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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.

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