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)