Old Amusement Parks Never Really Die

Summer fun may end, but pieces of the playful past endure in the forest.

I don’t know much about Ellwood City. Years ago I drove there to eat a hot dog at the legendary PeeWee’s before it closed. And my mother once worked for National Tube Company, and I’ve heard her mention U.S. Steel’s plant there, but otherwise it’s been just a spot on the map 45 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. 

Then one recent Sunday, I unexpectedly meet Dave Irwin, who works in Lawrence County, and he told me about Rock Point Park, an old amusement park just outside Ellwood City that’s not there anymore.

He said the park opened around 1885 and officially closed in 1912.  All of the buildings and rides are gone, but now the site of the park is open to the public as the Rock Point Nature Area (owned by the Wild Waterways Conservancy), featuring the small Rock Point Boat Club. Dave said it’s now a beautiful, wooded wilderness with good hiking trails, but he had some old postcards that show the way it used to be, and he thought I might be interested. Naturally, I was.


The old Dancing Pavillion at Rock Point Park.

Rock Point Park, also known for a while as "Felician Park," was a railroad park (like Idlewild.) You dressed up and took the New Brighton & New Castle Railroad (or later the Beaver & Ellwood Railroad) to get there.

So one summer evening, I met Dave in Zelionople, and together we drove the last few miles to Ellwood City and beyond. The nature area is on a triangle of land where the Connequenessing Creek flows into the Beaver River.  If you take Wampum Road (Route 288) west, look for the boat club sign, and turn there onto the unpaved road that leads down to the confluence. It’s so green and lush that it’s difficult to believe anything as substantial as a roller coaster, merry-go-round or dance hall was ever part of this landscape.

But Dave showed me some of the relics that let you know this was once a civilized destination: A circular brick cistern, a concrete base of a fountain or some other structure, and down near the river, concrete flume structures that were part of the Shoot The Chutes ride, an old standard (now beautifully reproduced in Lost Kennywood as the Pittsburg Plunge.)

Dave planned out the path of his tour so that we ended at his favorite ruin: A set of stone stairs at the end of a stately iron footbridge that once crossed the Connequenessing. Built with stones from an older nearby canal system, the walls and steps look now as if they were designed in Middle Earth by hobbits or elves, and these stairs can lead you back up the hill into the woods.

I was just happy to find out about a surprising piece of local history, an unexpected glimpse into a vanished world, a fun but defunct destination that has gone back to nature, a place that forces you to try and imagine the relatively recent past as if it were still there down at the end of a dirt road. 

Rick Sebak, producer of the documentaries "Kennywood Memories" and "Great Old Amusement Parks," is obviously a sucker for old amusement parks. Special thanks to Dave Irwin for guidance and postcards.  More info: rockpointpark.com, wildwaterways.org.

Categories: Rick Sebak