About Me

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Strolling Through the Park in 1928


This description of a walk through Rock Springs Park appeared in The Daily Times of Beaver, PA in 1928.

Just for a moment close your eyes and imagine you are in Rock Springs Park. You have just finished a delightful dance to the lilting music of “Billy Coppel” and his boys in beautiful Virginia Gardens, you start on a trip through the park – first the Cyclone Coaster – a bell rings and the brilliantly colored cars start up the incline. Before you go down the first breath-taking dip you get a birdseye view of the park with its sparkling myriad lights and amusements. What a sight – then thrills – some ride – what next – the giant aeroplane swing taking you for a delightful cool ride up into the clouds – next the brilliantly lighted merry-go-round, with its laughing children – what’s this – the new Dangler – more laughs and enjoyment – then down the midway past the many new games and concessions with their richly decorated shelves and sparkling lights with the crowds of enjoyment seeking people. Not forgetting the Monkey Island with its colony of laugh-producing inhabitants.


This postcard shows the new Dangler (left).

Friday, April 29, 2011

Stand in the Place Where You Live and Face North

I’ve always suffered from a strange case of dyslexia when it comes to cardinal directions. For example, I feel slightly panicked when I go through the toll booth entering the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I worry, Am I going east to Harrisburg or west to Pittsburgh? I never understood where this irrational fear came from until I began researching Rock Springs Park and my hometown of Chester, West Virginia. Everything about the area is confusing, as far as directions are concerned.

First off, the northern panhandle of West Virginia extends further north than most people realize. When I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, I was teased for being from “Down there”, but the truth was, I was from “Up there”. You see, Chester actually lies northwest of Pittsburgh. The Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet at the confluence in Pittsburgh and become the Ohio, but the Ohio River, like the Nile in Egypt, actually flows north. George Washington got it right when he drew this map of the region in 1758. The Ohio flows north before turning west at the northern panhandle of West Virginia (then Virginia) and continues south to Cincinnati.

Chester, as I explain in the book, lies at the extreme northern limit of the panhandle. If you stand in Chester and face north, you face East Liverpool, Ohio. All the other towns of Ohio across the river from West Virginia, for the most part, lie to the west, but not Liverpool, and to a lesser degree, Wellsville. They both mark the northern turn of the river before it heads south. So, in this rare instance, Ohio is north and Pennsylvania is south and a little bit east of Chester - sort of.

Then there’s the neighborhood in Chester across from where Rock Springs Park used to be that is known as the Upper End. It’s “Upper” because it is upriver not because it is north as I used to think as a kid. North is up and south is down on the compass rose, right? No, not exactly.

About 75% of the final edits to the book involved correcting descriptions of the park as it related to cardinal directions:

People now enter Chester along Route 30 at the southern end of what used to be the crystal spring lake of Rock Springs Park.

The spring still flows out of a lone pipe that can be found east of the onramp to the Jennings Randolph Bridge to East Liverpool.

East Liverpool is north of Chester.


See what I mean? If it wasn’t for Google Maps I would still be editing. It should be easy, but it isn’t.It’s no wonder some people still don’t get that West Virginia is a state. They think it’s just the western half of Virginia. If those people go to Chester, I wish them all the luck in the world and hopefully some sort of GPS device, because in Chester east is north and up is east and west is south and the south is north.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Let's Ride the Cyclone

This is a virtual ride on Rock Springs Park’s Cyclone, which I created for ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) Western PA's Coasterbash 2010 using 62 photographs taken of/on the roller coaster over the course of its 43 year history. If you rode the Cyclone, or always wanted to, this virtual ride is my Easter gift to you. Happy Easter!

video

(Images courtesy of Richard Bowker , Rich Brookes and Tish Hand; "Free Ride" is a song written by Dan Hartman and performed by The Edgar Winter Group, 1973)

Thank You Tricyclefetish.com

In July of 2009, Tish Hand sent me a picture of her husband, Richard K. Hand, riding a tricycle near the entrance to Rock Springs Park in the 1940s. My immediate thought was that it must have been very cool to grow up in an amusement park and have the opportunity to ride all along the winding paths and roads of the 11-acre property, but as I studied the photograph I noticed that “Dickie’s” trike had a chain drive rather than the pedals attached to the front wheel like the one I rode as a kid. I began to wonder what kind of tricycle it was and looked on-line to see if I could find the name.
Dickie Hand (left) and Jim Wilson (right). This photograph is from Sherry Emery’s collection. It shows the same tricycle pictured in Images of America Rock Springs Park p. 74. (Courtesy of Sherry Emery)

I soon discovered a brand new website where people were posting pictures of themselves on their childhood trikes and inquiring about the brand, the worth, etc. The website was a blog entitled “Tricycle Fetish”. According to Wikipedia,“fetishism” is the act of “attributing religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects.” I mean, I liked my trike as a kid, but come on! But as I read over the blog, I soon realized that these guys knew their stuff, so…



I never thought I’d say it but, “Thank you Tricyclefetish.com!”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Summer Theater Lives Again

I wrote about The Summer Theater, constructed in the lower level of Rock Springs Park by C.A. Smith in 1903, on pages 34 and 35 of Images of America: Rock Springs Park. Although it was used mainly for live shows, like minstrels and vaudeville productions, silent movies were often featured there.


Now you can get a feeling for what it was like to watch a movie in The Summer Theater at Rock Springs Park thanks to an unusual site which uses postcard images of early American theaters to create a very low-tech version of the original. The site called “Cinemat.org”, places moving pictures against the backdrops and prosceniums of these early entertainment venues, so that the viewer can watch a piece of cinematic history from the center aisle.

The Summer Theater show begins when the backdrop is raised and a couple of animated clipart scouts are revealed paddling a canoe in darkness (not exactly the type of animated short one would see in the early days of cinema). Click “Next” and a 1942 Oldsmobile Custom 8 Cruiser ad plays, then it’s a real cartoon short called “Short’nin Bread,” followed by Ozzie and Harriet, Buster Keaton, and a full length feature from 1936: “Daniel Boone,” starring George O'Brien, John Carradine, and Heather Angel. The film, set in 1775, is about the early settlement of Kentucky where Daniel Boone faced, “menacing Indians and renegade whites,” according to IMDb (Internet Movie Database).

To see the film at The Summer Theater click here. Then scroll halfway down until you see the image shown at right. Click on it and continue to hit “Next” to work your way through the show. Like I said, this is extremely low tech, but it’s kind of fun, and more than a little surprising, that The Summer Theater in Rock Springs Park is used since it lasted only fourteen years, having burned down 1917.

Anyway, it is a neat bit of nostalgia and it goes without saying that I’m always glad to find Rock Springs Park included on any site.

Enjoy!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Dancing in the Park

One of the comments I received after the first two of my book talks, was that older people who remember the park wished to see and hear more about dancing, especially with regards to the beautiful ballroom, "Virginia Gardens". Included in this blog post are some of the facts and images I plan to add to my next event in order to boost the conversation about dance platforms and halls enjoyed by park guests in the nearly 117 year history of the area known as Rock Springs.

This image from the very early years shows an outdoor covered dancing platform at the end of a tree-lined path used before any dance halls were constructed. According to Roy C. Cashdollar, the very first structure built on the site of Rock Springs Grove was “a sixteen foot square platform used for dancing.” (Courtesy of Richard L. Bowker)

The original dance hall in Rock Springs Park faced Carolina Avenue. Before the trolley loop lower entrance was added during C.A. Smith’s years, people would get off the street car and go right up the steps into the dance hall. (See Images of America: Rock Springs Park, p. 15) This side view of the original dance hall, constructed in 1897 by J.E. MacDonald was removed from the Images book in place of one from Doug Arner and Arner Funeral Chapel. Also a side view, Arner’s photograph (p. 16 top) shows pleasure-seekers filling the awning covered porch and walking the grounds. (Courtesy of Richard L. Bowker)

The second floor of the Casino Dance Hall (1906) had an 18,000 square foot hard white maple dance floor, which was larger than 4 high school-size basketball courts put together. Not only did people dance in the dance halls in the evening, but they also danced aboard steamships which carried them from Wheeling and Pittsburgh. (See a series of photographs of the Homer Smith in my book, pp. 56-57)

The Virginia Gardens Dance Hall (1927 – 1974) was used for proms and school dances, as well as, for skating. This article from Youngstown Vindicator – Jul 28, 1957, tells of the Golden Jubilee of Chester Celebration held in Virginia Gardens. (See p. 71 of my book for a photograph of the Jubilee Court)



In his History of Chester: The Gateway to the West (Part II), Roy C. Cashdollar notes some of the rules for couples dancing the tango in 1914: Do not, (1) wiggle shoulders, (2) shake hips, (3) twist the body, (4) hop, (5) flounce elbows, or (6) clasp your partner in a death grip.


(What? No "hopping?" Look out Easter Bunny!)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Real Field of Dreams

In a recent blog post I mentioned some of the odd coincidences that I’ve experienced while researching, writing, and now promoting my book about Rock Springs Park in Chester, West Virginia. In fact, last month I posted a six-part series entitled, “Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams,” about a recent book talk and signing event for the Wellsville Arts Club. In it, I compared my experiences with that of Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, who pursues his dream of bringing the past back to life by building a baseball field on his farm in Iowa after hearing voices. In a sense, I found myself also called upon to bring the past alive by writing a picture-history of Rock Springs Park.

On a trip to my alma-mater, Oak Glen High School, this week for another book talk, I was more than a little surprised to see a recently erected archway between the middle and high schools which reads, “Field of Dreams.” This brick archway is the dream of the Oak Glen High Class of 2011. Workers will put the finishing touches on the gateway this week. (Photo by Nancy Tullis of the East Liverpool Review)



As I was backing my Honda into a parking spot behind the high school library doors, I let out an audible, “No way! ‘Field of Dreams’? That is a sign.” Of course it is literally “a sign”, but for me it was just another in a long list of unusual coincidences that I’ve encountered while on this amusement park book quest. Moments like these lead me to think there is more behind it than simply my answer to author Toni Morrison’s call: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Something bigger is at work.


Toni Morrison

When I returned home and thought about that arch, shown in a rendering in the image below, I discovered this article by Nancy Tullis of the East Liverpool Review, who, coincidentally, also wrote the article about my book talk last summer in Chester. Nancy’s article dated last Monday, April 11, 2001 states, “The Hancock County Schools Board of Education will have a groundbreaking at 1 p.m. Tuesday in anticipation of the start of construction on the OGHS athletic complex to be paid with bond levy money (and) at 11 a.m. Saturday, the OGHS Class of 2011 will have a dedication-ribbon cutting for the completed gateway,” which means that I held my book talk event for the Sisters of Alpha Delta Kappa, an international honorary organization of women educators, on the same day as the groundbreaking. I had assumed, as I have never been to the middle school, that the arch had been around for some time, but it was just being finished THAT DAY! (Cue the “Twilight Zone” music) Joey Davis, president of the Oak Glen High Class of 2011, stands near the entrance to the Field of Dreams complex with a rendering of the proposed entrance archway the class has taken on as a legacy gift to the school district. (Photo by Nancy Tullis)

More next time on some of things I learned about Rock Springs Park at the actual book talk event held Tuesday evening , April 12 with the ADK Sorority Group.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Homemade Rides

Richard Bowker, the gentleman who shared his collection of seven photo albums of Rock Springs Park postcards and pictures for my book, referred to some of the rides in Rock Springs Park as being “homemade.” He meant, generally, that many of the rides which remained in the upper park during the late 1960s and 1970 were made using everyday construction materials and not factory parts. Specifically, he mentioned the trolley ride (as seen below) which appears to be hand welded with plywood sides and seats.



In the background of the Kiddie Trolley picture one can see the red Kiddie Cars. A closer examination of the image below reveals that the cars are actually store-bought pedal cars that have been set into a permanent “wheelie” so that Junior is not able to steer off the circular base. Like a lot of amusement park Kiddie Rides, the steering wheel is for fun but not function.



The homemade aspect of the rides was not limited to the Kiddie rides. While the Aeroplanes would most likely have been originally manufactured by an amusement ride company, by the time visitors to the park rode them in 1970, they were more replacement part than original, judging from the photographic evidence.



I am not suggesting that homemade rides were any less fun or thrilling than those from the factory. On the contrary, the faces of the children on these rides say it all. In addition, I have listened to plenty of testimonials of those who rode them in later years; many were forbidden to ride the Aeroplanes or the Cyclone, which would have added a heightened sense of danger and thrill overall.

If the video below is to be believed, homemade rides can be a lot of fun. In it, a guy named John Ivers fed up with waiting in long lines at amusement parks, decided to build a roller coaster in his back yard called “The Blue Flash”. This ride features a full 360 degree loop, (but with no overhead restraint), and a 20ft lift hill with custom made motorized chain.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Skate Park

According to this rare Rock Springs Park roller skate ink blotter, skating continued at Virginia Gardens Dance Hall into the 1940s. At that time skating was offered three nights a week and Sunday afternoon.

Fans of Rock Springs Park who are now in their late eighties or early nineties have fond memories of trips to the park as young children during the Great Depression. Roy C. Cashdollar pointed out that many families who were struggling financially still found a way “to spend money for amusement when they should spend it on other things” and apparently the kids did too. For instance, My uncle, James (Del) Cooper told me that he could get a ride on the Cyclone in 1928 for “two nickels and a bottle cap."

These folks also remember the Virginia Gardens Dance Hall, not especially for the dancing, but for roller skating. According to the son of park owner C.C. Macdonald, roller skating in those days was not about zooming around in a big circle, but about dancing on skates. R.Z. Macdonald explains in Images of America: Rock Springs Park (p. 59), “It (Virginia Gardens) was a happy place for me. I considered myself to be very proficient on skates in the two-step, waltz, etc.”

Part of what made the dance hall so valuable to contractors when the building was auctioned off, according to Chester resident Dean McKinney, were the large beams underneath which were used to support all those dancers and skaters. The Dance Hall was razed in 1974 (Courtesy of Richard L. Bowker)

I always had a difficult time envisioning people skating in Virginia Gardens until Sherry Emery of Chester, shared an image of skaters on Rock Springs Park’s Facebook Page. Here, young people with their dress shoes neatly lined up take a break from skating to socialize in the theater-style seats lining the hall. (Courtesy of Sherry Emery)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clarence O. Durbin

Chaney’s Service Station as seen from the trolley loop entrance of Rock Springs Park in 1970. (From the photographic collection of Clarence O. Durbin, Courtesy of Rich Brookes)

Just days before my December deadline to complete Images of America: Rock Springs Park, I was told about a book of photo negatives which belonged to Rich Brookes of Pottery City Antique Mall in East Liverpool. The book was a family Bible of sorts in that it had been passed down to several different owners and each one had written his name inside the front cover. The original owner, and the man who took all the photographs assembled in the book, was Clarence O. Durbin of Chester.

My father told me that Mr. Durbin lived just a few doors down from our home on Virginia Avenue in the western end of Chester when I was growing up; something I did not remember, but now deeply regret not understanding at the time. I’m sure Mr. Durbin would have had some wonderful and interesting stories about the park, as well as, the pictures to go with them. He did share one dramatic tale with Roy C. Cashdollar who wrote about it in his book, A History of Chester: The Gateway To The West by Roy C. Cashdollar. Roy wrote:

Mr. Clarence Durbin of Chester tells about an event that happened on the day of the “Old Mill” fire. He got on the street car in East Liverpool and the motorman headed for Chester. He made no stop to pick up or discharge passengers and had the car at full speed. He came to a stop on Carolina Avenue, just past Sixth Street near the old Ludovici Service Station, and took off running up over the hill toward the park. He had heard about the fire and the death of some children and his little daughter was at the picnic. Mr. Durbin and the other passengers followed and tell of the terrible sight of the bodies being wrapped and loaded to be taken to the hospital or the morgue.

If you’ve ever lost a child in a department store or at the beach for a brief moment or worse, you can begin to understand the panic and actions taken by the trolley motorman who worried that his own daughter might be among the dead. It’s easy to imagine the trolley racing across the bridge with the driver ignoring passengers and those waiting at the stops. One wonders if he shouted some sort of explanation or just drove on without saying a word. Did they think the driver had lost his mind? Were they angry, before learning why the man had disregarded his duty?

This is an example of one of the trolley cars used to carry passengers to the park in 1915. (Courtesy of Richard Bowker)

I was given a brief extension to my book deadline in order to process as many of the negatives from Rich Brookes’ album as possible. Mr. Durbin had meticulously created little hand folded envelopes for each negative with a tiny proof label including names, dates, and places of subjects. My only challenge was to decide what to cut from the original page layout in order to add some of Clarence’s collection.

This photograph taken by my mother, Margaret Comm, is of a park bench which used to line the sidewalk of our home for many years. The image was cut from the final copy of Images of America: Rock Springs Park to add some last minute images.

One of the things I included on pages 106 to 107, is a series of photographs showing the final turn of the Cyclone. Based on the date and the perspective of the pictures, Clarence must have walked the length of the Cyclone on Memorial Day 1971 to record the view and the condition of the 44 year-old wooden coaster before it was removed. If Clarence was a young man when he saw the accident at the Old Mill in 1915, he must have been in his late sixties or seventies when he scaled the tracks of the Cyclone – a daring prospect, as the photos suggest the coaster was missing sections of guardrail and planks in many parts of the the maintenance walkway.


Some of the other photographs I chose were of park patrons enjoying the park during the years 1968 – 1970. I had many pictures of employees and owners, but was lacking park guests riding rides and eating treats. Mr. Durbin's photographs, courtesy of Rich Brookes, were the perfect finishing touch I had been looking for.

Fans of Rock Springs Park owe a debt of gratitude to Clarence O. Durbin for his years of service to the park and the amazing document he left behind for all of us. This image of the Ferris wheel shows Durbin’s artistic eye.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What Led to the Demise of Rock Springs Park

If Rock Springs Park was still operating today, it would be the oldest amusement park in the United States. Although it officially opened on Memorial Day 1897, its history dates back to pre-Civil War picnics and prize-fights in 1857. The amusement park had been in continuous operation during the summer months (barring a few years during World War II) for more than 70 years when it closed for good after Labor Day 1970.

Just what really caused the decline of Rock Springs Park and led to its eventual demise in 1974, no one knows for sure. It is perhaps not any one reason, but more likely a combination of factors.

If the historic marker on Carolina Avenue is correct, the “automobile and changing social customs led to disuse and sale by 1970s."

Some say it was the tremendous increase in the use of the family automobile following WWII. Soldiers who had seen the world returned home and wanted to drive and see the country they served to protect. The car was their “escape vehicle” and allowed them to go anywhere they chose. They did not choose the neighborhood trolley park.

In Images of America: Rock Springs Park, I suggest that owner Bob Hand was politically connected and knew of the plans to remove the park in order to widen Route 30 and construct a cloverleaf approach to the new bridge long before 1970. Picture evidence backs this theory as it is clear the buildings in the park had not been painted for many years prior to its final season.

The Cyclone’s red letters were nearly completely faded from the loading platform in 1974.

The Arcade building in later years looked as if it had not been painted since the Macdonald’s upgraded the park in 1927.

Others say the park did not keep pace with times. With the opening of Disneyland in 1955, the new trend was toward theme parks like Freedomland in New York. Unlike Idlewild in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, which also faced a threat from a highway expansion project, Rock Springs Park was not in a resort area like the Laurel Highlands. Kennywood, another trolley park in Western PA, billed itself as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World”, and continued to add modern coasters and water rides, while Rock Springs seemed frozen in the 1930s.


When I first heard about the park closing, I was in elementary school. I remember feeling sad. Like a lot of kids in town, I imagined that some rich guy would come along and make it a showplace once again. I especially wanted to see the carousel in operation again as my mother explained to me that it was still locked inside the pavilion and mentioned on more than one occasion how beautiful it was. By the time I was in 4th Grade at the old high school building and could reach out and touch the Cyclone and stare at the park from the kickball field, the park’s fate was locked in place. By the next year we heard and felt the dynamite blasts which shattered the age old rocks of Rock Springs Park into pieces.


Some people blame television for the demise of Rock Springs Park. This photograph of me (left) and my cousin Danny Ibbs (right) was taken at the new Beaver Valley Mall. I was more than happy to leave Chester and Rock Springs Park behind in December 1970 to meet Burt Ward of TV’s Batman. Parks like Kennywood took advantage of television’s popularity and hosted TV personalities such as The Lone Ranger and Timmy and Lassie.


Over the years, it was the company and community picnics which made the most money for the park. There is no question that these were in decline in the last ten years of operation. Paul H. Zender of the East Liverpool Review wrote, “Large Corporations, feeling the pinch of money needed for expansion, stopped holding traditional yearly get-togethers for employees and their families. Other special events simply didn’t draw crowds large enough to assure financial solvency.”


The more I learn about amusement park history, the more I have come to appreciate that Rock Springs Park lasted as long as it did. Most Victorian trolley parks did not survive beyond the Twenties due to the stock market crash. The Hands began operating the park in 1935 and kept it going longer than any previous owners. Ironically, the reason many were attracted to the park in later years was due to the fact that it hadn’t changed much in over 30 years. They wanted a chance to ride their old favorites from childhood.


Although the park has been gone for nearly 40 years, it still lives on in the hearts and minds of area residents. Images of America: Rock Springs Park is just one part of a larger conversation which keeps those memories alive. In the last chapter of the book, I discuss some of the ways others have preserved the history of the park with their stories, pictures and collections. Won’t you add your own thoughts by commenting below? Tell us your tale of Rock Springs Park.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chester Resident Named for Child Killed in Old Mill Fire 1915









The Old Mill at Rock Springs Park (top left) and the Old Mill at Kennywood Park (bottom right) share a similar design as is evidenced by these two postcard images. Kennywood’s dark ride still thrills park visitors while Rock Springs’ burned to the ground in a tragic fire on June 5, 1915.


In November 2009, just before the book’s due date, I traveled to Chester, West Virginia, to give a slide show talk on Rock Springs Park at Peachtree Inn, an independent living community on the grounds of Fox Nursing Home. It was my hope that by showing pictures and reviewing the general history of the park with residents, I could glean some interesting stories and firsthand accounts of the trolley park from those who remembered it while growing up in the area during the Great Depression. They did not disappoint.


Many of their memories have been captured in the pages of Images of America: Rock Springs Park, Including Evelyn Fersch’s mother’s tale of traveling to Rock Springs Park by horse and buggy from New Cumberland in the 1890s (page 11). Sadly, Evelyn passed away just months after inviting me to her home at Peachtree and never saw her story in the book, but her memory, often shared with family members, is now shared with hundreds of readers. Just 3 sentences long, her humorous anecdote beautifully encapsulates the joy and excitement felt by young children at the end of the 19th Century when on their way to “Nature’s Beauty Spot” with a picnic basket in their buggy.


As I mentioned before on this site, one of the reasons I began researching the history of the park about 5 years ago, was to flesh out a middle grades novel I was writing entitled, “Rock Springs.” In one scene, Joey and Muna, two children growing up in Chester in the 1970s, attend a church prayer meeting in which parishioners, like the residents of Peachtree Inn, share their memories of Rock Springs in a public forum. Here is an excerpt:


“My memory is bitter-sweet, you might say, but I have a real connection to that park that most of you don’t know about,” Miss Abernathy stood, leaning on the back of a folding chair for support. “Most of you are too young to remember, but you’ve probably read or heard about the fire that burned down The Old Mill in 1915. It was such a tragic fire; so many children were in the park that day. It was the annual school picnic day.”


Muna and I stopped writing and exchanged looks.


“The Old Mill was a dark ride with boats and historic scenes. It was never called the ‘Tunnel of Love’, but my mother told me that a lot of young teenagers got their first kiss on that ride.”


Someone giggled in the back.


“The cause of the fire was never determined. The park blamed it on a patron’s cigarette and the public, well they blamed the park, of course. Witnesses said it started in the dynamo used to power the big paddle wheel. The sad thing, of course, is that three youngsters died in that fire, and a fourth, Hyacinth Mackey, passed away two weeks later from burns sustained from the accident.”


“But Miss Abernathy,” Bert Langston called out. “Hyacinth’ is…”


“Yes, Bert. Hyacinth’ is my name. My mother was pregnant with me that summer and named me after Miss Mackey.” Miss Abernathy closed her eyes as she continued. “As a child I didn’t like my name. I thought it too old-fashioned, and, of course, when I found out I was named after one of the children who died in the fire, I was haunted in my dreams. Terrible nightmares, in which, the children tried to make me ride with them.” Miss Abernathy shuddered. “Many nights I would wake up screaming. It seemed so real. My mother let me sleep with a light on, even though the Depression was still going on.”


After my talk at Peachtree two elderly twin sisters came up to introduce themselves. They were Ina and Nina France, longtime Chester residents. They asked about park owner Virginia Hand and were sad to hear she had passed away. They spoke fondly of Bob and Virginia Hand and told a story about how Bob helped their father when a bad rainstorm and mudslide destroyed their home in the Thirties (page 67). But they also told me a story that sent chills down my back.


This house, at the eastern end of Indiana Avenue was moved just like the Rustic Log House to avoid the “Path of Progress” when Rock Springs Park was razed to make way for Route 30’s approach to the Jennings Randolph Bridge. The home was the residence of Ina and Nina France. Their father was given permission to build the house on park property by owner Bob Hand in the 1930s.

Here, the France Home is being leveled on a new basement foundation in 1974.

Ina said that her mother named her after one of the girls who died in the Old Mill fire. It was an eerie example of life imitating art, or so I thought. I questioned the sisters about their account as the only girls who were reported dead following the fire were named “Eva”, “Glenna,” and “Hyacinth”. They were confused about the details, but were firm in their conviction that their expectant mother had been friends with one of the young mothers who lost a child that day in 1915 and so named one of her twin daughters in her memory, almost the exact account of the fictional Miss Abernathy in my novel completed four years earlier.


Then, when reviewing Roy C. Cashdollar’s History of Chester: The Gateway to the West (Part II) recently for a blog post, I was reminded of another story, perhaps one that had been lodged in the back of my mind and resurfaced as Miss Abernathy’s tale. Roy wrote:


Here is an interesting and full account of the fire that swept the “Old Mill” ride at Rock Springs Park on June 5, 1915. The fire hit at 7:00 taking three lives; Albert Raymer [sic], age 12 of Chester, Eva Dales, age 14 and Glenna Stout, age 17 of Newell, West Virginia. I was given this account by Glenna Miller of Chester whose mother named her after one of the victims. Mrs. Miller was born a few weeks after the fire.


I don’t claim to be psychic or even necessarily believe in that sort of thing, but there have been more than a small number of unusual coincidences involving my work on the book and subsequent experiences sharing the history of the park. Keep checking back for MORE!