The year was 1999 and my family structured a weekend getaway around Pennsylvania tourist attractions. We visited the Johnstown Flood Museum, Jimmy Stewart’s house, and Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 western Pennsylvanian home that I was, at the age of four, too young to enter. The most important leg of the trip, at least for my cousins and brother and I, was West Mifflin’s hundred-year-old amusement park, Kennywood. All was going well until we stepped foot into the terror trap disguised as a funhouse, Noah’s Ark.
Coming from Maryland, we’d always been a Hersheypark family. Hersheypark, founded in 1906, is almost as old as Kennywood and boasts comparable levels of nostalgia by continuing to run some of its oldest rides. You can still ride their first rollercoaster, the Wildcat (1923), or their second, the Comet (1946), which happens to be my inaugural non-kiddie coaster. You can also ride the Whip, a 12-car flat ride that originally arrived at Hersheypark in 1937, was retired in 1975, and was reconstructed (with a near-exact design) in 1997.
There’s a delight to riding an antiquated amusement park ride. They’re rarely comfortable (wooden rollercoasters will rattle your brains out) and when it comes to sheer thrill, they tend to pale in comparison to the newer, 1980s-and-later coasters and drop rides. Yet, we seem to share a collective love for those things that predate us, that fill a yearning for some romanticized vision of a simple American past.
I don’t recall ever entering any funhouses at Hersheypark, although I don’t doubt that it was home to several throughout the 20th century. Both Hersheypark and Kennywood held a close relationship with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, a ride manufacturer that provided amusement parks all over the nation with carousels, rollercoasters, and, yes, funhouses. In fact, the PTC was the company responsible for Noah’s Ark, originally constructed in 1936.
If you’re not familiar with Noah’s Ark, I can only assume you’ve never visited Kennywood. What I didn’t know as a distraught four-year-old is that this ride is considered one of the best funhouses in the world and is one of the only remaining attractions of its kind. Noah’s Ark rides are ark-shaped “dark” rides that rock back and forth continuously, adding to the other internal stunts that make walking difficult. It seems that they used to be fairly popular, appearing first in Venice Pier in Los Angeles in 1919. The only other Noah’s Ark that is still in existence is sitting, defunct, in Blackpool, England.
If you’re not familiar with the short-lived 90s remodel of Kennywood’s Noah’s Ark, consider yourself lucky. In an attempt to modernize in 1996, Kennywood made the decision to abandon the quirky, family-friendly model and adopt a much more intense and frightening design. Instead of entering the ride through a plaster whale’s mouth, visitors were corralled onto a rickety elevator that plunged them into the dark, bone-riddled ruins of what was meant to be the archaeological recovery of the ship. It was dark. It was loud. Water trickled over electric-powered moving floorboards, raising questions of electrocution and safety violations. By the time an animatronic gorilla screamed in my face, I was clambering into my mom’s arms, too scared to propel myself forward with my own shaking legs. We ducked out of an emergency exit before reaching the “flood room,” where rushing water created the illusion that visitors were about to be submerged.
It seems that I was not the only one to feel truly terrorized by this rendition of Noah’s Ark. In a matter of years, the park would reconstruct the attraction to more closely resemble the attraction it once was, although I can only assume that they left out stunts like the floor vents that would blow women’s skirts up around their waists (a common stunt in early 20th century funhouses and ride queues) or scenes like the 1940s “Falling Coffin” that contained a fake dead body that apparently looked like Hitler. The yearning for some romanticized version of a simple American past may, in some instances, prevail over the desire for modernity, but it also tends to require careful editing.
Nothing in America can be divorced from capitalism, especially manufactured fun. Entertainment is an industry that requires technological development, a psychological understanding of what people desire from their leisure time, and, of course, willing participants with money to spare. From these three pillars of entertainment, the American amusement park was born.
To understand the dawn of American amusement parks, we should go back a little further. In the wake of the economic decline that occurred after the Civil War, white elites turned to technological spectacles like the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to restore national faith in American ingenuity. It was here that Pittsburgh local, George Ferris, wooed the world with the first ever Ferris wheel, an invention that would be recreated by Steeplechase Park founder, George Tilyou, and eventually became the most common amusement park attraction in the country.
Nearing the turn of the century, the working class in industrialized areas like New York City and Pittsburgh were working increasingly long and grueling hours in industries that came with high safety risks and low wages. In response, leisure parks began cropping up to give the working class a space to escape from their daily doldrums. The land on which Hersheypark is now located, for example, was first opened to Hershey employees between 1903 and 1905, equipped with a spring-side pavilion and baseball field. Milton Hershey would slowly incorporate rides like a closed-track train and carousel throughout the early 20th century while full-blown amusement parks like Coney Island’s Luna Park were already in operation, boasting giant slides, spinning discs, and bizarre sideshow attractions.
The Chicago World’s Fair was designed to bolster wealthy white Americans’ belief in their ability, specifically, to shape a bright future through the opportunities generated by capitalism. Leisure and amusement parks were designed to enable the working class to escape the limits capitalism placed on their opportunities. In a 1920s newsreel advertising Coney Island attractions, comparisons are made between milk bottle games and wild goose hunting, the “thrill of sharpshooting.” The swing ride is compared to the “modern thrill” of flying. “Few thrills can equal the speed boat’s dashing whirl,” the screen reads. “The real thing is more often out of reach,” it adds before showing a clip of amusement park visitors descending the hill of a chute ride.
In other words, the wealthy have access to planes, speed boats, and trips to the countryside. The working class may not be able to afford these luxuries, but they can afford the tinned approximations of modernity and upscale leisure located conveniently on the outskirts of their city. “Imagination and a little pocket change,” the newsreel notes, “can make a lot of millions happy.”
If you so choose, you can view this escapist fulfillment of the working class as an ultimately positive thing.
There is the element of sexual liberation that is certainly worth exploring. In John F. Kasson’s charming book, Amusing the Millions, he talks about the privacy offered to the working class within the public sphere. Coney Island offered anonymity, gave young women a place to go out of the shadow of their elders, allowed them to embrace a persona other than their own. Rides and attractions gave women excuses to behave “mischievously” without taking the blame. “Various amusements,” Kasson notes, “contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for intimate physical contact.”
There is, too, the element of a space free of upper-class control and judgement, which is not to say that it didn’t exist, but that it only existed from without. As the attractions became more scandalous and “lowbrow,” amusement parks across America became more divided by class, which is to say that the wealthy did not go. The working class were free to let loose, to drink and roughhouse and dance and play without the constraints of upper-class morality.
Yet, we shouldn’t forget that escapism is temporary, a fleeting relief from one’s status within the capitalist machinery. George Tilyou and others did little to disguise the relationship amusement parks had to unattainable elitist lifestyles and instead used this relationship to create appeal. Never did they acknowledge to the public their positioning within the elite or that their own abundance was built on the backs of their employees, their builders, their sideshow actors, and, of course, their visitors, who were all members of the class who could only seek modern thrills for the price of pocket change. Hold this dichotomy between the manufacturers of fun and their ideal customers up to the light and you start to see the potential for complacency escapism creates and, in actuality, necessitates. We might see the underlying message, “Accept your unlivable wage and long hours. At least you have enough to ride the Steeplechase Horses on your days off.”
Progressive era reformists feared the impact these tawdry forms of escapism had on the working class, though their fears seemed rooted in form rather than in function. For example, Kasson quotes Jane Addams saying, “‘Looping the loop’ amid shrieks of stimulated terror or dancing in disorderly saloon halls, are perhaps the natural reactions to a day spent in noisy factories and in trolley cars whirling through the distracting streets, but the city which permits them to be the acme of pleasure and recreation to its young people, commits a grievous mistake.” It was her belief that the rides and attractions of Coney Island should be torn down in order to let a nature park flourish. The issue she took with this exchange between the poor and their pastimes had less to do with poverty, itself, and more to do with the corrupting forces present in a fantasy land filled with excuses to laugh, shout, and brush elbows.
There are notably faces missing from old Coney Island newsreels and Kennywood postcards. It would seem that even those spaces of leisure deemed too lowly for middle- and upper-class white Americans were still off limits to black Americans, which is, to some degree, a reflection of white America’s dehumanization of black workers. There would be no menial reprieve from a life filled with long(er) work hours and low(er) pay for those whose existence was not regarded with any level of compassion.
From what I can tell, a lot of work is left to be done on the subject of race and amusement parks by scholars of American entertainment. Kasson notes that amusement parks became a safe haven for Eastern European immigrants seeking ways to assimilate but fails to discuss in detail the ways in which black Americans were excluded from these same spaces. There are hints from other sources that black workers spent time in public leisure areas, like Coney Island’s beach, but were barred access from privatized parks based on both de jure and de facto segregation practices. Even public spaces were only questionably accessible, given the high levels of hostility black visitors received from white visitors.
Several amusement parks were built and run by black investors in the South to fill this void for black workers, but few saw lasting success—except for Suburban Gardens, Washington DC’s first and only major amusement park. In 1921, black-owned real estate and development company, Universal Development and Loan Company, opened Suburban Gardens up to black patrons who could enjoy the park’s picnic grounds, rollercoaster, Ferris wheel, swimming pool, dance hall, and more. The park would not close until 1940, a remarkable feat in its own right, given that there were over 1,800 amusement parks in America in 1930 and only 245 by 1939.
The desegregation of amusement parks did not arrive without protests, most notably the 1960 protest outside of Maryland’s Glen Echo Park. Slowly, amusement park desegregation took place across the nation, though not without violence and boycotting from white park-goers. Several amusement parks closed in the 1960s and the media attempted to place blame on the newly admitted black visitors. The reality was that a number of factors contributed to the fall in amusement park attendance, ranging from the rise in household television as a preferred method of escapism to a rise, for some parks, in ride-related injuries and deaths. If desegregation did play a factor in the closing of parks, it was the fault of racist patrons who refused to exist in spaces they once loved simply because black men, women, and children were now given the opportunity to love them, too.
The entire concept of “Americana” is based in false narratives. That’s not to say that we can’t appreciate bits and pieces of the material past that bring us joy; I love amusement parks and found plenty of joy in the research I did to write this essay. There’s something both bizarre and charming in the bright lights, the unsettling pitch of a fairground organ, the archaic technology used to design rides that seem so tame by today’s standards and yet so unsafe with their lack of lap bars and seatbelts. It’s easy to get swept up in the nostalgia of old pictures and film reels that capture throngs of beaming young people in their skirts and trousers, boarding Ferris wheels or lounging under parasols with heaping plates of fried food. It does seem simpler—because we weren’t there.
There’s a tendency, in white Americans specifically, to revere an unexamined past. This tendency leads us to witness current problems as if they are unfounded or somehow the result of recent changes, leads politicians to run successful campaigns on the promise to “return” to something that never existed, allows us to skip the hard work of repairing the deep seated issues pertaining to class, race, and gender that this country was founded upon. Americana is defined as the “materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization, or its culture broadly,” and when we use this term to encapsulate relics like the early amusement park, it tends to hold a wholeheartedly positive connotation that erases the realities of both those who attended amusement parks and those who were not granted access.
Consider this a call to action: a call to abandon revisionist history, a call to get a little bit uncomfortable. Trust me when I tell you that unearthing the truth about our cultural heritage, about the historical niches that call to you, will not detract from your love of those historical niches. Instead, it will render you more prepared to comprehend the trials of our present, to avoid the pitfall of believing that our collective future would somehow benefit from becoming more like our collective past.
Speaking of getting a little bit uncomfortable, I’d like to return, briefly, to where we started: in Noah’s Ark. Of all the attractions in all the amusement parks I’ve ever visited, it is the one that, over 20 years ago, bested me. At their core, I think that that’s what amusement parks are designed to do—push you to your limits, thrill you by means of both pleasure and fear, provide you with experiences that deviate from anything you’ve ever experienced before. I will return to Kennywood and I will make my passage through Noah’s Ark just to prove to myself that I can. Ultimately, I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. In fact, I think it can be a really positive and powerful thing. Just make sure that you know what you’re walking into before you buy the ticket.