Idora Park, Youngstown Ohio
The Park & Falls Street Railway Company opened for business as a major streetcar line in the City of Youngstown in 1897. Owned and operated by the P & O Power & Light Company, this trolley line soon became a major means of transportation up and down the rapidly industrializing Mahoning Valley in the late 1890s. The lands of Lemuel T.& Susanna B. Foster at the southwestern edge of town, situated atop the eastern edge of Mill Creek Valley near historic Lanterman Falls, were developed into an amusement park. These grounds opened on Decoration Day 1899 as Terminal Park, so named because it was at the end of the company's trolley car line.
The following year, the owners of the park sponsored a competition to select a permanent name for the new amusement park. Miss Jean Coulter, a teacher at Fosterville School, was given the honor of selecting the name from among the many suggestions. Idora Park was chosen, although historical records are not clear on the precise basis for the name. Some said that the name came from the words "I adore a park". It has been noted that nearby Lanterman Falls and its historic mill complex were known in the early 19th century as Idora Falls and were listed as such on an early atlas. This word is said to be of Indian origin and may relate to what were apparently nearby Indian settlements. During the park's history, groups of Indians and some buffalo were brought onto the grounds as an attraction, apparently capitalizing on this historic association.
In its early years of operation, Idora Park was a typical trolley-related amusement park, one of dozens throughout the region and among an estimated fifteen hundred that were being developed at the turn of the century in conjunction with urban streetcar lines. Like most parks of this period, Idora featured ballroom dancing, a roller coaster, and a few other rides and attractions, but was rather limited. The exterior housing of the merry-go-round is said to date from the park's first decade of operation. In 1901, the firefly opened as the park's first roller coaster. Two years later a second coaster was built in the form of a three-way figure eight. The midway was also developed in its early stages.
In 1910, the park began a new era of growth and development under the ownership of Willis H. Park. The Jack Rabbit was constructed in 1910 as a larger and improved roller coaster. Its original name was called "Dip the Dips" and it was constructed by the T. M. Harton Company of Pittsburgh. Although this coaster underwent modifications and improvements, it gained fame in its later years as the second-oldest operating roller coaster in the United States.
In 1910, Idora Park's largest facility was constructed. The present large ballroom was built to replace the original smaller structure at the northern end of the park. Styled in the fanciful amusement park character of the era, as inspired by Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the ballroom combined Moorish, Italianate and Neoclassical elements in an exotic manner. Because of its great size, having a 30,000 square foot dance floor, making it one of the Youngstown area's largest enclosed spaces suitable for social activities, the ballroom made Idora Park a regional attraction. During its history, the ballroom saw many well-known performers, including actors, actresses, big bands, and political rallies and speakers.
In 1922 a carousel was installed in the merry-go-round building. This featured elaborately crafted horses and a highly attractive and accented decor. The carousel mechanism was removed in 1984 after the park auction. The housing survives and the mechanism is in a New York City warehouse.
Many of Idora Park's contemporaries went out of business about the time of World War I. The rise of the automobile at this time began to drive streetcar lines, original operators of such parks, out of business. At the same time, alternate means of entertainment, such as movies, and a public increasingly able to travel further for pleasure had negative effects on local amusement parks. Idora Park seems to have survived at least in part due to aggressive development by its owners after 1910. By 1924, it had been acquired by the Toboggan Amusement Company and was to see further improvements of its rides. The Old Mill water ride opened in 1929 as a major new attraction. It was remodeled into The Rapids, later the Lost River, and remained one of the most popular rides until it was destroyed by fire in 1984.
Perhaps the park's most famous attraction, the Wildcat roller coaster, was erected in 1930. Beyond its historical significance as one of the oldest surviving roller coasters, the Wildcat soon developed a reputation as one of the best roller coasters in the country. It and the water ride were constructed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, one of the premier builders of amusement rides. The Wildcat is noteworthy for its large size, innovative twisting track that tilted back and forth as well as moving up and down. Its exceptional design was to attract coaster enthusiasts from around the country, and it functioned for years as the centerpiece of Idora Park.
A natatorium was constructed in 1924, essentially an outdoor swimming pool circular in form and enclosed on half its perimeter by an impressive Georgian Revival pavilion that still survives. A novelty of this large pool was its salt water, obtained in 1939 by drilling a deep well into underground salt deposits. It also had a large high-diving platform in its center. In 1940 a baseball park was constructed at the southeastern end of the park grounds. These were the park's glory days, when it was a vital social center for greater Youngstown. Famous bands came to play at the spacious ballroom, including Tommy Dorsey, County Basie, Stan Kenton, Frankie Yankovic, and many others.
By the dawn of World War II Idora Park had essentially the form it was to retain until the 1984 fire. New owners of the park, who were area residents, played an important role in nurturing the park through the Postwar era. The pool or natatorium was filled in and its site developed into Kiddie Land, complete with numerous small rides and a small roller coaster known as the Baby Wildcat. It was timed to meet the needs of the Baby Boom generation. Each year brought remodelings and an occasional new attraction or two, but the Wildcat, the merry-go-round, and The Rapids remained the park's stellar attractions.
The park survived on its reputation and on the many company picnics and other events that drew crowds. Theme days included Hungarian Day, German Day, the Home and Garden Show, Clyde Beatty Cole Circus, Youngstown Steel Company Picnics, and many other special events. Major stars still made use of the large ballroom. However, the decline of the city's industrial labor force mirroring the decline of the American steel industry led to a diminishing of the working class families that made the park financially successful. At the same time, growth in the larger regional amusement parks such as Sea World, Cedar Point and King's Island had an impact on smaller parks such as Idora. Increasingly, what had been a family amusement park became a place for youngsters and teenagers. Rock concerts replaced big bands at the ballroom. In the early 1980s, the park began to lose money and was put up for sale by its owners, with the apparent hope that a new investor-owner might be able to breathe new life into the park. The park had been on the market for two years with no buyers when tragedy struck.
A fire swept through the park on April 26, 1984, as workmen were making repairs in preparation for another season. The Lost River Ride, formerly The Rapids, was completely destroyed, and part of the Wildcat was burned down, making it inoperable. The park offices and a few of the smaller midway buildings were also destroyed. Nevertheless, the owners made some repairs and opened for what would be the park's final season. The loss of the Wildcat and the water ride hurt what was already a losing operation. The park was closed later that year. Many of the park fixtures were auctioned off and the park itself was sold to a religious group that planned to establish a church-oriented center, to be known as City of God. These efforts at restoring the park were dealt a major setback in May 1986 when a second fire destroyed the Fun House and Old Heidelberg Gardens. Weeks after this fire, the ballroom was closed to the public. The grounds were eventually sold at a sheriff's sale and the lands now belong to investors.
Amusement parks trace their origins to the 17th-century pleasure gardens of Europe. These landscaped gardens were particularly popular in France. By the 18th century, these gardens were supplemented by circuses and rides, such as primitive Ferris Wheel-type contraptions. English amusement parks tended to be outgrowths of taverns or inns. In the United States, circuses began as early as the late 18th century and by the early 19th century, the Picturesque Movement helped to foster resort communities that were to assume amusement park qualities. Coney Island near New York City was the classic amusement park. It featured fantasy architecture, amusement rides, and numerous other attractions, including large ocean beaches. That park experienced tremendous growth around the turn of the century as a terminus to several city streetcar lines. Streetcar companies were responsible for the founding of many amusement parks across the country.
Idora Park was one of few streetcar-related amusement parks to successfully survive the early Postwar years. Cedar Point in Northern Ohio survived by becoming a major regional attraction and, with the exception of a few resources such as its hotel is essentially a modern amusement park with few of the historic rides and character of Idora Park. Chippewa Lake and Euclid Beach were among the more famous regional parks that went out of existence during the 1960s. Geauga Lake survives, but has all but lost any historic character, particularly since its buildings are all fairly new. Tuscora Park in New Philadelphia and a similar park in Newcastle, Pennsylvania still survive but have few historic features left. Myers Lake in Canton is gone.
Idora Park is situated on an approximately 27-acre tract of land in the southwestern portion of the city of Youngstown, Ohio. It stands on a bluff overlooking Mill Creek valley, containing Mill Creek Park and nearby Lanterman Falls. The park is roughly rectangular and is bounded by residential development on the south and east, Parkview Drive on the north, and Mill Creek Park and the Mill Creek valley on the west. There is a broad hill at the center of the property that affords panoramic views of Idora Park.
At the southern end of the property is a large parking lot entered from a long drive leading from McFarland Avenue. This drive is lined with several old arching lamp posts. Bordering along the north side of the parking lot and extending along the edge to the east along McFarland Avenue is the Jack Rabbit roller coaster. This L-shaped structure is approximately 800 feet long and has a double-tiered track design, with a chain-operated incline towards its western end. This leads to an elevated loop at its extreme western end accented by a small roofed structure at the top of the incline. The upper loop is braced by a derrick-like structure rising from its center point and featuring radiating spoke-like braces near the top of the loop. Underneath the tall loop is the entrance to the Jack Rabbit, consisting of a flat-roofed platform area accented by diagonal bracing and latticework. East of the platform area is a small frame shed that housed the chain motor, which has been removed. The lower section of the track leading to the platform at the northern end is covered with a flat corrugated metal roof supported by vertical wood posts and diagonal braces. The Jack Rabbit structure consists of square wood posts, about eight feet long, bolted together and braced by heavy wood timbers set horizontally and diagonally. The actual rails are flat straps of metal set on heavy timbers. The extreme height of the outer loop structure is about seventy feet. Moving to the east, the roller coaster descends in a steep incline, rising to another hill, descending, rising on a third hill and then continuing at a right angle to head northward, where there are a few shorter hills. At the northern end is another loop and the coaster heads back toward the platform area, making a series of shorter dips enroute and then entering a tunnel made of wood and corrugated metal.
The ballroom is located at the southwestern end of the grounds, facing the west edge of the parking lot. This is a large rectangular building that has two levels and rests on a base faced with cement block. Its main level is wood frame, covered with aluminum siding. The walls support a massive jerkinhead gable roof. An enclosed hipped roof porch extends around all four sides of the ballroom building. Massive hipped dormers are regularly spaced on the longitudinal sides of the building. The building features broad windows, now boarded over. At the center of the west elevation is a projecting main entrance wing that faces an open miniature golf course set in a small landscaped park. The eastern side of the ballroom has open bays in its center section. There is a smaller extension at its southern end. The building is placed on a sloping site such that the upper-level entrance is at grade level to the north and at the ballroom's south end, its basement is exposed to grade level. The interior of the ballroom consists of a single large open space on its upper level. This ballroom space has a varnished hardwood floor and features a bandshell along its western side. Its ceiling is made of suspended plaster with a textured finish that has numerous irregular rounded soffited openings with coved artificial lighting. At the northern end of the building is a set of restrooms and an entrance vestibule. The basement extends under the entire building and has a series of column supports.
The ballroom building has been altered considerably over the years. Originally it had an open porch extending around all four sides that was accented by cupolas rising up above each bay. The central entrance featured larger flanking cupolas and a Moorish-styled portal entry. These features, as well as a central cupola, were removed in the 1950s and the porches were enclosed. On the interior, the arched trusswork supporting the open-frame roof was covered beneath the plaster-covered ceiling. Otherwise, the form and character of the ballroom remain intact.
Attached at the southeast corner of the ballroom building is the south entrance to the amusement park. This is a simple frame addition containing a small office and a series of revolving gates and ticket windows, all as part of a narrow and long flat-roofed element that features decorative wood trim executed in a fairly simple style.
West of the ballroom are landscaped grounds that were once used as a miniature golf course. These grounds feature the various elements of the former golf course, but overgrown shrubs, etc., have partially concealed these elements. The former golf course borders on Mill Creek Park lands.
North of the ballroom is the park midway. This is a paved area about fifty feet wide and four hundred feet long. On its western side at the southern end is the site of The Rapids, a well-known park ride. It was destroyed in an April 1984 fire that began when a repairman's torch ignited the Rapids. Also destroyed in this fire was the small park office building north of The Rapids, a small amusement building and the final turn of the Wildcat, the park's most prominent attraction. Opposite the site of The Rapids is a terraced set of rugged stone steps, probably dating from the 1930s, that lead eastward up to the wooded picnic grounds area atop the center hill.
On the west side of the midway about two-thirds of its length to the north is the octagonal merry-go-round building, which once housed the merry-go-round ride, but the intricately carved horses, turntable and mechanisms have been removed and are presently in storage in New York City. The merry-go-round is about 100 feet in diameter and features a central curving domed roof with perimeter-supported wood trusswork. A break in the massive curving hipped roof structure about halfway up permits clerestory windows, although these have been boarded up, apparently for years. The merry-go-round is at grade level at its eastern end, but the land slopes away to the west to expose its wood column foundations. There is sufficient space so that a portion of the Wildcat roller coaster passes beneath the merry-go-round in a sharp turn that is enclosed with walls and shed roof. The merry-go-round was removed after the park closed in 1984. However, the building survives intact.
East of the merry-go-round are three arcade buildings. Two of these arcades are small non-descript pre-World War II rectangular buildings, open on the west side. The third one, the penny arcade, is a larger hipped roofed building with broad overhanging eaves and simple wood post supports. North of the merry-go-rounds and across from the penny arcade is the entrance to the Wildcat. The platform area is sheltered by a large flat roof and there are elaborately bracketed covered passages enclosing the tracks entering and leaving the platform. The coaster itself is constructed similarly to the older Jack Rabbit, except that it is taller and larger and is stacked with a double-track course and is basically in the form of a figure eight about four hundred feet long. The coaster is unusual in that its tracks are not level, but instead each side alternately dips, especially around bends, to create a more exciting ride. The southern end of the coaster track, the rolling stock and the electric motor have been removed. Beneath the northern part of the Wildcat is a small frame dwelling, formerly used as a residence for a park security staff person.
North of the Wildcat are some small concession stands and restrooms and an open space where the midway extended around to the east at the northern end of the grounds. An old ballroom structure here and several smaller buildings were destroyed by fire in 1986. At the southern end of this midway is the French fry stand, a simple cement block and wood frame rectangular building, with its large painted sign still visible. To the south of this stand is a walkway leading up to the picnic and shelter house area atop the central hill. A stone water fountain stands northeast of the French fry stand, opposite the north entrance to the amusement park grounds. All that survives from the former north entrance is a chain link fence and an open bus shelter topped with curved corrugated metal. A one-story Bungalow style house constructed with ornamental concrete blocks stands east of the stone fountain. This building contains a set of restrooms for the park.
Behind the house (restroom building) is the baby Wildcat roller coaster, on the northern end of the Kiddie Land grounds. This circular area was formerly the site of a large round swimming pool, an historic attraction of the park which once featured saltwater bathing and high-platform diving. The pool was filled in in the 1950s and replaced by Kiddie Land. The semi-circular former bathhouse building wraps around the eastern half of Kiddie Land. It is crowned by a large Georgian Revival-style portico at its center. The portico terminates the eastern end of the northern midway. This building backs up against the edge of the park grounds along Pearce Avenue. Southwest of the Kiddie Land area is a small square hip-roofed building that was the snow cone concession stand. South of this building are large open grounds that were once a baseball field. These grounds are bordered by the Jack Rabbit roller coaster on the south and east and the elevated picnic grounds on the west.
The picnic grounds are on an elevated plateau overlooking the amusement park. The sloping sides of this hill are covered with tall shade trees. The actual hilltop area is quite level and features two large picnic shelters that together form a large ell on the north and east sides of the hilltop. The shelters are large and massive hipped roofed structures supported by stout wood columns with diagonal bracing. They are fairly simple, with exposed rafters and beaded tongue-and-groove board on their undersides and slightly curved diagonal bracing for an elegant effect.
These features comprise Idora Park as it survives today, having basically the same boundaries as when it was in operation. Two exceptions are that a former parking lot to the south and west of the ballroom has been partitioned off from the grounds for use by Mill Creek Park as a parking lot. A former parking lot across Parkview Drive to the north of the park grounds is now an open field and has no built features to link it to Idora Park.
Idora Park was a constantly evolving complex during its long period of operation, adding new rides, replacing old ones, updating buildings as appropriate. The last major building alterations took place in the 1950's when the ballroom was remodeled and the pool was replaced with Kiddie Land. No major new construction took place to alter the park's character in any significant way. All buildings on the grounds are over fifty years of age, except for the concession stands on the midway south of the merry-go-round, which were erected after the 1984 fire. The fires of 1984 and 1986 destroyed significant elements of Idora Park, such as the first ballroom building, several midway buildings, part of the Wildcat, and all of The Rapids.