A thrill a minute: Golden age of amusement park lives on


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Although prized by amusement park aficionados for hosting more than a dozen active parks, Pennsylvania was once home to nearly 150 others that no longer operate.

Thanks to the Charles and Betty Jacques Amusement Park Collection, recently donated to the Penn State University Libraries, researchers and fans can now appreciate the early 20th century golden age of these parks in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, as well as study present-day trends.

New exhibit.

“A Thrill a Minute,” an exhibit of selections from the collection, doesn’t include any working roller coasters or carousels, but it should bring back plenty of chills and thrills while on view through Aug. 15 in The Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Room 104 Paterno Library, on the University Park campus.

The exhibit is free and open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

From photos to playbills.

The collection features posters, brochures, photos and other memorabilia from parks; correspondence to and from important figures in the industry; and playbills for entertainers in parks’ dance halls and outdoor venues.

Charles Jacques is a 1962 graduate of Penn State’s College of Education, where he majored in history. He traces his interest in amusement parks to childhood visits to Erie’s Waldameer Park during World War II.

As a fan and researcher, he has visited 27 Pennsylvania parks and ridden more than 50 roller coasters in the state.

“It dawned on me in 1975 that I might be interested in writing about amusement parks, but I could find only a handful of books about them,” Jacques said. “So almost everything I did on them for a long time was virgin territory – like walking into a snowy field and looking back to see that the only footprints behind you are your own.

“Perhaps I have spent the past quarter-century trying to tell the world how great the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feels of my earliest amusement park experiences at Waldameer were.”

The retired attorney and past president of the National Carousel Association has frequently appeared in televised documentaries, was editor from 1979 to 1987 of the Amusement Park Journal, and has penned numerous articles on the storied histories of various amusement parks.

Authored five books. He is the author of five books: “Kennywood: Roller Coaster Capital of the World; Goodbye, West View Park, Goodbye” (on another Pittsburgh-area park that closed in 1977); “Hersheypark: The Sweetness of Success; More Kennywood Memories” (which includes information on Idlewild Park in Ligonier and the Sandcastle water park near Pittsburgh); and “Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer” (co-authored with Rick Shale, of Youngstown University, on a defunct Ohio park).

Betty VanPelt Jacques is a research assistant for the most recent books, and has taken hundreds of photographs of amusement parks that are now part of the Penn State collection. She and her husband first met at a carousel convention in 1994; they are residents of Jefferson, Ohio.

Many Pa. parks represented.

Faced with limited space at home for a collection that was growing faster than he could give it away, the Jacqueses began transferring items to Penn State in 1998 so that an “important part of American history that has been too long overlooked” would be preserved, Charles Jacques said.

Many of the rare or unique finds were acquired during research for his books, including some collections purchased in their entirety from other historians or their heirs.

More than 100 Pennsylvania parks are represented in the overall collection, including the still-operating Conneaut Lake Park (Crawford County), Dorney Park (Allentown), Dutch Wonderland (Lancaster) and Knoebels (Elysburg); and the gone-but-not forgotten Angela Park (Hazleton), Burke Glen (Monroeville), Rocky Glen (Moosic) and Willow Grove (Montgomery County).

Besides material from these parks, the Paterno Library display spotlights several ride schematics and information on ride manufacturers such as Lusse Brothers of Montgomeryville, R. E. Chambers Company of Beaver Falls and the Philadelphia Toboggan Co., a pioneer of early roller coasters, carousels and arcade games.

A fun collection.

“One of the things that I’ve enjoyed since I first got into this is that archival material from amusement parks is very visually stimulating compared to what you find from a lot of other history topics,” Jacques said.

“There’s artwork of the rides, scenes of midways and gardens, wonderful photographs of people smiling – maybe with their hands up on a roller coaster. I always think of how lucky I am that I only have a handful of boring items and lots of exciting ones.”

He is presently working on a book about the confusingly named Coney Island Amusement Park – not the New York one, but the Cincinnati, Ohio, one – as well as one on Waldameer Park.

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