becoming a heavily populated area.”
Construction began on a swampy, green space and former picnic area along Route 19 in West View. A nearby lake, which Michelson said was once nicknamed Lake Placid, but really called Belmere Lake, served as home of the park’s first paddle and swan boat rides.
The Sunday morningPittsburgh Post on April 29, 1906 said the park had “a veritable fairyland appearance” and was predicted to be “an ideal family institution.” West View Park was considered a getaway from the smokey, noisy industrial city center.
About a month later, the park officially opened to crowds that had “awaited anxiously by thousands for weeks.” It cost about $250,000 to construct, which according to an inflation calculator, would be about $7 million in 2018 dollars. It featured attractions including a Figure 8 roller coaster, electric merry-go-round and Shoot-the-Chutes -- a water plunge ride with a huge splash at the end.
Several years earlier during the 1895 Pittsburg Exposition (the “h” hadn’t been restored to the city’s name yet) on the North Side and in Point State Park, residents were introduced to a “twin switchback railway” roller coaster. But Michelson said that coaster burned down and Exposition officials hired the T.M. Harton company to build a new ride for the 1901 Exposition.
“That was a figure 8 roller coaster that they built there,” Michelson said. “And that was T.M. Harton’s first roller coaster.”
Over the years, Harton was the primary manufacturer of West View Park’s roller coasters, including the famous Big Dips and Racing Whippet. They were often designed by legendary ride engineer Edward A. Vettel. He and his family lived and worked in Pittsburgh in until his death in 1952. At that time, it was estimated he’d overseen the construction of more than 80 thrill rides across the country.
Fun houses were common attractions at parks in the early 20th century, Michelson said, and West View was no exception. A Katzenjammer Castle, House of Hilarity and Boot Hill were several rides featured throughout the years. Visitors could pay a ticket or two--plus a tax ticket--for a ride on any of the coasters, indoor rides or flat rides, like the Tilt-a-Whirl and Tumble Bug.
Streetcar transit was its own ride
Getting to West View Park was a thrill in itself for many young visitors. Jeanne Stelmak grew up on the North Side and said West View Park was an important part of all her summers, and especially loved getting there by streetcar.
“That was the first amusement park ride of the day,” Stelmak said. “It would come around the bend just before you would get into West View and you would see the tracks from the Big Dips and say, ‘Oh! There it is! We’re almost there!’”
Unlike Kennywood, West View Park didn’t fall under the traditional definition of a “trolley park,” said Michelson. There were often green recreation spaces pre-amusement park that were built at the end of trolley tracks or rail lines in an effort to attract people to visit that area. This was the case with Kennywood, Michelson said, but not necessarily with West View.
“Some people call it a trolley park, but that's really not accurate at all,” he said. “It just happened to be right next to the railroad station that was in the town.”
The division of Pittsburgh school picnics
With Kennywood Park in the city’s eastern section and West View Park in the northwest, which amusement park Pittsburghers attended was largely dependent on where they lived or worked. Charles Jacques Jr., who wrote the book West View Park: Goodbye, Goodbye, said there was an invisible divide in the city.
“On one side of the line was West View. On the other side of the line was Kennywood,” Jacques said. “And they did a wonderful job of competing.”
Lifelong Pittsburgher Jim Werbaneth started going to West View Park as a Kindergartener and continued throughout his adolescence for school picnics and family events.
“A day there was just amazing,” Werbaneth said. “You would go and ride all the rides, probably eat too much food, there was always something new to find.”
In fact, he said with a laugh, he’s never even been to Kennywood.
The park’s tenure lasted through the first and second World Wars and subsequent beginning of the Baby Boomer generation, people born between 1946-64. Families had several children during this period, which meant bigger schools and a higher pool for potential West View Park attendees. Emma Lee Hartle started kindergarten in West View in 1957 and said she remembers kids being everywhere growing up.
“There was a kid in every other house and of those kids, they probably have three to five siblings,” Hartle said. “We were graduating classes of 700-800.”
West View Park was the closest, best option in town for most children her age, Hartle said, especially considering there weren’t Disney resorts, Six Flags or Sea Worlds.
“But no kid from West View was making it out to California to see Disneyland,” she said.
A day at West View
Admission to West View Park was free, however tickets were the way to actually get on the rides. Parents would hand their children a handful or armful of tickets for concessions and rides and ask them to check in with them occasionally.
“Our school or church always had a pavillion up in the picnic area and usually our parents were up there playing Bingo and the kids were running all over the park,” Jeanne Stelmak said.
The food and drink offerings were pretty typical of amusement parks at the time--pizza, ice cream, soda. It was all decent, Stelmak said, but it was universally known to stay away from the water fountains.
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“Their water was just terrible,” she said. “It smelled and tasted like rotten eggs.”
Arcade games cost just a penny, so Stelmak said she and her friends would spend the summer saving.
The park could be a romantic place for many area teens, said Emma Lee Hartle, because it was somewhere your parents weren’t.
“I once made the comment on the West View Park [Facebook] page a years ago: ‘Okay, fess up, how many of you got your kiss on the tunnel of the Big Dips?’” Hartle said. “About 95 people came through and said, ‘Yeah, I tried to make a move on a girl there and nearly got thrown out of the car.’”
Dance the night away at Danceland
Every West View Park visitor has a memory of Danceland. The grand, wooden ballroom was filled with lights and music on a regular basis and became the hotspot for teens and young adults to socialize.
Dancing was a common pastime in the first half of the 20th century, with churches and social organizations holding dances weekly. Music would be provided by live orchestras, local singers, traveling groups and DJ’s.
“Dances were a major item,” Charles Jacques Jr. said. “[West View] was better known for its ballroom than Kennywood. They were the summer places to go.”
Before they were really big, the Rolling Stones played their first Pittsburgh show there in 1964. Throughout the 1960s, teens remember dancing to the mixes of DJ Mad Mike on Saturday nights.
For the most part, anyone could attend a dance at Danceland. In 1954, Pat Trapani met her husband at West View Park’s Danceland. She said her first encounter with her husband was when she and her friend tried to get into the park.
“We were asked if we were members,” Trapani said. “I stuttered that I knew nothing of membership and a handsome young man behind me remarked, ‘Let them in. I know them.’”
The meeting sparked the beginning of the couple decades-long romance--their 64th wedding anniversary is coming up.
Membership to Danceland, Trapani said, largely had to do with who the venue was trying to attract and who they were trying to keep out.
“The reason for the admission policy was because of segregation,” Trapani said. “It was a very segregated time in oru lives and they were trying to keep black people out.”
Emma Lee Hartle echoed Trapani’s sentiment, saying just talking about West View Park without the context of segregation would paint an inaccurate picture of the place.
“When picnics were held by the black community coming from the Hill District or the North Side….the people of West View genuinely did not like that,” Hartle said. “West View Park could not fly today.”
In 1973 Danceland burned to the ground. The park didn’t have the funds to rebuild and it was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end for West View Park.
Closing the park
By 1977, West View Park was started to show its 71 years. Harry Michelson said it was falling behind the times, unable to sustain itself financially and compete with other larger, better funded parks.
“A lot of people point to [that was around the time] Kennywood put in their first million dollar ride, the Log Jammer, in 1975, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Michelson said.
But a number of factors contributed to West View’s decline. The famous school picnics that once brought hundreds of students were no longer, as the region’s population declined and families had fewer children.
After the park was dismantled in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was announced that the site would be turned into a shopping center.
But for devotees of the park, West View made a significant impression on their lives.
“We recently moved and we’re just a few miles away from the shopping center,” said Pat Trapani. “I go shopping there every now and then and it brings back all the memories.”
“It was really sad whenever we heard that,” said Jeanne Stelmak. “West View Park was the place that we went forever. It was part of history.”
Special thanks to the Facebook group Pittsburgh Born & Raised for their help.
*This post was updated to reflect that Danceland burned in 1973, not 1972.