‘Idlewild’ author researching book on Western Pennsylvania’s lost amusement parks
Area amusement parks have provided visitors thrills and summertime memories for more than a century.
Pittsburgh-based writer and historian Jennifer Sopko hopes to reclaim some of that legacy for parks that have vanished from the Western Pennsylvania landscape. She is seeking stories, photos and documents for a proposed book on the subject.
“Even if you’re not an amusement park fanatic, you probably had a school picnic, a family reunion or a community picnic at one of these parks or at another park that’s still around,” Sopko said. “Where I grew up, in White Oak, I always heard my parents and family talk about Rainbow Gardens and Olympia Park” — two former amusement venues in the McKeesport area. “So I had a little bit of a sentimental attachment to these parks, even though I’ve never seen them.”
Sopko, who has written extensively for publications in Westmoreland County, has penned two books on local topics published by The History Press — “Idlewild: History and Memories of Pennsylvania’s Oldest Amusement Park,” released last year, and “Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales From the Laurel Highlands,” in 2013.
Items she uncovered while researching the volume on Ligonier Township’s Idlewild sparked Sopko’s interest in taking on her latest book project, tentatively slated to see print through the same publisher in 2021.
“I kept coming across advertisements and articles on different parks that had been in the region,” Sopko said. “That put it in the back of my mind that it would be great to do something on them.”
She discovered that a former park in Sharon, called Roseville, was alternately known as Idlewild for a time.
Sopko plans to research dozens of “lost” parks across the 26 counties of Western Pennsylvania.
“I want to write as comprehensive a history of all the lost parks as I can,” she said. “I want to include pictures that nobody has seen before — postcards, maps, brochures, any image possible that I can find out there.”
Sopko’s initial list includes at least 50 parks to research — from Sewickley’s White Swan Park to Lenape Park in Kittanning, and Cabana Beach Park in Washington County to Four Mile Creek Park, Erie.
Locations in and around Pittsburgh include Dreamland, Greater Pittsburgh Exposition, Interurban Park and Luna Park as well as Coney Island (Neville Island), Dream City (Wilkinsburg) and Pittsburgh National Amusement Park (Blawnox).
In Westmoreland County, the list contains Fairview Park in Salem Township and Oakford Park in Jeannette.
“I may find that some of them might not fit into the definition of a traditional amusement park,” she said. “I want to stretch that definition a little bit.”
The could include destinations where boating or a dance hall may have been the primary attraction, as well as early suburban parks that were established to promote ridership on trolley lines, she said.
Beyond the nostalgic appeal it retains for many area residents, West View Park, which was located in Allegheny County’s North Hills, can claim a footnote in rock history. Its Danceland hall played host to a 1964 set by the then relatively little-known Rolling Stones.
Sopko is seeking materials and information on the region’s lost parks, rides and attractions from past visitors, employees, owners and park enthusiasts, among others. Those who can help in her research may reach her at [email protected] or 412-496-4518.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .