OK, I am about to get a bit dramatic here, so please forgive me in advance. This post is actually about Kennywood, but I wanted to set the tone prior to beginning my post. There IS actually a method to my madness, so hang in there and read on.
When I attended Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport, part of our required reading was a novel by Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe wrote the novel during the 1930’s. He died in 1938 after being diagnosed with diagnosed with miliary tuberculosis of the brain, just 18 days before his 38th birthday. It’s somewhat ironic that Thomas Wolfe’s, You Can’t Go Home Again, one of his most celebrated novels, was published posthumously in 1940. Truly, the author’s window of opportunity to relive his childhood memories had passed him by. Of course, the intent of the title and the point Wolfe made in his writing was that “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Since I began this blog last year I have had over 600 comments from all of you. In many of the comments, it is obvious that you are aware of the extensive deterioration that has taken place in the City of Duquesne. Personally, so many of the places and people that were part of my childhood either no longer exist or have been abused beyond recognition.
- Holy Name School – GONE
- North First Street – GONE
- My Dad’s business – GONE
- The Library – GONE
- My childhood home – UNRECOGNIZABLE
- Grant Ave – VIRTUALLY UNRECOGNIZABLE
- My Grandfather’s Hamilton Ave. home – GONE
One would find it very difficult to feel “at home” in most of Duquesne. Although I love going to mass at my childhood church, it too has evolved both physically and by name as well. Three parishes have merged to become “Christ the Light of the World” Parish. Holy Name Church, St. Hedwig Church, and St. Joseph Church are now pastored by Reverend Dennis J. Colamarino, affectionately known as Fr. Dennis. The exterior structure of Holy Name is basically unchanged from the time I attended, but the interior has been updated in keeping with the evolution of the liturgy.
I need to put in a plug here for Fr. Dennis. In spite of the changes that have taken place around our beloved City of Duquesne, attending mass at Christ the Light of the World, when celebrated by Fr. Dennis, is like comfort food for the soul. I have yet to leave after one of his masses that I wasn’t blown away by the feeling of community, spirituality and love that his celebration creates. Not only is Fr. Dennis one of the most charismatic disciples of the word when he speaks, but the musical program he has created is unparalleled in my opinion. Debbie Walters, Ray Judy and Greg Lesko are the core of the Music Ministry and NEVER fail to exceed my expectations when attending mass on my visits. I only wish that I have an opportunity to attend Fr. Dennis’ Christmas Eve celebration on of these years. I am sure it is remarkable.
As much as I feel “at home” during mass at Holy Name, Kennywood evokes that same feeling of being home. There are certain sounds, sights and tastes that immediately bring me home again. Unlike Thomas Wolfe’s conjecture that “You Can’t Go Home Again,” I do feel like I’ve traveled back in time on certain attractions at Kennywood and even eating certain foods as well. As much as Holy Name is comfort food for the soul, Kennywood is comfort food for the heart.
Leading the way toward that sense of “home” and “belonging” has to be the coasters that Kennywood has been famous for throughout the years. The Racer, The Jack Rabbit and The Thunderbolt (formally The Pippen) are the catalysts for immediately evoking memories of days gone by. When you enter the Racer, you can’t help by having the feeling of indecision as you head to either the blue or the red cars. Will this be the winning train??? Even on the approach to the loading platform. It is hard to resist sitting on the bars that separate the approach lines. How thrilling is the roar of the trains as they pass overhead while you are waiting in line. At the top of the first hill, nothing says “welcome home” like the warmth of the sign that warns “DON’T STAND UP,” accented by a pair of matching skull and crossbones! Ahhh… good times. There has always been an urban legend that the train that loses the previous race will be the winning train on the next race. I never had much faith in that notion. Perhaps there is some operator first hand testimony out there that can validate or dispute that legend. Please, if you know, leave a comment!
For you trivia/history buffs out there, according to Wikipedia:
“The Racer is a wooden roller coaster located at Kennywood Park, in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. It is a racing, moebius loop coaster; one of only three in the world.
The first Kennywood Racer was first built in 1910 as a side friction roller coaster by Ingersoll Brothers. It was a twin-track racing coaster designed by John Miller that cost nearly $50,000. When it was built, it was the largest racing coaster in the world. The original Racer had two trains racing side by side on two separate tracks, but it didn’t have wheels under the track, so dips and curves were gentle. The trains consisted of three-seat cars with a seating capacity of 18. The Racer was torn down in 1926 and replaced by Kiddieland.
The second Racer was designed by John Miller in 1927 and built by Charlie Mach. Because they liked John Miller’s previous work, Kennywood hired him to build a new twin or racing coaster. Brady McSwigan wanted a “snappy ride that wasn’t too much for mothers and children to ride.” It cost more than $75,000, because Miller didn’t use the topography as effectively as he had with the Jack Rabbit and Pippin. The highest hill of the Racer was built in a ravine and much more lumber was required. The moebius layout is caused by the setup of the station, where the trains turn away from each other upon dispatch. When the trains meet again at the lift hill, they are already on opposite sides than they were in the station, and the tracks do not split for the remainder of the ride. The new Racer’s trains were locked onto the tracks, which permitted banked curves as well as curves on the dips. Andy Vettel took the final hill out of the coaster in 1949. The loading platform’s facade was redesigned in 1946 by Hindenach and in 1960 by architect Bernard Liff of Liff, Justh and Chetlin. The original front was restored in 1990.”
The Jack Rabbit evokes the same feeling of “virtual time travel” for former Duquesne citizens that The Racer does. I remember being more excited about riding the Jack Rabbit that I was the Racer. I never got over the thrill of the double dip, especially if I was able to capture the coveted “last seat” on the train. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t ridden the coaster since you were in your teens, you will still have the same wobbly legs when you get out of your train’s car after finishing a spin around the track. If you haven’t ever tried the last seat, put it on your “bucket list” of things to do before you die! Who needs to skydive when you have The Jack Rabbit?
Again, I defer to Wikipedia to give you the nitty-gritty facts about the Jack Rabbit:
Designed and built by John Miller in 1920, it is one of the oldest still-running roller coasters in the world, opening on June 18, 1920. The ride’s three trains were manufactured by Edward Vettel, Sr. in 1951 and contain three cars of six seats each. The aging cars are considered an essential part of the ride’s nostalgic experience but also lead to some young children being disallowed to enter the ride (36″ is the minimum), due to the use of only a small lapbar to hold in riders. A popular early feature of the ride was a tunnel which covered the turnaround section after the first drop, but this was removed in 1947 when the new cars were ordered. In 1991, the tunnel was restored, even though it’s a bit shorter than it had been.
The Jack Rabbit was built shortly after Miller patented a new track design in 1920 (which all wooden coasters built since have used). This design involved the use of wheels both under and over the track, which allowed Miller to create the then enormous 70-foot (21 m) drop that is the attraction’s largest. It is most well-known for its double dip following the lift hill. The double dip produces strong airtime that makes the rider feel that they will be thrown from the seat (they are perfectly safe), and a feeling that the train leaves the track (it rises up but the up-stop wheels keep it firmly on the rails).
According to Rick Sebak, producer of Pittsburgh history programs for WQED, the attraction was designed so that each train’s last seat would provide the strongest airtime, and therefore the most desired ride.
It is an ACE Coaster Classic Coaster and was designated as an “ACE Roller Coaster Landmark” by American Coaster Enthusiasts in June, 2010.
That leaves the last remaining coaster from our childhood,
“The Thunderbolt is a wooden roller coaster located at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Originally built by John A. Miller in 1924, the ride’s name was Pippin until 1967, when it changed to Thunderbolt beginning with the 1968 season, coinciding with an expansion of the track headed up by Andy Vettel. The all-wood coaster follows the surrounding terrain with a track length of 2,887 feet (880 m). Its maximum height is 70 feet (21 m), but because of the track layout and the natural ravines on which the ride is set, the maximum drop is 95 feet (29 m). Reaching a maximum speed of 55 mph (88.5 km/h), the ride takes 90 seconds to complete its circuit.
An interesting feature of the Thunderbolt is that after departing from the station, the train does not immediately go up the lift hill as on most other coasters. Instead, the lift hill is in the middle of the ride.
Most of the ride was left intact except for the double dip, station, and station turn-around to the first hill which were removed in 1968 for the addition of the new front helix hills necessary for the transformation of The Pippin into the new Thunderbolt roller coaster. The four drops down a ravine were incorporated in the Andy Vettel-designed Thunderbolt coaster. The Thunderbolt was rated the #1 roller coaster by the New York Times in 1974, and it still is the most popular ride at Kennywood. The Thunderbolt still uses the 1958 Pippin trains manufactured by the National Amusement Device Company, known as “Century Flyers.”
- In 1924, the Pippin roller coaster was built.
- In 1958, the Pippin’s open-front trains were replaced with Century Flyer trains made by the National Amusement Device company. These are the trains used on the Thunderbolt today.
- In 1968, the Pippin roller coaster was rebuilt and the Thunderbolt was born
- In 1969, a small hill was removed from the inner helix of the front of the coaster near the loading station.
- In 1991, the tunnel located at the end of the first dip was removed, and allowed Steel Phantom (now Phantom’s Revenge) to go through Thunderbolt.
- In 1998, for Kennywood’s 100th anniversary, the headlights on the front of the trains were restored when the trains themselves were refurbished.
- In 1999, there was an accident on the Thunderbolt when the operators failed to brake the train coming into the station and it collided with the train being loaded. Thirty people were injured in the crash.  After the accident the headlights on the cars were removed partially because the electrical system did not hold up well to the vibration of the cars.
- In 2001, installation of Phantom’s Revenge resulted in the ride being closed for a few weeks so that the new ride could be built through the structure near the Turtle’s Ride. Phantom’s Revenge still however retains Steel Phantom’s drop through the Thunderbolt. The ride was still being rebuilt even a few weeks after the new ride opened.
- In 2006, the trains could be seen sporting the famous T-bolt logo on the fronts of the cars where the center headlights formerly were.
- In 2008, Thunderbolt celebrated its 40th anniversary.”
Just like Mom’s meatloaf or stuffed cabbage, many of Kennywood’s delicacies fall into the category of “comfort food” for most of us. Who could ever forget watching as French fries marched along the metallic conveyer belt at the concession stand located across from the Jack Rabbit. I remember going for a drink of water from the water fountain next to the big glass window that looked into the French fry area. I was always mesmerized as I watched and of course, always had to buy a paper cone full. That same stand also featured some of the most entertaining treats as well. At the opposite end of the unit stood the cotton candy machine. Front and forward in all its glory, it too would mesmerize the kids to see how ordinary sugar would turn into fluffy clouds of pink goodness. About dead center was the popcorn machine which would always beckon me with that delicious aroma, PLUS you could always stand and watch it spew out mountain after mountain of freshly popped corn. Mom, hold the meatloaf…. I’m in hog heaven right now!
One rather curious treat was available at only a few stands. It was supposedly very very good, but I never liked it. Being the pickey eater that I was, I hated nuts. I never met a nut that I liked. To me, they were/are gross, reminding me of chewing on something that was the consistency of a 2×4 piece of lumber. The item I’m talking about was an ice cream treat. It was comprised of a slab of vanilla ice cream that was stuck into a rectangular cone. It was then dipped in to a vat of chocolate, and then hand dipped into a container of chopped nuts. The finale was a red maraschino on top. I remember every date that I took to the park HAD to have one of these cones. Seems the evening wouldn’t be complete without it.
The one stop we were sure to make every visit to Kennywood would be the “sit down” restaurant that was located near the Park’s administration building. My Aunt Peggy and Aunt Fran were both waitresses there. It was always such a treat to sit in the restaurant instead of the cafeteria next door. I recall all of the bright windows that surrounded the room, the high white ceilings, the large ceiling fans that kept the air moving and just the general din of dishes clanking and waitresses bustling from table to table. They would always keep your water glass full, pouring from sea green Fiestaware pitchers. Due to the humidity I always remember that the pitchers would sweat with condensation. However, the Duquesne “Artesian well” water was always so cold and refreshing. I don’t remember much about the menu except the lemon meringue pie that we usually got each time we ate there.
In closing, I urge you to experience the thrill of Kennywood once again. Yes, certain things have changed, shifted or disappeared. However, if you truly want to “Go Home Again,” Kennywood is waiting to welcome you back home!