About Me

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Accidents and Injuries at Rock Springs Park

A recent tornado which wreaked havoc in my present hometown of Greensburg, PA, and the subsequent news videos and images, left me in a somber mood and reminded me of some of the stories of accidents and fatal injuries I uncovered while researching the book.

The Rock Springs Park Scenic Railway opened May 24, 1907. It was built at a cost of $35,000 according to Roy C. Cashdollar’s A History of Chester: The Gateway To The West. It was also reported that a section of the scenic railway was blown down shortly after its completion by a great wind storm and had to be rebuilt at a cost of $4000. The toll for this accident only hurt C.A. Smith’ pocketbook, but other injuries and six deaths, including the tragic fire at the Old Mill, plagued his early years at Rock Springs Park.

Although he doesn’t give a full accounting, Roy C. Cashdollar stated that there was a record of six deaths during the existence of Rock Springs Park. “There were four in the old mill, one on the swings, and one on the Cyclone.” He also mentioned “two drownings and several near drownings in the park pool.”

Jun 19, 1913 – Fred Schoen, aged 20 years, was drowned while swimming in the pool at Rock Springs Park. Schoen ventured into the deep section of the pool and when last seen was sitting on the sidewalk. Apparently his body had been submerged at least 15 minutes before he was discovered missing.

The Hudson Independent of Hudson, Ohio, reported on July 2, 1914, that a girl accidentally dropped 15 feet through a hole in the Rock Springs Park baseball grandstand. “Hazel, five, daughter of Thomas Martin, suffered two broken ribs, face lacerations and probably internal injuries.”

June 5, 1915 – Four children die as the result of injuries sustained in Old Mill Fire: Albert Rayner, aged 12, of Chester died late Saturday night, as the result of burns, Eva Dales, aged 14, of Newell, died at 11:15 Sunday night, as the result of burns and shock, Miss Glenna Stout, aged 17, of Newell died early Sunday morning as the result of burns. Hyacinth Mackey, aged 16, of Newell, burned about the face, head and arms died two weeks later.

This news brief appeared in The Baltimore Sun, June 06, 1915. A full accounting of the Old Mill fire including the scene of the aftermath is available in Images of America: Rock Springs Park (see pp. 29-30).

In 1916, the second balcony of the bath house collapsed while spectators gathered at one corner to watch a drowning woman being rescued from the pool. Fire destroyed the bath house, ice house and Summer Theater in 1917 and two dance pavilions were destroyed by fire during the Smith Years. Today most amusement park accidents are required to be reported to regulatory authorities. They usually fall into one of the following categories:

*Caused by negligence on the part of the guest. This can be refusal to follow specific ride safety instructions, or deliberate intent to break park rules.

*The result of a guest's known or unknown health issues.

*Negligence on the part of the park, either by ride operator or maintenance.

*Act of God or a generic accident (eg slipping and falling), that is not a direct result of an action on anybody's part.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission: There were more than 15,000 amusement ride-related injuries in 2005 in the U.S.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

$70,000 Buys Park in 1950

It was never completely clear to me, while researching the book, whether or not C.C. Macdonald purchased Rock Springs Park in 1926 or just leased it. His family suggested he bought the park, having always wanted to own one during his years as manager of Euclid Beach Park in Akron, Ohio. However, the documents I uncovered all listed Macdonald as “lessee” or “president” of Rock Springs.

What is clear is that he spent A LOT of money improving the park prior to his first full season in 1927.

C.C. Macdonald (Partial image courtesy of Tish Hand; see full photograph in Images of America: Rock Springs Park)

The old Victorian trolley park had fallen into disrepair following its glory days under the ownership of Charles (C.A.) Smith Sr. Smith bought the park in 1900 and added the carousel pavilion, lake, pool, and the World’s Greatest Scenic Railway. His park was hugely successful until a law was passed in 1912, prohibiting the Pennsylvania Railroad from offering reduced-rate excursion tickets; a law which would not be revoked until 1929, negatively affecting profits for Smith for many years.

Large group excursions continued to be the biggest moneymaker for the park until it closed in 1970.

Except for the final days of its existence, the carousel pavilion saw its worst years toward the end of Smith’s tenure as owner/operator. The image above shows the pavilion with broken windows and roof stains on July 4, 1917. Much later photographs show that even when the park sat vacant from 1970-1974, the repaired windows of the carousel pavilion remained intact.

When Macdonald leased the park in 1926, he vowed to restore it to its former glory. He removed the old scenic railway, which had been converted into something resembling a modern coaster, and built the Cyclone roller coaster from the ground up. He also upgraded the dance hall, added a small zoo and go-cart track and a restaurant in the lower trolley loop.

The red and green striped roofs of the park’s buildings, which I still remember seeing as a child, were added as a part of Macdonald’s original improvements.This image shows the striped roof of the Crystal Pool Bath House.

Images of America: Rock Springs Park fully explains the Smith to Macdonald transition, including why Macdonald and his wife, Grace, left Rock Springs after just a few years to become part owners of Idlewild Park in Ligonier. (See the Macdonald Years 1926 – 1934)

A recently discovered newspaper article from the Youngstown Vindicator dated October 7, 1950, suggests that Macdonald did not own the park, even though he had spent a lot of money in upgrades as lessee:

East Liverpool, Oct. 7. – Charles A. Smith Jr., today announced the sale for $70,000 of Rock Springs Park at nearby Chester, W.Va., to Mr. and Mrs. R.L. Hand, who have managed the 50-year-old amusement resort since 1935.

This article, if true, would establish that C.A. Smith’s son owned the park at the time of the sale to the Hands instead of the Macdonalds as was previously thought.

One detail, that should be mentioned, is that whether they were lessees or managers or owners both C.C. Macdonald and the Hands spent large sums of money in their early days as operators. Macdonald spent hundreds of thousands in upgrades and new features, and the Hands slowly purchased rides and buildings from 1935 to 1950.

It is most likely the *$70,000 price tag was mainly for the land, an investment which would pay off in a big way when the state bought the property to construct a highway extension and new bridge in 1974.

*$70,000.00 in 1950 had the same buying power as $640,526.69 in 2010.
Annual inflation over this period was 3.76%.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Book of Murals Captures Days Gone By

Rock Springs Park After Hours, oil on canvas, 102 x 53″ (Courtesy of Craig Wetzel)

Like many of you, I occasionally Google “Rock Springs Park” to find the latest news and images. Last December, this sentence popped up on my screen:

“The book begins with The Dentzel carousel at Rock Springs Park.”

I immediately thought it a review of Images of America: Rock Springs Park, since my book opens with a full-page image of the Dentzel. Excited to read what the reviewer had to say, I clicked on the East Liverpool Review link, and read on:

“The Wurlitzer plays, the gate opens and the carousel rocks as children jump onto the wooden deck.”

A lively description, and one I wish I had written, but those were not my words. Instead, I was delighted to discover the article by JO ANN BOBBY-GILBERT was about a newly released coffee table book.

The book, Come Home & Remember, is the result of a collaboration between Mary L. Tambellini, artist Craig Wetzel, and photographer David Pickens. Tambellini is the owner of Nentwick Convalescent Home in East Liverpool. In 1985 she commissioned Wetzel to paint murals on the walls of the home in an effort to give the residents a project to share with their visiting family members and as a way to capture memories of days gone by. The book includes mural samples and descriptions.

The mural project began when Wetzel was a newly graduated high school student. His paintings feature 70 scenes of the Upper Ohio Valley known to many as the “Pottery Capitol of the World.” Mural subjects include mills, potteries, railways, shipping docks, local businesses, and movie houses. Thompson Park, Beaver Creek State Park, and three of my favorite park, Rock Springs, are also featured.

On a new website, Wetzel says that he was “never particularly interested in being historically accurate (with his paintings)" but chose instead to capture the feeling of the moment. His murals of the Rock Springs carousel, upper mall area, and aerial postcard-style view seem almost dreamlike in their imagery.

The one drawback to the Images series, is that all the photographs, with the exception of the sepia-soaked cover, are black and white and limited in size. Wetzel’s portraits of the park, on the other hand, offer vibrant color and detail in a wall-sized format. The motion and excitement in these scenes elicit the familiar sounds and smells of the old amusement park to the viewer.

Evening at Rock Springs Park (detail), acrylic on canvas, 340 x 57″ (Courtesy of Craig Wetzel)

The Aeroplane Ride at night (seen above) may be more colorful and clean than the original subject, especially when considering the condition of the park following World War II. Wetzel explains his choice at craigwetzel.com, “This particular mural does not depict the ubiquitous peeling paint and general dilapidated setting so evident in many post-war photos of the park, as patrons spend their money in a never-ending and futile quest to forget their lives of quiet desperation. If photographs are any indication, the later years were wonderful only in the wishful memories of area residents.”

The Dentzel Carousel, Rock Springs Park, circa 1930. Acrylic on wallboard. 155 x 57 inches. (Courtesy of Craig Wetzel)

I love Wetzel’s work and appreciate his perseverance, attention to detail, and touch of whimsy. His paintings put me in mind of the America captured by Norman Rockwell but with the lighting and hard-edged geometry of Edward Hopper.
Nighthawks — Edward Hopper (1942)

Mostly, I just enjoy the fact that another young fan of local history is a part this dialogue. Each new conversation adds to the collective understanding and appreciation of all, providing everyone the ability to "Come Home & Remember" no matter where life has led them.

To view other images visit Craig’s website and at http://www.nentwickmurals.com/. The book is now available for purchase online and at the Mezzanine Mall on Fifth Street, the Alumni Association Clock Tower on Fourth Street for around $30.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part VI)

Part VI includes Phyllis’s story and an update on Sayre W. Graham, Sr. from Part I.

This year, baseball season starts and finishes early. According to Commissioner Bud Selig in USA TODAY, “Anything we could do to finish in October, is what I wanted to do. The difference in weather between October 29 and November 2 is like the difference between Canada and Canada a few days later. Burn those long johns boys!”

When I began this series of blog posts three weeks ago, it was still winter and St. Patrick’s Day was two weeks away. The difference between the beginning of March and a few weeks later is also big. I think that is partly the reason why the green decorations that Phyllis and her friend held under the fluorescent lighting of the First Christian Church of Wellsville, Ohio’s social hall seemed so jarring at first.

“Is one of you Phyllis?” I asked, connecting the last several wires of my laptop, speakers, and slide show projector.

“I am,” the shorter one with blonde hair and large blue eyes said, stepping forward with a smile. She handed off her armload to the taller one without even looking. “Will you need a table for the book signing?”

“Is there an extra one? That would be great!” I stood up.

Phyllis and I found a light plastic folding table in a Sunday school classroom and moved it into a corner of the social hall next to the ping-pong table.

“I was a Dancer in Rock Springs Park starting when I was 11,” Phyllis said, helping me lock the folding table legs in place. “Have you ever heard of the Jennie Fae Dance Studio in Chester?”

“Give me a straw hat and a cane. Lemmie go dancing down the lane,” I sang, remembering my little sister wearing a red outfit and a Styrofoam boater-style hat. “My sister Marianne danced for her. Why?”

“Jennie is still at it and a friend of mine,” Phyllis leaned in. “She says I talk about my experience at Rock Springs Park like it was no big deal, but she says it’s kind of amazing what happened to me.”

I stopped arranging books on the table and gave Phyllis my undivided attention. As she talked she kept glancing over her shoulder at the tall one. Phyllis knew full well she was shirking her duties, but was unable to contain her excitement to tell me all about Rock Springs Park.

“I was part of a dance troupe that performed regularly on the band shell in the park when I was a little girl. There was a contest when I was older and a scout from New York was one of the judges. I won a chance to dance in New York City.”

Coincidentally, the band shell, shown here, was moved to the Chester City Park in 1974 and fell apart soon after. It was replaced by a cinder block amphitheater which my sister, Marianne, tap-danced on for Jennie Fae. (Courtesy of Richard Bowker)

“You must have been good,” I said, fully aware that as Phyllis spoke my preconceived church lady-view began to fade; replaced by a much younger Phyllis with a dancer’s graceful moves. It will be as if they have dipped themselves in magic waters. (Terrance Mann, Field of Dreams).

Phyllis smiled and blushed. “I got to appear on The Jackie Gleason Show.”

“The Jackie Gleason Show” is the name of a series of popular American network television shows that starred Jackie Gleason, which ran from 1952 to 1970. Most people only know it from the sketch comedy “Honeymooners”, but that original sitcom was part of a longer variety show. The show typically opened with a monologue from Gleason, followed by sketch comedy involving Gleason and a number of regular performers (including Art Carney) and a musical interlude featuring the June Taylor Dancers. (Taylor was Gleason's sister-in-law; he married her sister Marilyn in 1975.)

“So the contest winners got to appear on The Jackie Gleason Show? That’s very cool!” I said.

“No,” Phyllis continued. “I was a regular dancer on the show. My mother took me to New York the following summer. I was fulltime.”

I don’t know why I have to keep learning the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover lesson over and over again, but I made the mistake of stereotyping Phyllis as a church lady/Arts Club refreshment volunteer and here she was an actual star and Pioneer of Television!

“So what was Mr. Gleason like?” I asked.

“Oh he scared me.”

That made sense. I recently saw an interview with Andy Griffith in which he described how he almost didn’t do the Mayberry show, because his first introduction to television sitcoms was a guest appearance on the Danny Thomas Show. He explained that there was a lot of yelling on the set and he didn’t like all that yelling. If Danny Thomas scared Andy Griffith, imagine how Jackie Gleason might be perceived by a young female dancer from Chester, WV.

Phyllis continued to dance professionally until she met and married a pastor. In true Footloose fashion, that meant the end of her dancing career, but I could still see a bit of the dancer in her. Phyllis did say that Jennie Fae was putting together a dancing class for older women and she was seriously considering joining it.

I hope she does.

Jitterbug contest winners at Golden Star Dairy Picnic in 1954 at Rock Springs Park. (Photo courtesy of Frank Dawson Collection as seen at http://eastliverpoolhistoricalsociety.org/rospr54.htm )

Besides waiting patiently to hear Phyllis’s story, it has come to my attention, and rightfully so, that readers were worried about Sayre W. Graham, Sr., whom I had made an effort to visit on my way to the Arts Club book talk in Wellsville, Ohio, on March 1, 2011.

If you remember, I wanted to give Mr. Graham a signed copy of my book for allowing me to visit his home to talk to him about his experience working in the park and maintaining the park’s buildings. He had been a general contractor in Chester for many years, having built the IGA, state store, and the American Legion building in town. After retirement, he restored Chester’s roadside giant and icon, the World’s Largest Teapot, and built the gazebo which stands in the middle of the Virginia Gardens Memorial Park.

I phoned Mr. Graham yesterday when I was in town signing copies of my book. He answered and said I was welcome to visit.

When I arrived at his house the front door was open. I knocked on the storm door.

“Come on in,” He called from his study, a small bedroom converted into a TV and trophy room.

“I’m so glad I was able to come today,” I said, finding Mr. Graham in his leather lounge chair watching a western on TV. The volume was up but he made no attempt to mute it or turn it down. “I stopped by a few weeks back but you were not home.”

Mr. Graham looked better than he had even over a year ago. He was wearing a long sleeved white T-shirt which matched his shock of spiky whit hair. I noticed his eyes were bright and his voice strong.

“I promised you a signed copy of my book,” I said showing it to him. “I have your name in here in 3 different places: the acknowledgements page, the page where I describe how you and Roy Cashdollar rescued the Teapot , and the page with the memorial park.”

“This is really nice,” he said over the sound of a pioneer family singing along with a harpsichord in their sitting room. Was it a musical? “Do you have anymore? I’d like to give my daughter a copy. How much is it?”

“Uh, 20 dollars,” I said thinking of James Earl Jones in my favorite movie. It's only $20. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack.

I ran to car for another book and some freebies: Rock Springs Park postcards and posters. When I returned Mr. Graham was at his desk counting change from an old jar, including a 50 cent piece. The television, now beind him, was still playing loudly. “How much did you say it was?”

“Uh, never mind,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. I just really appreciate you letting me come here and talking with me about the park. What’s your daughter’s name?”

As I wrote a message in her new book, I heard a familiar voice on TV. “Is that Burt Lancaster?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Graham said without turning around, He was absorbed in the book illustrations. “That thing is on all day. Half the time I don’t know what it is.”

It was a very young Burt Lancaster with extremely Technicolor-blue eyes wearing buckskin. The movie, I later discovered, was The Kentuckian (1955) directed and starring Lancaster who, of course, played Dr. Graham in Field of Dreams.

It was absolutely surreal to be sitting in Mr. Graham’s man cave surrounded by trophies, plaques, and memories, while at the same time I was hearing Doc Graham’s voice on the Encore Western channel. Focusing on the movie for a second, I saw Burt Lancaster talking to his son about writing a letter a to the President of the United States. “I swear. That letter writin’ came hard,” he said. “No wonder they say a man ought to have an education.”

I smiled because WRITING IS HARD, even for an educated man. Still, I highly recommend it.

In a weak moment, later in the film, Lancaster’s character in The Kentuckian has given up his dream of going to Texas with his son and is trying to live his brother’s life as a businessman, he lies to himself saying, “The way to start off new is to shuck off what’s old.”

Lancaster later comes to learn that just the opposite is true and so have I. It is extremely important to embrace ones past and to keep it alive. Sayre W. Graham, Sr. has done that with the teapot and Virginia Gardens Park, and I hope in some small way my book will do the same.

Here are a few other odd coincidences between my experience and Field of Dreams:

1. In the movie Ray’s daughter is watching Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. “Good evening Mr. Dowd.’ Anyway I turned around and here was this six foot rabbit…” Costner flips off the TV and says, “The man is sick.” I played Elwood P. Dowd in 1983 and my son played him in 2009.

2. While visiting Chester over the weekend I stayed at a Holiday Inn in Weirton. My room number was “118.” Kevin Costner was born on January 18, 1955. My wife was born on January 18, 1964.

3. In the movie, Ray is talking about hearing voices in his field while at the feed store. All the locals are staring at him. Over the weekend, I was signing books in the corner of Werheiser’s Hardware while customers in line with pipe fittings and bags of ten-penny nails were staring at me. “Who is that guy?”

4. Oh and I look just like Kevin Costner.

Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part V)

I had every intention of making this the final installment of the “My Field of Dreams” series and to end by telling the reader all about Phyllis’s story of dancing in Rock Springs Park, but the writing process took me in another direction this week. I promise, however, to wrap it up in Part VI and to fill you in completely on Phyllis’s tale.

My recent trip to Wellsville, Ohio, actually started five years ago when I decided to try writing a middle grades novel based on my experience growing up in Chester, West Virginia in the 1970’s. In the story, 11-year old Joey Rivers, a friendless “TV Junkie” and all-around quirky kid, finds his imaginary world inexplicably intertwined with Muna, the new girl in town, whose father trains horses at the local racetrack. After sneaking onto the property of an elderly widow, the two children are cornered into doing a report on local history for the up-coming Bicentennial Celebration. The reader soon learns that each child is keeping a secret. Secrets which can only be resolved by breaking into a defunct amusement park in town on the night of July 4, 1976, and drinking from the magic spring waters purportedly used by George Washington. For Muna it means the chance to reconnect with her Native American heritage and for Joey it becomes a matter of life and death.

Ruth White’s Belle Prater’s Boy takes place in the fictional town of Coal Station, Virginia, in the 1950’s and is one of several historical fiction books which influenced me to write a middle grades novel of my own.

Although I have been fascinated by Rock Springs Park since childhood, it was while researching my children’s novel that I began to seriously collect images and facts on Chester’s old trolley park. I wanted to map out the history and layout of the park from its early years to the time I remember seeing it sitting idle in 1974. In an effort to organize my notes and, hopefully, attract personal accounts of the park, I began this blog in the summer of 2008. Not long after, I found a message from Kassy Hand in the comments box. Kassy is the granddaughter of one-time park owners, Bob and Virginia Hand, and founder of Facebook’s “Rock Springs Park” page. Her message ended simply, “Write that book!”

At about the same time as my correspondence with Kassy, I received, as a gift, a copy of an Arcadia Images of America book about Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. It dawned on me almost immediately that the Images format would be perfect for a picture history of Rock Springs Park.

While some writers might be deterred or perhaps even insulted by the confines of Arcadia’s prescribed word count, picture, and caption limitations; as a “newbie” writer I found these, and the accompanying suggested page layouts, most helpful and encouraging. Within just a few weeks of submitting an inquiry to Arcadia, I was given a contract and a 5-month deadline. As you might imagine, I was excited and scared; excited by the opportunity to author a book on my favorite subject and scared because I wasn’t sure where to find the types of images I would need. I shelved my novel and set about looking for pictures and missing facts needed to complete the entire history of Rock Springs Park.

The early years of the park have been recorded in several articles and in a number of chapters in Roy C. Cashdollar’s History of Chester: The Gateway to the West, but I found it was the later years of the park’s history which lacked detail. Most articles give scant attention to “The Hand Years”, as I refer to them, even though Bob and Virginia operated the park longer than anyone else. They tell of the Hands’efforts to maintain the classic rides and how they managed to eke out “a modest but profitable existence.” With the help of Kassy’s mother, Tish Hand, and an old friend from childhood who had a series of photographs and memories of the park during the years it sat vacant, however, I was able to fully flesh out the last 35+ years of the park’s history. The only other hurdle that remained (and it was a HUGE one) was finding suitable photographs and postcards of the park.

My cousin, George Allison, shared some wonderful postcard images of the park at cu.reviewonline.com, and it was my hope to use some of his collection in the book. Unfortunately, I was limited in the number of postcard pictures which I could use, because Arcadia requires that at least two-thirds of an Images book be photographs. I had to find someone with photos of Rock Springs Park, and fast. The trouble was, I had not seen many photographs back home and didn’t know of anyone at the time that had them. I considered posting an ad for pictures in the Review, until a timely email saved me.

I hope to publish a postcard book on the park in order to showcase images like this last Kodachrome print issued in the 1950’s. (Arcadia is considering the offer, although no formal discussions have begun.)

My wife and I have tons of pictures of our own children growing up and enjoying nearby Idlewild Park in Ligonier. We go several times a year and often celebrate summer birthdays there. But I soon discovered that people back home did not have pictures such as these of Rock Springs Park.

“I guess it was because it was in our backyard,” someone from Chester explained at the time. “We might take a walk with the baby stroller or buy a few tickets for a carousel ride, but we did not think to take any pictures. I guess we didn’t appreciate what we had at the time.”

As part of the proposal process, Arcadia asked me to list who else might be interested in buying a picture-history on the park besides locals. In response, I emailed an inquiry to Bill Linkenheimer of the Western Pennsylvania ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) Group, as I was aware of their work preserving old parks and their histories. Bill was very kind and said that personally he would buy one (which he later did), but admitted that I would be better off courting the folks back home as potential customers. While the response was a little discouraging, the contact with ACE would prove invaluable. After a couple of days, Bill sent a follow-up email suggesting I contact a “Richard Bowker” of Forest Hills; a guy, according to one ACE member, who was known to have 7-8 albums of Rock Springs Park photographs and postcards. After corresponding with Mr. Bowker by letter, he offered to let my son and I come to his house to see and scan his Rock Springs Park collection.

My visits and subsequent friendship with Mr. Bowker could make an entirely new series on this blog, but let me just say that seeing his collection for the first time was incredible. He had the complete history of the park documented in pictures, newspaper and magazine articles, as well as, memorobilia like pennants and souvenir glasses. I knew at that moment that not only would the Images book be possible; it would be better than I could ever have imagined!

“These pictures,” I explained to the women of the Wellsville Arts Club, displaying one of many Bowker images, “Are my favorites. And while they are not of the park itself, they tell the story of what a special a place it was to the people of the area and beyond."

The same images mentioned above, found on pages 56 and 57 of the book, show the stern-wheel steamboat Homer Smith along the Monongahela Wharf in Pittsburgh in 1928. The majestic paddleboat has a large banner which reads “All Day Excursion to Rock Springs Park.” In the background, as the boat departs for West Virginia’s “Panhandle Playground”, one can see the incomplete skyline of Pittsburgh under construction, including the Grant Building, an early modern skyscraper which today is topped with the world’s largest neon air beacon spelling out “Pittsburgh” in Morse Code.

“Western film director, John Ford, once said that a moving train is the most visually stunning image to watch in a motion picture,” I continued. “But for me, these steam paddleboats, have the same effect in still pictures.”

I described how the photographs of the Homer Smith would have been lost forever if not for Mr. Bowker. He told me during one of our many “scanning parties,” how a widow on his street had dragged her husband’s belongings to the curb, including dozens of photographs. Being a collector himself, Mr. Bowker salvaged what he could from the pile and took them home. The pictures of the Homer Smith on her way to Rock Springs Park were among those photographs, prompting Mr. Bowker’s early fascination with the park and providing thousands of fans the opportunity to experience its wonderful history.

In the end, it was basically a chain of “happy accidents” which led to the publication of Images of America: Rock Springs Park. Because I was offered a position to teach gifted students at my school in Western Pennsylvania, I came to read a set of recently published historical-fiction novels for middle grade readers. These books planted the idea of trying to write one of my own, which in turn led to the publication of the Images book. If it had not been for this book project, I would not have met Dick Bowker and perhaps his Rock Springs Park collection may have been lost forever.

Just like Ray Kinsella’s “illogical” baseball diamond in that cornfield in Iowa, my goal was to provide people with a chance to dip themselves in the magic of their childhood memories. Those who visit Ray’s ball field get a chance to “sit in their shirtsleeves" and watch their heroes play ball again, while the readers of Images of America: Rock Springs Park get to take one last dip in the icy waters of the spring-fed crystal pool, experience the hair-raising final turn of the Cyclone, or take one last magic whirl on the beautiful Dentzel carousel housed in the octagonal pavilion.

“Is this heaven?” Ray’s Ghost Dad asks him.

“No, it’s Iowa,” he says.

“Is Rock Springs Park really your ‘Field of Dreams?” You might ask.

“Yes,” I would reply.

“But, is it heaven?”

“No,” I would have to admit, reluctantly. “But it is ‘Almost Heaven.”

The original log house from Rock Springs Park as seen in its present location hidden behind a tree-lined drive. In the front yard is the well-known “Almost Heaven" sign. The cement walls once supported an arched bridge in the park. (Courtesy of Christian Comm)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part IV)

In this installment, I digress to tell the story of my visit to the Lou Holtz Hall of Fame in East Liverpool, Ohio, in the fall of 2009. [Spoiler Alert – In the first paragraph I give away the ending to the movie Field of Dreams.]

The Wurlitzer 153 Band Organ in the front window of The Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame Museum (Courtesy of Christian Comm)

Since I started this series of blog posts about my experiences with the book Images of America: Rock Springs Park, and how they remind me of my favorite movie, Field of Dreams, I sat down and watched the famous “guy-cry” flick for the hundredth time and, yes, I cried, again. It is the perfect storm of heart-tugging emotions for a guy like me: In the final 10-minutes of the film, the protagonist's daughter nearly chokes to death on a good-old American hot dog, a deceased small-town doctor gets a second chance to fulfill his dream of facing a major league baseball pitcher but then gives it all up to save said daughter, at which point we realize that he can’t play ball in "heaven" anymore because of some weird rule involving the first base line. To top it all off; Ghost Dad returns and has a last “catch” with his son, asking, “Is this heaven?” To which the son replies, “No, it’s Iowa." (dramatic pause) "Is there a heaven?” “Oh yeah,” Ghost Dad says with a smile, “It’s the place where dreams come true.” Son then looks to wife and daughter on their farmhouse porch swing and says, “Then I guess this is heaven.” AND THE WATERWORKS FLOW!!!

Like most guys, I used to be able to hold back all kinds of tears. It is an unwritten part of the "bro-code" that guys are only allowed to get a lump in their throat and maybe the slightest hint of watery eyes, but that’s it! "THERE'S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!" Then, I majored in theater and was trained to release all those pent-up emotions, allowing them to surface and flow like the bubbling spring waters of Rock Springs Park. I probably saved thousands of dollars in therapy bills. But now I live life on the edge; trying to avoid embarrassing situations like the time I cried sitting beside my 9-year old daughter and her friends while watching Because of Winn Dixie, and don't even get me started with Toy Story 3!

In the fall of 2009, I was hoping to get such an emotional response from the elderly gentleman who provided me with most of the images for my Images of America book. His name is Richard Bowker, and after many “scanning parties” at his home in Forest Hills near Pittsburgh, I discovered that not only was Rock Springs Park his favorite amusement park, but he was also one of the last fun-seekers to ride the Cyclone on Labor Day night 1970. And, to top it all off, he is a huge fan of Wurlitzer 153 Band Organs, especially the one that was once housed in the carousel pavilion at Rock Springs Park. In fact, during that same summer of 1970, the last season the park was open, Mr. Bowker tried desperately to get a reel-to-reel audio recording of the band organ playing one of his favorite march rolls. He explained that the year before, owner Bob Hand had paid to have the organ totally refurbished, but then, that winter, the antique instrument was ruined by an ice melt and a leaky roof. Like Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams, who offers the aging Doc Graham a chance to fulfill his baseball dream, I saw an opportunity to make a similar offer to Mr. Bowker. “I know a place where that Wurlitzer Band Organ plays again and, if you’d like, I could take you there.”

So in August of 2009, with my book only halfway completed, I took Mr. Bowker to East Liverpool, Ohio, to the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame Museum. In the window of the old bank building, rests the Wurlitzer Band Organ from Rock Springs Park, on loan from the East Liverpool High School Alumni Association, donated by Dr. James Smith from his 3.3 million dollar collection of amusement park devices . For 25 cents a visitor to the Lou Holtz Museum can see the old organ light up and play a gay melody from a time gone by.

We were met by museum director, Robin Webster, and a reporter from The Review, Mike McElwain, and his photographer. All were very generous and gracious. As the quarter was dropped in the slot, Mike’s photographer snapped a couple of pictures of Mr. Bowker standing before the Wurlitzer window listening to that beautiful old machine crank out a tune with bells, drums, whistles, and eighty-year old pipes.

This is it! I thought. Mr. Bowker is going to turn to me speechless with wet eyes and nod like Doc Graham after he gets that base hit at the end of the movie. Instead, Mr. Bowker turned to us all and said, “That doesn’t sound very good! I know a guy who could fix that for you.”

That story got the second biggest laugh of the night when I spoke to the Women’s Art Club in Wellsville, Ohio, over a week ago. But it was at that same meeting when Phyllis, who I wrote about in my last blog post, amazed us all with her own Field of Dreams story, one that begins in Rock Springs Park and ends in a television studio in New York in the 1950’s.

Look for the final installment - Coming soon!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part III)

In the third installment, author, Joseph A. Comm, has arrived at his destination: The First Christian Church on Main Street, Wellsville, Ohio, where later that evening he is scheduled to give a book talk to an Arts Club.

(Left) Charles (C.A.) Smith from the 2001 Class of Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame Inductees

I had recently been reminded that Rock Springs Park owner, Charles (C.A.) Smith, was born in Wellsville on April 14, 1867, after discovering his obituary in the archives of the Youngstown Vindicator. The article dated October 14, 1953, describes Smith as a “transit company owner, pottery manufacturer, oil operator and gentleman farmer,” adding “he also operated Rock Springs Park, an amusement resort in Chester.” All facts I planned to share later that evening with the Wellsville Arts Club.

I was checking the time on the dashboard clock, when a tall, well-dressed, young man with a cell phone pressed to his ear, passed behind my car and rounded the front of the First Christian Church. I guessed that he must be a young pastor, youth minister, or perhaps a choir director. I spent a lot of time in church social groups in my younger days and this kid had the look of a guy who was responsible for recruiting volunteers and then trying to keep them in line on a weekly basis.

This could be my chance. I pressed the button on the clock to light it again, “6:05.” I was scheduled to meet Arts Club member “Phyllis” at 6:30 p.m., but if I could get in nearly an hour early to set up my projector and laptop, I could relax and have more time to meet the volunteers and talk about the park and their connection to it. I have discovered, having done a couple of these events, that people will disregard any order of operations and get in line to get a book, so they can avoid a late rush or skip out before the program begins. The Arts Club meeting would not be like that. They were organized and kept to their agenda. In fact, the acting first vice president was so on top of things, contacting to appear that night, back in August 2010.

As I got out of the car, I noticed an old building next to the Wellsville Carnegie Library across the street. It was dated with large white numbers, “1867,” making it, ironically, the same age as C.A. Smith. Smith is well-remembered by the older citizens of the Tri-State Area as a very colorful character. Roy C. Cashdollar said, “C.A. Smith put Chester on the map with that park,” and wrote in his History of Chester: The Gateway to the West, “Many residents of the town can remember C.A. Smith and what he meant to the city. They tell how he used to drive his first car, the first automobile in town and a Stanley Steamer, across the river when the water was low, and how Mr. Smith was stopped by a State trooper on his way to New Cumberland, as Mr. Smith liked to travel fast as he was always in a hurry. He told the officer to make two citations as he would soon be coming back and traveling just as fast.” A story I would later share during my presentation – one which would get the biggest laugh of the night.

I saw the thin young man still on his cell phone through the window of the church office. I rapped loudly on the gray metal door which led to the social hall. He looked up and I waved sheepishly. He paused, crossed the room, and opened the door seemingly a little perturbed by the interruption.

“Hi, I’m scheduled to talk to the garden club this evening about Rock Springs Park and I was hoping you could let me in early so I could set up.”

He raised an eyebrow, but the cell phone remained fixed to his right ear. “You mean ‘The Arts Club.”

“Oh, ‘Arts Club?” I stumbled. “Yeah, Why did I think it was the Garden Club? ‘Arts Club!’ That’s even better. I like the arts.”

He opened the door wider and motioned me inside. “The social hall is to the right at the end. The light switch is outside the door on the left.”

“Thanks! This is great. I’ll be making several trips, by the way. Is that all right? Lots of equipment, you know. Thanks so much! It’s always nice to be able to make sure everything is working, before…”

He was gone. “No problem,” he called, already back to work recruiting choir members for the sunrise service. I knew it!

The social hall was about the size of a large classroom with a kitchen along one wall and a ping-pong table and some kind of tabletop bowling game on the opposite side. Tables for the meeting were arranged in a large U facing a chalkboard and podium. It took three trips, but I was able to have all my equipment in the hall with about 45 minutes lead time and 15 minutes before Phyllis was scheduled to arrive.

It’s always a little nerve-wracking when I first arrive at an event, because my presentation relies heavily on the slide show. I could talk for hours about Rock Springs Park, but like people who buy the book; attendees want to see pictures – lots and lots of pictures. If my equipment were to fail, the presentation would be ruined. So, it was always my first order of business to get the computer up and running and the slide projector operating. Once this is done, I can relax a bit and socialize.

Just as planned, two Arts Club women stood smiling in the doorway promptly at 6:30 with their arms full of green party supplies . The club, I later learned, meets on the first Tuesday of every month and decorates the hall and serving table with a holiday theme. Coming off a gray and lifeless February (a month the Arts Club did not meet due to winter weather conditions) the green of St. Patrick’s Day decorations seemed especially bright and immediately jolted me into the stern realization that was already March 1st. Teachers back home at the elementary school where I teach hadn’t even taken down their red hearts and cupids, yet.

I looked up from the floor, still untangling wires. “Is one of you, Phyllis?”

“She is,” the taller club member said pointing to the shorter one.

Phyllis blushed.

I knew at that moment that Phyllis had a story for me. She had that excited look in her eyes that I've seen from fans of Rock Springs Park before, not unlike the folks predicted to appear in droves at the door of that iconic white farmhouse in Field of Dreams.

"People will come Ray. They'll come for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past."

Somehow, I knew, the topic of Rock Springs Park was going to make Phyllis stand out that evening and I was right.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part II)

The flood wall in Wellsville is now covered with beautiful, historic murals, painted by artist Gina Hampson. The Wellsville Revitalization Committee started this mural project in the summer of 2005. In the background is Route 7. (From “POW” People Of Wellsville, Ohio Blog)

In the first installment of “Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams,” the writer began his story of a recent trip from Western Pennsylvania to a book talk and signing event in Wellsville, Ohio. Stopping, along the way, in his hometown of Chester, West Virginia, to deliver a signed copy of "Images of America: Rock Springs Park" to book contributor Sayre W. Graham, Sr., a retired general contractor who worked maintenance on the octagonal carousel pavilion and other structures in the park. At the end of Part I, the author had departed Graham’s home, unsuccessful in his attempted delivery, and was navigating the streets of downtown East Liverpool just across the river in search of Route 7 south to Wellsville.

Webber Way in East Liverpool became Route 7 South immediately after crossing under Route 30. The City of Wellsville, to my surprise, was only 2 miles away; it seemed like a much longer trip when I was a kid. Like Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, on his own road trip in Field of Dreams, I was in need of a little positive "karma" at that moment and since I was taught to never pick up hitchhikers like Ray does in the film, I simply turned up the volume on sports talk radio. The hosts were replaying an earlier interview with Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety, Ryan Clark, as I entered North Wellsville, driving across a small bridge bordered on both sides with cement railings painted white and continuing through a large open gate in a flood wall.

The city of Wellsville, which had its beginnings before Ohio became a state, lies just south of Route 7 at the foot of a mountain and only slightly above the flowing waters of the Ohio River. A single railroad line runs parallel to the city along the river’s edge; a line Wellsville historians claim President Abraham Lincoln traveled on from his home state of Illinois back to Washington D.C. in 1865 for his second inauguration.

Wellsville was one of the stops on President Abraham Lincoln's journey back to Washington for his second inauguration. A parade was held, in Wellsville, OH, many people gathered, and President Lincoln spoke from the rear platform of the train, to the assembled crowd, both for and against him. One man spoke up and said that he never voted for Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln spoke to him and shook his hand. (From Amy’s Art Blog)

The need for a flood wall became immediately obvious as I took in the geography of Wellsville. It sits on the northernmost curve of the Ohio just as the river begins to turn south. The city itself is built on a raised mound of earth having a long lower basin that borders it to the north. I could imagine a swell of river water bearing down on the town like a an inexperienced baseball player choosing the wrong angle rounding second, losing his balance, and tumbling out of control. Water following a similar path, without a flood wall, would quickly fill the basin and eventually flood the entire town in only a few brief hours. On this particular February evening, the Ohio was actually cresting near flood stage due to melting snow and recent thunderstorms, the same combination which led to the "big flood" of 1936, a notorious disaster which affected cities and villages all along the Ohio from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati beginning on St. Patrick’s Day 1936; a flood which prompted the construction of the first and only million-dollar flood wall ever built on the upper Ohio River.

Costner, with his karma increased thanks to a young hitchhiker named Archie Graham cruises happily to the tune of an Allman Brothers’ rock instrumental, but I foolishly chose to continue listening to talk radio and Ryan Clark voicing his laundry list of post-season concerns. The conversation shifted to the 900-pound gorilla in the studio - the potential lockout if negotiations between NFL owners and players did not improve in the next few days. Typically, as a member of a collective bargaining unit and concerned about the current situation in Wisconsin, I would fall on the side of labor in such a dispute. But Clark’s argument about the lack of equity in players’ salaries, even though intelligent and well-measured, fell on deaf ears as I drove through Wellsville, Ohio. Especially when I saw a rundown house on First Street still decked out in Steelers’ regalia from January’s Super Bowl loss. The house was covered in black and gold, including Steelers’ bed sheets hanging in the windows. As Clark was asking for sympathy for young players making a mere $380,000 a year, I was looking at a fan’s house who was obviously struggling just to make ends meet, a guy with a median household income of probably close to $25,000, if that, who would no doubt have to work fifteen more years just to make what a practice squad player earns in his first year. Suddenly, the plight of NFL player and owners seemed vainglorious and unimportant, especially when considering the ghosts in "Field of Dreams" played professional ball for "food money."

My self-led driving tour of downtown Wellsville, population 3,881, including the grand Victorian homes homes along Riverside Avenue was complete in about 15 minutes, so I found my way to the parking lot of the First Christian Church on Main Street with a half hour to spare before I was scheduled to meet "Phyllis," one of the Arts Club members who had volunteered to come 30 minutes early so I could set up all my equipment. I took the opportunity to pull out my notes regarding Wellsville's connection to Rock Springs Park. Dozens of area newspapers recount that businesses in small towns all along the Ohio River and beyond would close down completely once a year in the 1900's for all-day excursion to the park, but Wellsville, Ohio, had a much deeper connection than just that, one which I had only been recently reminded of while reading an obituary in the Youngstown Vindicator dated October 14, 1953.

One of the large homes along Riverside Avenue is Wellsville Historical Society River Museum. (From Wellsville Area Chamber of Commerce)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part I)

It’s usually about this time every year that I take out my copy of the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, and pop it into the DVD player, in hopes that this “guy-cry film” will help me think spring and the start of baseball season. In it, Ray Kinsella (Costner), on a father quest which begins and ends in his own backyard in Iowa, or more precisely the farm in his front yard, plows under a couple of acres of his cash crop to build a baseball field after hearing a voice whisper “if you build it, he will come.” Later, James Earl Jones, as writer Terence Mann, explains in a prophetic monologue how Ray’s lost corn crop and looming bankruptcy are meaningless in the big scheme of things because “People will come.”

As it turns out, Ray’s “illogical” baseball field brings back his father’s long dead baseball heroes, but also draws thousands of tourists longing for their collective past, “an America that was once good, and could be again.” Terrance Mann concludes, “Of course, we won't mind if you look around. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. It'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.”

Last night I left school and traveled to Wellsville, Ohio, a small town just 2 miles southwest of East Liverpool. In hopes of sharing a heavy dose of thick memories and “magic waters” of Rock Springs Park to the Women’s Arts Club in the social hall of the First Christian Church on Main Street, Wellsville, Ohio.

On the way through Chester, West Virginia, I planned on stopping to give a signed copy of my book to Sayre W. Graham, Sr., a retired general contractor, who allowed me to visit his home on Georgia Avenue last year and record his memories of living next to the park and working for the Findley Brothers Construction Company, contractors who built and maintained the octagonal carousel pavilion. Unfortunately, most of the stories Mr. Graham told me I could not use in the book, not because they weren’t good, but because I wasn’t sure if the statute of limitations had run out yet. Like the time he kidnapped a spare carousel horse from a storage shed behind the first drop of the Cyclone in 1974, only reluctantly returning it when questioned about its whereabouts by park owner Virginia Hand. Graham, like a lot of folks in town, didn’t want to see the antique horses sold off to a museum. Unlike most; he decided to do something about it. (Was he exaggerating, or was I in the presence of a real-life carousel horse thief?)

In the book (page 23), I noted that then-mayor Roy C. Cashdollar and Graham were instrumental in saving the World’s Largest Teapot in town, the Chester icon and roadside giant that now sits on former park property and greets people traveling through the northern panhandle of West Virginia from Pennsylvania and Ohio via Route 30 and the Jennings Randolph Bridge.

“I told ‘em,” Graham laughed. “That they should drag that sorry thing up to the top of the bridge and dump it in the river!”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say that. Roy Cashdollar was heard to say the same thing at the time, according to one source. Although surprising, it’s no wonder the men who are credited with saving the teapot were discouraged at first by the prospect of doing so, especially when one studies the photographs of the dying giant prior to restoration (photos now on display in the Memory Lane showcase at the Chester Municipal Building). In them, the teapot is barely recognizable, dark brown and crumbling in an abandoned lot in the upper end of Chester. It seems to have returned to a shell of the huge wooden barrel it was originally, and looks nothing like the giant piece of pottery it was transformed into by William "Babe" Devon in 1938. But even if their initial response was negative, these two men, along with Councilman Frank DeCapio, offered to take responsibility for its rehabilitation.

I asked Mr. Graham if it was true that the lid ball atop of the teapot was really made of glass, something I read while researching local history. Graham smiled slyly and said, “Go over to Liverpool and take a close look at that those glass-domed lampposts they got over there - same size.” It was not an outright confession, but, well, you get the idea.

When I arrived early in Chester yesterday evening, I grabbed a book and a pen from the car and rang Mr. Graham’s doorbell, waiting for him call out to me from his back room, as he had done over a year ago. I tried a couple more times, listening closely at the door, but realized that I probably should have called first. As I turned to go I was reminded of Kevin Costner’s visit to Doc “Moonlight” Graham in “Field of Dreams;” a small town doctor Ray visits by travelling back in time to 1972. Doc Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, shares his story of getting into professional baseball and “coming this close” to his dream of getting a big league hit, before he was called back down to the minors. Did my visit with Sayre Graham last year really happen or was I time traveling? A silly thought: I had the notes to prove it and saw the restored park bench in his living room. Was he okay? I wondered next, startled into a slightly tilted reality. I left disappointed and worried.

On the way to his home, only moments earlier, I was excited about my surprise visit, and visualized showing Mr. Graham his name in the book and the credit to his efforts in restoring the teapot. I pictured him smiling with wet eyes as he turned the pages. Instead I left feeling alone and dejected. I even took note of the turkey buzzards circling over the neighborhood.

It occurred to me as I drove out of town how cold and lonely the whole trip felt. I crossed the newly painted battleship-gray Jennings Randolph Bridge, the same bridge which signaled the beginning of the end of Rock Springs Park, and meandered through the one-way streets of East Liverpool trying to remember how to get to Route 7 from downtown. Something I once could do blind-folded, but now struggled with, perhaps because the cobwebs of memories were building up in front of my own face. What’s gotten into you? I thought. This how you used to think when you visited the area, but not now.

Back home in Pennsylvania, I am surrounded by constant noise and activity in my daily life as an elementary school teacher and most especially while driving around with my two preschool age children in the backseat; but the silence in the car last night actually added to my confusion. At least Kevin Costner had James Earl Jones for his road trip down memory lane. Where was my wing man? I switched on talk radio.

I began to notice how old and run down things looked: C.A. Smith’s pottery was now a brown field, half razed and rusting; a sad fat Christmas tree with drooping red ribbons leaned awkwardly in the Diamond of downtown East Liverpool, and the buildings along the once brick and busy Webber Way looked tired with peeling facades revealing crumbling brickwork and rotting timbers beneath.

Did anybody in the area really care about an amusement park that had been gone for nearly 40 years, and more specifically a black and white paperback book about its history?

It was my hope a small group gathered in the First Christian Church on Main Street in Wellsville did.

The World’s Largest Teapot in Chester, WV. In the background is the main truss of the Jennings Randolph Bridge (left) and a rusting tower of TS&T Pottery (right).