How A Picnic Spot Became A Pittsburgh Tradition: Kennywood's History
Kennywood Park is a staple for many Pittsburghers. The amusement park isn’t the largest and doesn’t have the fastest rides, but visitors return each season for a taste of nostalgia and the classic, rickety wooden roller coasters.
On a recent windy morning, crowds gathered around three tall, blue historical markers. One commemorates Braddock’s Crossing, where British troops were defeated during the French and Indian War; the second is for the 121-year-old year old park itself; and the newest recognizes amusement park entrepreneur Frederick Ingersoll. Known best for his “chain” of Luna Parks and Figure-8 coasters, Ingersoll was an inventor who helped popularize amusement parks throughout the region.
“He built and operated some of Kennywood’s first rides, such as the Old Mill, and four coasters, including the park’s first Racer,” the plaque reads.
The trio of markers are a reminder of the 80-acre park’s legacy here. Kennywood has been in this location along the Monongahela River in what’s now West Mifflin, since 1899.
From picnics to trolley tracks
It began as a picnic spot owned by the Kenny (also spelled Kinney, Kinny and Kenney) family, who made their fortune in the coal industry. Brian Butko, director of publications at the Senator John Heinz History Center, said Kenny’s Grove was a cheap getaway for working class families. As its popularity grew, a dance hall was added and gamblers set up tents on the property.
“I guess you could call Kenny’s Grove the nuisance bar of the 1890s,” Butko said. “It was a pretty wild place.”
Church groups, social clubs and school children gathered to escape the smoggy, steel city. Butko said the combination of the site’s war history, the industrial steel plant nearby, and the scenic views made it a convenient place for people to congregate.
Toward the end of the 19th century, streetcar lines were built throughout the region, linking communities and making it easier for families to travel to different neighborhoods. As an incentive for people to ride the trolleys outside of normal business hours, companies opened small amusement parks.
“As a way to get people to use the trolleys at night or on weekends … they might set up a merry-go-round driven by a steam engine or maybe boating,” Butko said. “Streetcar railway journals in the 1890s are suddenly filling with not only the articles about how to make money in this new field.”
This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
Western Pennsylvania had dozens of these parks, including Calhoun in Lincoln Place, Dream City in Wilkinsburg and Oakwood in Crafton. The region was well suited for these small destinations, Butko said.
“Pittsburgh seemed to have that combination of enough people, but enough open land,” he said. “So trolley parks were popping up everywhere.”
Attracted by the potential windfall of the trolley park arrangement, the wealthy Andrew Mellon family decided to build one. Neighbors around Kenny’s Grove weren’t happy about having streetcar tracks run through their community. Butko said public opinion didn’t sway the Mellons, who wanted to use eminent domain to build the line. But state law at the time said streetcar tracks could only be built on existing roads.
“So the Mellons … first formed a road company and started laying brick,” Butko said. With the foundation of a road, workers with the Monongahela Street Railway Co. started adding streetcar tracks. After coming to a rental agreement with the Kenny family in 1898, the first few rides were constructed at Kennywood and the park opened the next year. The Mellons invested about $25,000 in the park.
Go for the concert, stay for the coaster
Turn-of-the-century visitors to Kennywood would have gone to the park for the music. Band and orchestra performances were the main attraction, Butko said. People gathered at the newly constructed bandstand for afternoons of concerts and eventually, in 1901, the Old Mill dark ride was built. A roller coaster called the Figure Eight Toboggan opened in 1902. But Butko said it wasn’t so much about the rides at the time, but the concept of relaxation.
“The whole idea of leisure time was still scandalous,” Butko said. Pittsburgh was a city filled with hard workers and spending an afternoon doing nothing or passively being entertained was foreign to many families.
Over the next few years, most of the small trolley parks built around the turn of the century failed. The market was too saturated, and visitors didn’t have much expendable income. Still, Kennywood survived. Butko said the F.W. Henninger and Andrew McSwigan families purchased the park from the Railway Company in 1906 and owned it for more than a century. They were invested in the park, he said, and helped keep it modern while maintaining a sense nostalgia.
“How many companies have been around for 120 years? Just that in itself is a miracle,” Butko said.
Prizes and parkways
Among the rides and entertainment, Kennywood also has several carnival game stalls and an arcade, where visitors can throw darts at balloons, rings at bottles, and basketballs at hoops. It was in the arcade when Good Question! listener Lauren Collister of Swissvale's family noticed something unusual.
“What’s up with all the prize items at the arcade at Kennywood featuring the logos and mascots of colleges across the country?” She asked.
Winners can choose hats or mugs with logos from seemingly any university in the U.S. Lauren said she thought they might represent the academic destinations of former employees. But Kennywood Public Relations director Nick Paradise said that’s not the case, they get what's supplied to them by a company in Massachusetts.
“Sometimes it’s random ones, we do seek out to get schools that we know will have appeal in this area like Penn State, Pitt,” Paradise said.
Listener Ron Arcuri from Evans City wondered about the ride outside the park that looks like a ski-lift over the parking lot.
“I’ve never seen it operate, so I’ve wondered why it was built and when, if ever, it was used.”
This is Kenny’s Parkway, a chairlift people mover to carry guests from the upper parking lot to the front gate of Kennywood. Built in 1996, Paradise said it operates a handful of times per season, based on the number of visitors.
“It’s only needed on those peak dates,” Paradise said. “And then it can sometimes be a question of if we have the manpower to operate it.”
Consistent management, innovation and loyal fan base have kept the park going. From a sprawling picnic spot to a thriving park, Kennywood has evolved over the years. And it still is — a new Steelers football section with the Steel Curtain roller coaster is under construction and the park was recently named a certified autism center for families with individuals on the spectrum.