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‘Million Dollar’ memories

November 25, 2010
Although we are presently in the late autumn period, we cannot help but think of sunnier days. For those who remember Idora Park and summer days and nights, we will now board our time machines and go to a different time and place. We all know that Idora Park was our amusement park, and how great it was! It was built in 1899 by a street car company and closed in 1984 after a devastating fire. We are now traveling back in time to the 1890s and into Youngstown’s Southside Terminal Park, the original name of the amusement park, located at the end of a street-car railway. It was the Park and Falls Railway Company that was the first street-car line to really serve the area south of the Mahoning River. The first street car appeared on the scene on March 14, 1897. The street cars ran every 20 minutes along the route from Central Square at the intersection of Market and Federal Streets downtown to Terminal Park. It first started as sort of a picnic park as an attempt to attract business and to entice people to ride the street cars on weekends. In 1899, a bandstand was built, along with a carousel and, of all things, a casino. The amusement park officially opened on Decoration Day or, as we know it today, Memorial Day 1899. In Youngstown during this booming time, people were attracted to our valley because of the low skill industrial jobs. This produced a rapid explosion of population from 70,134 to 116,151, and that was just the first decade of the 20th century. In 1900, a year after the amusement park opened, Youngstown Sheet and Tube would be referred to as the largest locally-owned company in the country. Many people would find work there along with Republic Steel, General Fireproofing and many other industrial facilities. But when the work week ended and weekends commenced, they would all go to good old Idora to have fun. They worked hard and they played hard. The name of the park, Idora, was supposedly given by Jessie Coulter, who was a teacher in Fosterville. By 1905, the park was taking on a new look with the additions of a three-way, figure-eight roller coaster, a dancing pavilion and a dining hall. In 1914 came the birth of the great Jack Rabbit, the second roller coaster, which was 2,200 feet long. There also was a new dance floor and an open air ballroom, which was billed as the largest dance floor between New York and Chicago. In 1915, a new ride was added called The Mill Chute, along with a baseball park and grandstands. In 1922, something really special was added in the form of a beautiful, new carousel. It was an intricately carved, three-layered carousel manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. What a beauty she was! In 1924, Idora was sold to the Idora Amusement Company by Penn-Ohio Power and Light Company. Charles Diebel was president, and his vice president, Rex Billings, gave Idora the nickname of “Youngstown’s Million Dollar Playground.” In 1926, the famous natatorium was built and was described as the most lavish swimming pool in the area. It was a circular concrete pool with a surrounding area of sand that was trucked in from Atlantic City. Believe it or not, the pool was filled with salt water. It was like swimming and sunbathing at the sea shore. In 1930, the famous Wildcat roller coaster arrived on the scene. It was a 3,000-foot coaster. The Wildcat was so feisty and provided three minutes of fun and terror. The first hill had to be altered because it had such a severe angle that many women were passing out and some just refused to ride it. The ballroom eventually became enclosed and could be used throughout the year. The ballroom drew many different acts, bands and orchestras. Saturday nights always saw a packed house as every big name band seemed to play at one time or another. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians played there many times. By 1948, things seemed to change at Idora as the end came for the salt water swimming pool. This was also the start of the civil rights movement — instead of integrating the pool, they just shut it down. The 1950s came and so did Disney World in 1955 at a cost of $10 million and sitting on 160 acres compared to Idora’s 25 acres. Parks were getting bigger, competition was greater, and the upcoming giants of Cedar Point and Geauga along with Kennywood of Pittsburgh were not making it easy for Idora to survive. Crime also played a part in the eventual downfall of Idora Park. There also was a big decline in company picnics. Big things seemed to happen on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1977, or “Black Tuesday,” as Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed the Campbell works and literally thousands lost their jobs. The shutdown affected the whole economy of the valley, including Idora. Idora went up for sale in 1982 for $1.5 million, with no takers. In 1984, the park was ready for its 86th season. Then on April 26, 1984, a catastrophe occurred. A spark from a welding unit dropped onto the wooden ride “The Lost River,” producing an envelope of flame and destruction that spread throughout the park. Much was destroyed, including the Wildcat. The great carousel, however, was saved. Idora did open for its 86th year, despite the fire with some $2.5 million in damages. The park was auctioned on Oct. 20 and 21. The carousel went for $385,000. On May 3, 1986, another fire erupted and swept away the bumper cars, the fun house and Heidelberg Gardens. The great ballroom remained open for some events until purchased by the Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church. Unbelievably, Idora was hit with a third fire on March 5, 2001, as the great ballroom that was built in 1910 disappeared from our midst and was gone forever. Thus came the end of Lady Idora and the many memories accumulated of her down through the years. Many can still relate to the fun and enjoyment and laughter of warm summer days and nights at Idora Park.


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