|The Sinking of
the Ghost Ship
|Kennywood. No, it is not near Dollywood and it has nothing to do with Kenny Rogers. It is Pittsburghâ€™s premiere and one of the worldâ€™s greatest
amusement parks. To Pittsburghers it is Disneyland, Cedar Point & Coney Island all wrapped into one. Originally a 1898 Streetcar Park, it has now morphed
into a beautifully thrilling escape that dazzles the senses and can take your breath away. Once known as the â€œRollercoaster Capital of the World,â€� it has
so many rides, adventures, confections and must-have foods. Flower gardens and picnic areas give it a breathtaking beauty that it reminds one of Copenhagenâ
€™s Tivoli Gardens, which it was modeled after. For children it is a magical place, for adults, it is a living, screaming relic of their childhood.
The anticipation of Kennywood, as a child, bordered on hysteria. As your parents drove you there, you delighted in being the one who spotted the long, yellow
signs of an arm pointing to Kennywood. Even though your Dad knew how to get to Kennywood like getting to his job, you would scream, â€œKennywood! Go
that way!!â€� Once you parked in its expansive parking lot across the street the running would begin. With your parents bellowing behind you of where and
when you would meet, you were impatiently clamoring to get past the ticket booth. Then down into the tunnel that passed underneath the street. Where
every hoop and holler echoed and echoed as you tried to jump and touch the ceiling. Then, like coming through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, it opened to reveal a land
of unparalelled beauty, Kennywood! Five times the size of its short lived rival, Luna Park, its ability to dazzle only heightens as the sun goes down.
The sights and sounds envelope you like an old friend. Where to go first? On the left you had the â€œRotorâ€� and the pathway past the Windmill led you to
the â€œGran Prix.â€� On the right, the Turnpike with its gas powered motor cars and the darkest of dark rides, â€œThe Old Mill.â€� Or should you go and
claim your place in line for the double dip of terrifying delight, â€œThe Jack Rabbit?â€� Me, I always chose the Rotor. The turnpike lines were always long
and you had to time it just right to minimize time-wasting line waiting. And it would be a couple of years before I learned the true benefit of a dark ride like
the Old Mill. I could always circle around to the Gran Prix later and to be truthful, the Jack Rabbit, built in 1920, always sent a shiver through my being. I
was eight when I flew out of my seat on the double dip and my Momâ€™s friend, Cary Lund, grabbed me by a belt loop and pulled me back from the brink of
death, God rest her soul.
So it was into the Rotor I would go. Standing against the wall and wondering if my breakfast would soon make a return trip, the spinning began. The
centrifugal force plastered you to its walls as the floor dropped beneath you. People above you shouted instructions and epithets as their voices become lost in
the Doppler Effect and you are trying to compensate for the queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. My goal was to spin around against the G-force to be
completely upside down. After a herculean effort, I was sideways pretzel.
|After being thrown for a literal loop, I staggered past the arcade games for more spinning, albeit slower, on the
historical Merry-Go-Round. Built in 1927 the â€œGrand Carouselâ€� as it is really known, blares you with
happy music from its 1915 Wurlitzer Organ. I lie on the Lion and slowly come down from the whooshes that my
head is doing. Then it is off to the â€œThunderbolt!â€�
The Thunderbolt was named the â€œKing of the Coastersâ€� by the New York Times in 1974. It is an
anachronism in these days of steel and lightning fast roller coasters but even to this day, this wooden, clickety-
clack, ponderous behemoth packs a punch that will leave your head reeling. I always had trouble deciphering
which side to sit to avoid the crush of your partner when it made its way to the hair pin turn at the bottom of the
second free fall. Now, they have a sign telling the smaller people which side to sit on. Always my favorite, I rode
it as much as the long lines would allow. By midday the lines reached past the gate. It was time to find
something else. There is always something else at Kennywood.
|It was time to backtrack to the other great coaster in the park, â€œThe Racer!â€� Also built in 1927, the Racer is a wooden racing roller coaster with a track
that is looped over on itself to create the appearance of two separate, parallel tracks. So you are actually racing against another coaster. Your friends choose
one side and you choose the other. You taunt them as you take the lead and, at one point, you get close enough to give them a high-five, then you lose. Well,
at least I did, ALL THE &%$@& TIME! But thatâ€™s okay, because I always won at the arcade games. If it was tossing the softball into the milk jug or
knocking down the pins with the baseball, I was ninja master who always went home with the biggest stuffed flamingo or a Marmaduke.
After losing on the Racer, it was time to hit the more eccentric rides of Kennywood. Just past the Leo the Lion water fountain was â€œNoahâ€™s Arkâ€�
with its bouncing boards and a dark walk past Noah clobbering a shark trying to stowaway. Or the slow and boring Train Ride to George Washingtonâ€™s
village that the old people liked. The 1930 built Auto Race where â€œLaffinâ€™ Salâ€� mocked you with her cackling laughter. â€œThe Whipâ€� or the â
€œWave Swingerâ€� or the dreaded â€œSalt nâ€™ Pepperâ€� which spun you around upside down and backwards until you had to vomit, which my friend did
much to the surprise to the people below him.
Kennywood had a feeling of nostalgia but it was also constantly changing by adding new rides and new arcade games. The prizes were the latest hot items but
the ride changes that took place rarely seemed to matter as a newer, better ride was added. Some rides lasted decades and others were there for only a couple
of years, so it was hard to notice which changes had occurred. But that all changed on June 19th, 1975â€¦
The Ghost Ship was an extremely popular dark ride. Built by the Master of Dark Rides, Bill Tracey, it had a mechanical high backed padded chair in which
three of you would cram in. Pulled by chains beneath the floor, it would crash through doors and jerk you with neck wrenching force as it threw you from one
diabolical scene to another. Dancing skeletons, dangling octopi and blood red paint were all dodged with terrifying, or hilarious, delight. Just before you
crashed out of the exit doors you were threatened with a full dousing of water that turned to a trickle just in time to dribble cold droplets on you.
|We were just getting off the â€œThe Turtle.â€� My friend pointed towards some smoke near Kiddieland. â
€œMan that must be a big picnic.â€� As we got closer, we saw flames! â€œThatâ€™s no picnic! The Ghost Ship
is on fire!â€� As peopleâ€™s heads began turning we flew past them just as the last of the riders were coming
out of the emergency exit. Flames started shooting out of the roof. It was then an older women in her late
thirties pushed past us screaming, â€œMy boy! My son is in there!â€� She got to the entrance ramp before the
ride attendant stopped her saying, â€œNo one is in there.â€� Hysterically she back handed him across the face
and tried to keep going. At that point four bystanders converged on her to stop her progress. â€œNo one is in
there! I swear to God lady!â€� From behind me I then heard, â€œMom! Iâ€™m here! Iâ€™m here!â€� I
looked back to see a tall, lanky kid with greasy black hair standing there holding a basket of Potato Patch cheesy
fries. The bystanders let the Mother go and she ran to him and embraced him. We all turned back around and
watched as the Ghost Ship burned with wild abandon, an eerie sight indeed.
|The Fire Departments of Munhall & West Mifflin responded to the fire and using the water from Kennywood Lake finally put it out. It burned to the ground
after a spectacular fire. They later determined that it started in the electrical wiring. A couple of other rides were destroyed or damaged but they wouldnâ€™t
be missed as much as the legendary Ghost Ship.
|Per Skip Brown :
"Ghost Ship Fire. Here are some photos from the book by Charles J. Jacques, Jr.
"Kennywood - Roller Coaster Capital of the World" that I own. In the one
picture you can see a fireman standing in front of a bunch of young men. That
fireman has Castle Shannon gear on. Being a member of Castle Shannon Fire
Department for 5 years during the early 80's, I am sure the fireman was on site
when it happened as Castle Shannon Firemen kept their gear in the cars at all
times. He was probably there for the Keystone Oaks picnic. Another picture
shows a West Mifflin (Probably Homeville VFC #1's truck- a Mack) drafting water
to fight the fire from the boat lake.
Behind that truck is Duquesne American La France ladder truck."
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SKIP BROWN