The History of Idora Park (1899—1984)

The History of Idora Park (1899—1984)

by Rick Shale

In the mid-1890s  streetcar companies across America looked for ways to increase ridership in the evenings and on the weekends when the regular commuter traffic slacked off.  Their solution was to tap into the thirst for popular amusements that had swept America following the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago by building amusement parks at the distant ends of their trolley lines.

Locally, the Youngstown Park & Falls Street Railway Company held the franchise for routes south of the Mahoning River, and it decided to build an amusement park in the largely undeveloped south side of Youngstown.  Access was helped greatly by the opening of the new Market Street viaduct on May 22, 1899.

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Idora Park (for its first season known as Terminal Park) opened on Decoration Day, May 30, 1899, and was an immediate success.  Ideally located adjacent to Mill Creek Park and sufficiently far from the smoke and dirt of the mills that lined the Mahoning River, the new park was about 3.5 miles from Youngstown’s Central Square—far enough to convince most people to pay a nickel and ride the streetcar to the park rather than walk.

Idora Park offered a dancing pavilion, vaudeville theater, band stand, swings, drinking fountains, picnic tables, and refreshment stands.  An electric merry‑go‑round with wooden animals carved by Gustav Dentzel of Philadelphia was a major attraction.  No admission was charged, though visitors had to pay for food, rides, and other entertainments.

The park offered an entertainment alternative to the working-class saloons and Youngstown’s more upscale Opera House.  One did not need to know English to enjoy most of the attractions, and the thousands of immigrants that came to Youngstown in the early 20th century could enjoy Idora without fear of a language barrier.

In 1902 Idora Park built its first roller coaster, a figure-eight toboggan slide, the first of three coasters constructed in approximately the same location on the western edge of the park.  This coaster would be replaced by the Firefly in the 1920s and then by the famous Wildcat.  In 1914 a second coaster, the Dip-the-Dips, built by the T. M. Harton Company of Pittsburgh, opened in the park’s southeast corner.  It would be remodeled in the mid-1920s and renamed the Jack Rabbit.

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During Idora’s first few decades, most rides as well as refreshment stands and midway game booths were owned and operated by individual concessionaires who paid the park a percentage of their profits in return for space on the property.  Until 1924 the streetcar company, owned largely by men from Pittsburgh, leased the property on which Idora park stood.  By the 1920s the original 7-acre plot had expanded to about 28 acres.

Dancing at Idora was so popular that after a decade a larger building had to be constructed.  The new Idora Ballroom, designed by Angus Wade, a noted Philadelphia Architect,  opened in 1910.  The Youngstown Telegram reported that the dance floor measured 238 by 96 feet, larger than the pavilion at Coney Island.

Music of all types played a significant role in Idora Park’s history, and the park’s success was due in part to its policy of booking top attractions.  John Philip Sousa  played at Idora in 1918, and by the end of the Big Band era of the 1930s to the 1950s, virtually every significant dance orchestra in America had played at Idora Park including Cab Calloway, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Guy Lombardo.

In the 1950s and 1960s tastes shifted from Big Band to rock and roll. Dan Ryan of WBBW radio introduced record hops to Idora in 1953.  Live music was not abandoned, however, and the park continued to book national acts such as the Eagles, Monkees, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Sherman, and many others.  Polka bands also drew huge crowds to Idora.

Sports were popular attractions at Idora, especially in the 1920s when Major League teams would play exhibition games there.  The Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates played at Idora as did the Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, and many more.  By 1920 Idora Park had the only fenced-in ball field in Youngstown, and the city’s premier semi-pro team, the McElroys, used Idora as their home field.  In July 1920 the legendary John McGraw brought his New York Giants to Idora.  Though the New York lineup included five future members of baseball’s Hall of Fame, the McElroys won 8-2 marking the first time a local team had ever defeated a major league club.

In addition to the occasional visits by Major League clubs, Idora became a frequent stop for teams in the Negro Leagues.  African Americans were moving from the south to Youngstown in increasing numbers to work in the steel mills, and they also patronized Idora Park, especially when teams like the Homestead Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs were in town for a game.

Softball, boxing, and professional wrestling also drew large crowds.

The 1920s were glory years for Idora as many of the park’s signature features were built in that decade.  Rex Billings came to Idora in 1921 as manager.      He introduced 3-cent kiddie day and becomes nationally prominent in the amusement park industry.  In 1922 Idora purchased a magnificent new carousel from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.   The company also constructed a fun house on the park’s north end.  Both features would remain popular until the park closed.

89-109-46b Idora Park Carousel orig color

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Idora’s ownership ties to the trolley industry ended in April 1924, when the Pennsylvania‑Ohio Power & Light Company sold the park to the Idora Amusement Company.  The new company was composed of well known Youngstown businessmen, and the transaction meant that for the first time in its history Idora was completely under local control.  The new owners consisted of Charles Deibel, a grocer and meat dealer, who was elected president; Rex Billings, vice‑president and general manager; Adolph H. Heller; Thomas H. Murray, Jr., who was Deibel’s son-in-law; and Attorney John W. Ford.  Heller and Murray were prominent local contractors.

A new swimming pool in the northeast corner of the park also opened in 1924 and operated until 1948.  In 1930 the Wildcat was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which also constructed a new water ride called the Rapids. When Prohibition ended in 1933,  Idora opened a German-styled beer garden called Heidelberg Gardens, located in the original 1899 dancing pavilion.

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In 1949  the park ownership changed again. The new owners were Pat Duffy, Sr., who had been associated with Idora concessions since 1905; Max Rindin, who joined the Idora staff in 1925 and became manager in 1941; and Tony Cavalier, owner of Youngstown’s popular Elms Ballroom.  These new owners, anticipating the impact of the baby boomer generation, replaced the swimming pool with an expanded Kiddieland.

The ballroom was remodeled in 1955-56.  The ornate Moorish towers were removed from the exterior, and the interior featured a new dropped ceiling and indirect lighting.

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By the 1960s most visitors to Idora Park were teenagers, not families, and several changes reflected this new  demographic. In 1967 Idora charged admission for the first time, inaugurating a Pay-One-Price policy that included unlimited rides for $2.50. The Rapids was re-themed as a jungle ride and renamed The Lost River, and the fun house became the Whacky Shack to reflect the psychedelic 1960s.

On April 26, 1984, a catastrophic fire destroyed Idora’s Lost River ride, part of the Wildcat, the park office, and most of the game booths on the lower midway.  Despite the losses, the park opened on schedule for the 1984 season.  But the loss of major attractions proved to be a fatal blow, and the owners announced that the 1984 season would be the last.

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Labor Day, September 3, 1984, was the last time the park was open to the public. The rides operated for the final time on September 8 for a private picnic for St. Elizabeth Hospital employees, and on October 20-21, 1984, an auction was held to dispose of the rides and equipment.

Idora Park outlasted most of the trolley parks that had begun in the late 19th century.  In the eighty-six seasons that Idora operated, it provided entertainment and wonderful memories for many generations of families in the Mahoning Valley.

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Rick Shale is a co-author of Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer, a retired Youngstown State University professor, and member of the MVHS Board of Directors.