|The Sinking of
the Ghost Ship
|Kennywood. No, it is not near Dollywood and it has nothing to do with Kenny Rogers. It is Pittsburgh's premiere and one of the world'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 "Rollercoaster Capital of the World," 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 Copenhagen'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, "Kennywood! Go that way!!" 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 "Rotor" and the pathway past the
Windmill led you to the "Gran Prix." On the right, the Turnpike with its gas powered motor cars and the darkest of dark rides, "The
Old Mill." Or should you go and claim your place in line for the double dip of terrifying delight, "The Jack Rabbit?" 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 Mom'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 "Grand Carousel" 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 "Thunderbolt!"
The Thunderbolt was named the "King of the Coasters" 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, "The Racer!" 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 that'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
"Noah's Ark" 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 Washington's village that the old people liked. The 1930 built Auto Race where "Laffin" Sal mocked you with
her cackling laughter. "The Whip" or the "Wave Swinger" or the dreaded "Salt n' Pepper" 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, 1975...
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 "The Turtle." My friend pointed towards some smoke
near Kiddieland. "Man that must be a big picnic." As we got closer, we saw flames!
"That's no picnic! The Ghost Ship is on fire!" As people'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, "My boy! My son is in there!" She got to the
entrance ramp before the ride attendant stopped her saying, "No one is in there."
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. "No one is in there!
I swear to God lady!" From behind me I then heard, "Mom! I'm here! I'm here!"
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 wouldn'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