How Kennywood and a Culture of Amusement Were Born

May 8, 2015

This year, six-year-old Sean Stanley was finally tall enough to ride Phantom’s Revenge, a roller coaster at the 117-year-old Kennywood Park in West Mifflin. 

Standing outside the coaster’s gate, Sean sported the preoccupied look of the newly infatuated.

“It was like a hurricane because there was lots of wind,” he said, describing the ride.

Sean likes Kennywood so much that he memorized the park in the off-season, his mother Sandy Stanley said, from layout to laser shows.

“We get flashlights — we have our glow necklaces — we go in the kitchen, and I have a disco light next to my toaster. And we pretend to be the Kennywood laser show. We used to do it every night,” she laughed. 

Many of the people who lined up on opening day shared Sean’s adulation, if not his style. Gordon Sauers, 83, has been visiting the park since he was one.

“I come over during the normal season 20, 25 times,” he said. “I just walk and watch the people.”

For Noah Rhoads, the pleasures of Kennywood are similarly straightforward.

“I just like going really high up in the air,” he said.

That urge — to move higher, farther and faster than you can in everyday life — is where amusement parks come from. But having time to be amused was set in motion by the Industrial Revolution, said Brian Butko, director of publications for the Heinz History Center and author of a Kennywood history.

“The world until then really had changed little for a thousand years,” he said.  

Our agrarian nation transformed into an urban, mechanized society at warp speed. 

“Suddenly there was a consumer class with money to spend, making their money in factories, having more time than when you’re on a farm,” Butko said.  

Factories turned out parts. Not just for necessities, such as trolley cars to transport the horseless, but for diversions. Imagine our society like children during summer vacation: rich with time and itching to do something.

“Embodying that into one place were amusement parks,” Butko said.

In 1898, Pittsburgh Street Railways leased land from Mr. Kenny at the site of a popular picnic ground to build a trolley park, taking its name from the fact that it lived at the end of rail lines. The park featured a scenic railway that moved at 5 miles per hour over gentle dips, and an old mill ride. The park offended Victorian mores, said Butko.

“Amusement parks were seen as slightly immoral," he said. "You could dress more casually and be loud and drink. But human nature being what it is, that’s exactly why they were so popular.”

We’ve come a long way from the simple thrills of trolley parks. There are hundreds of amusements competing for our attention. So why go to Kennywood?

“I think a lot of that cynicism we see in the 21st century kind of goes away when you walk through the door,” said Nick Paradise, a Verona native who is director of public relations for the park..

The Jack Rabbit, Kennywood’s oldest continuous coaster, doesn’t start with a hill climb like most roller coasters. Instead, almost right out of the gate, it drops riders 70 feet into a ravine, a thrill borne of topography. The park has grown up with the city, so its visitors have never had reason to outgrow it.

90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC.