Take a ride back in time at Kennywood amusement park, a Pittsburgh institution

Arthur Levine

The employees that work for Kennywood, the traditional amusement park just outside of Pittsburgh, don’t exactly wear their hearts on their sleeves. But they do wear the year that the park opened, 1898, on the front of their shirts.

Emblazoned in bold numbers, it is emblematic of the pride that the park and the people of Pittsburgh take in the history and heritage of the longstanding, beloved icon. Kennywood is a place that has thrilled and entertained generations of visitors and is firmly woven into the community’s fabric.

In the amusement industry, it’s taken as gospel that parks need to constantly reinvest and introduce new, flashy attractions to keep customers coming through the turnstiles. With Steel Curtain, the high-profile (and at 220 feet tall, just plain high), Pittsburgh Steelers-themed coaster it introduced this year, Kennywood practices what the industry preaches.

Barrel roll at 197 feet:  New Steelers-themed coaster at Kennywood thrills riders

But the park also pays homage to its past. Big time. Perhaps more than any other major park in the U.S., it maintains an impressive number of its classic rides. Folks in western Pennsylvania wouldn’t have it any other way.

For example, Kennywood features not one, not two, but three vintage wooden coasters. And they are not just old. Dating to the 1920s, they are positively ancient. Yet, like the rest of the park’s classic rides, they are not merely cherished artifacts from another era. They more than hold their own against contemporary attractions. The squeals of delight they elicit are genuine and earned.

“It is striking that these rides are just as popular now as they were when they were first introduced,” says Jerome Gibas, Kennywood’s general manager. “It’s tough to compete with people’s memories.”

The long lines of eager riders that snake onto the midway back him up. After giving the coasters a whirl, I'm here to tell you: They are worth the wait.

Opened in 1920, Jack Rabbit is tied with another ride of the same name in New York as the second-oldest operating roller coaster in North America (and the fourth-oldest in the world). Built into a ravine, its train navigates the natural terrain and takes a downward dive shortly after leaving the station. It then climbs up and into a helix inside a wooden tunnel. It’s only at the halfway point that the train latches onto a chain and ascends a lift hill. That’s followed by a “double dip," a 70-foot drop with a hump in the middle that sends passengers soaring out of their seats in a fit of airtime frenzy.

Unlike more modern coasters, the all-wooden cars have no seat dividers. Riders sharing Jack Rabbit‘s two-passenger vehicles had better be chummy, because they get slammed into one another (in a good, fun way) throughout the course of the ride.

So what is it like to keep a nearly 100-year-old coaster running?

“They are antiques,” Gibas says. “To repair and restore them, it’s learn as you go. It’s not rocket science.”

Kennywood has an in-house staff of carpenters, mechanics, and other craftspeople that give the rides tender loving care. The park also works with local machine shops that fabricate parts no longer available from long-defunct ride manufacturers.

To rebuild the Jack Rabbit’s cars, workers take one apart, lay out the sections on the floor of the park’s shop, and make copies of each piece. Using an assembled car as a guide, they then bolt the new parts together.

Sections of wooden coaster track get replaced based on the amount of stress they endure. A tight turn that’s navigated at high speed, for example, might need to be replaced every year, while the track along a low-impact lift hill might last 20 years. Gibas estimates that most of Jack Rabbit’s track, as well as its sister wooden coasters, is traded out over a ten year period.

That raises a question: What exactly remains from the original Jack Rabbit?

“Nothing,” says Gibas. “Other than the blueprints, everything is eventually replaced.”

Thunderbolt, which opened in 1924 as Pippin, is essentially a taller, faster, and more thrilling version of Jack Rabbit. Like the coaster that inspired it, it also immediately drops into a ravine and saves its lift hill for the middle of the layout. The lead cars on its stylish trains have funky looking headlights, and the cars also forego seat dividers. There are still handbrake levers in Thunderbolt’s station, although they serve no purpose. They are remnants of the manual braking system that all coasters used to have, but were replaced by compressed air brakes.

Kennywood’s third wooden coaster, Racer, dates back to 1927. Passengers on the twin racing coaster choose to board the train on either the left or right side of the station. The trains careen alongside one another and duel to see which one makes it to the finish line first. Known as a “Möbius” coaster, Racer actually has one, continuous track. Trains that depart on the left side of the station return on the right, and vice-versa. With a drop of 50 feet and a top speed of 40 mph, Racer is the gentlest of Kennywood’s three wooden coasters.

Known as a “Mobius” coaster, Racer actually has one, continuous track. Trains that depart on the left side of the station return on the right, and vice-versa.

When Jack Rabbit celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020, it will mark quite a milestone. But the coaster’s got nothing on Garfield’s Nightmare. Originally called the Old Mill, the boat ride first opened in 1901. The large water wheel on display outside of the show building is not ornamental; it actually creates the current that propels the boats through the attraction’s wooden trough.

The ride has had many themes through the years, including the Panama Canal. Today, passengers float past Day-Glo scenes featuring the comic strip cat, Garfield, which are dated and cheesy (figuratively and literally, given the character’s lasagna obsession). The ride has long had a reputation for being a romantic refuge, and people mistakenly assume that it was once known as a “Tunnel of Love.” So, do couples still, er, canoodle amid the lasagna?

“Oh yeah, they don’t care,” Gibas says with a laugh. The general manager acknowledges that most visitors aren’t all that keen on the Garfield theme, and that the historic ride is on a short list for a makeover.

Among other Kennywood rides that have stood the test of time is the Whip, which first opened in 1926. It replaced the park's original, smaller whip, which debuted in 1919.  Another spinning ride, the Turtle, opened at the park in 1927 and was first known as the Tumble Bug.

Auto Race, which first put drivers behind the wheels of scaled-down cars on a wooden track in 1930, is a rite of passage for children in the area. The walk-through Noah’s Ark, a funhouse-like attraction that includes biblical scenes, was introduced in 1936.

Many of these rides and attractions were once amusement park staples, but  Kennywood now is one of a handful of places – and in some cases, the only place – to find them today.

For that and other reasons, Kennywood was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. But the people of Pittsburgh don't need official landmark statues to appreciate the gem in their midst.

“Our customers complain anytime we remove anything,” says Nick Paradise, Kennywood’s public relations director. “People are passionate about the park."

One downside of their sentimental attachment is that it makes it difficult to find space for expansion. Gibas says that the park recently purchased additional land when neighboring parcels became available. 

He hints that new rides and attractions could be on the way but cautions they wouldn’t displace any of the beloved existing rides. 

And if Kennywood history is anything to go on, whatever the park builds next could also end up being cherished for generations to come.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kennywood takes amusement park lovers back in time with classic rides