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A Beaver County Love Affair--Idora Park

By Jack Goddard

Milestones Vol 33 No. 2

Although it's not even in Beaver County, or for that matter, even the state of Pennsylvania; don't tell thousands of us that Idora Park isn't an icon here. It was a match made in heaven for so many of us county high school students.

"I was one of the lucky ones. When I grew up, our Local 712 IBEW went there too. Many local companies held their annual picnics at the 26-acre Ohio Park. For us country kids, it was a chance to see a world unknown to us. Growing up on a farm in North Sewickley Township, I probably looked forward to our school picnics with a little more intensity than my city counterparts. The thrill of boarding that train still gives me goose bumps and sends chills up my spine."

" Professional looking conductors, dressed in black and white uniforms, asking "tickets please." That continues to bring back the fondest of memories. Soon we would slowly pull away and not even the clickety-clack of turning wheels could silence our chatter. In minutes (although they seemed like hours to us) we would pull into our destination."

This writer was reminded of those reminiscent times after viewing John Riding Jr's multimedia presentation. Wayne Cole assisted in bringing this now defunct park back to life. It provided so much fun to so many. Bev Young recalls throwing up our arms as the coasters rapidly plummeted down a dip. The Beaver County Times, on January 19, 1993, tells this story. William Frankland of Koppel, who was in charge of arranging the annual picnic, pointed out that the B&W workers went on strike in 1959.

Management decided it couldn't afford to hold its annual picnic. "The company asked how much it would cost to buy out the contract it had signed earlier with Idora. They wouldn't take a penny. They just tore up the contract and said B&W had been so good to them over the years." This writer finds that exceptional and don't see it happening often today. But, that part of the love story, isn't it?

He goes on to tell this story. You could call it divine redemption. "Early one bright August morning during the 1970s, men from the personnel department at Babcock and Wilcox arrived to prepare for the company picnic. They came across some distressing news: the "Wild Cat" was down. It was the park's biggest wooden roller coaster and a favorite thrill ride for decades. It had a broken gear and in another few hours, thousands of B&W workers would arrive."

The gigantic gear, three feet in diameter, was soon on its way to Beaver Falls and the B&W machine shop. There the machinists fixed it and Frankland hauled it back to Idora. The elated park workers got the "Wild Cat" working again just in time as everyone arrived oblivious to the drama that unfolded that morning. That is how it was then. Everyone showed respect and admiration. And, really doesn't that meet the criteria for love?

Babcock and Wilcox wasn't the only county industrial company to hold their annual picnic there. The list from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, is like a "who's who." Jones & Laughlin; St. Joe Lead; Westinghouse; is to name a few of the companies involved. The park was always buzzing as officials came up with special promotion days too. For example, Schwebel's Day, Youngstown Vindicator Three-Cent Day, Pennsylvania Day to name some of the promotional days.

Who can forget those shining silver rockets (made in Beaver Falls by the way) soaring over cheerful boys and girls running gleefully below to the next ride on their agenda. One of my favorites was the Penny Arcade where for one cent you could get a real live autographed picture of Hopalong Cassidy or the Lone Ranger in the saddle of his rearing big white stallion. Of course one had to go there the last thing of the day. Couldn't fold or lose one of those priceless prizes you know.

Then there was always the fun house and trying to get through that big revolving mirror, or laughing at each other as they went past one of those wild and wacky mirrors. Twelve of the last 20 rides weren't there when yours truly hopped back and forth from ride-to-ride. They no doubt replaced others that will be forever lost in my memories. Of course we all remember the famous "Wild Cat" and "Jack Rabbit." "The Lost River Ride" is well remembered too. Another favorite, the "Bumper Cars", were not listed as such on the final inventory but memories will always be there.

Speaking of Bumper Cars: Virginia Roemele of New Sewickley tells this one of herself. As a child, she went there on a family outing. She was wearing shorts, but, somehow, she tore them where you sit down. No problem. Mom came to the rescue with a safety pin. Little Ginny then got on the Bumper Cars and the pin opened at a very ill-timed moment. "Everytime I screamed 'ouch' when I got hit I meant it!" she grins.

Idora, according to the January 19, issue of the Youngstown Vindicator, opened in 1889. But, due to those costly arsons and changing times was forced to close in September, 1984. First known as "Terminal Park", it grew and grew in popularity. In the October 1991 "The Speed of Sound" it is reported that in 1910 visitors were greeted by two new attractions.

They would remain landmarks for the rest of the park's existence. The dazzling "Dance Pavilion" and the "Jack Rabbit" made their debut. In 1924, the swimming pool opened. It, however, was filled in back in 1951 and "Kiddieland" emerged. Guy Lombardo; Harry James; and Tommy Dorsey performed at the spacious ballroom. However, Idora underwent a change of character in the 1960s and 1970s. Teens began to flock to the ballroom as the Big Bands era gave way to Rock and Roll.

Then on April 16, 1984, came the killing blow. A fire, ruled an arson, swept through the park and destroyed both the Lost River Ride and part of the Wildcat. After closing in September of that year, it was hit by another suspicious fire which put it in complete disrepair and drove the final nail into the coffin. Weeds began popping up around the pavement which had served as pathways for millions of happy kids. "It's all overgrown now," John Ridings Jr. sighs. The coasters are all gone and in some places you can still see where the rides were. "But," he added, "it's mostly just trees now."

The buildings that survived the fires have all collapsed or have been torn down. It's ironic that one was my Penny Arcade. I visited the other a lot too, the Concession Stand where they made those great piping hot "Idora Famous French Fries."

Ridings says, "It's changed hands so many times even since the video." The Vindicator, in its January 21, 1994 publication, printed that "The Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church" originally purchased the 26-acre tract in 1995. Consumers United Insurance Co., who held the mortgage, foreclosed four years later when the church accumulated more than $500,000 debt on the land.

Mount Calvary's plans to build a spiritual center called "The City Of God" got another chance when they somehow acquired it again for $1.

Bob Castelli closes with this "memory." A graduate of Beaver Falls Area High, he and some friends decided to drive up. "There were three carloads of us. At the end of the day, we were all to meet. The other two cars were filled and started home. Some of my guys weren't back yet so I waited until their rides were over. When we got back to the car, my steering wheel was missing." He said he used a pair of vise grips to drive all the way to his home in North Sewickley Township. "I took the back roads, went through Hookstown and up Route 168. When I got home, there on my porch, sat the steering wheel." He laughed "you know, I never did find out who did it!"