By Sean Barron
Many people recall where they were April 26, 1984, the day a thick plume of black smoke at Idora Park rose into the blue sky and was seen for miles.
More than 30 years later, a deep love and sentimentality for the iconic amusement park on Youngstown’s South Side continue to burn in many residents’ hearts.
“Most people felt it was one of the finest bandstands between New York City and Chicago,” said Rick Shale, referring to the main feature of the park’s dance pavilion, which was built in 1910 and was a longtime attraction.
Shale, a park expert and co-author of “Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer,” discussed much of Idora’s 85-year history during his lecture Thursday at the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center, 325 W. Federal St. His presentation was part of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Bites and Bits of History luncheon.
Shale, a former Youngs-town State University professor, noted that the park was built in what was a relatively remote area of the city so as to get more people to use the trolley cars. When Idora Park debuted May 30, 1899 — two weeks after the Market Street Bridge opened — most residents lived north of the Mahoning River, he explained.
Early attractions were a merry-go-round, animal acts, the dance pavilion — called Heidelberg Gardens — and an open-air theater on the midway that featured vaudeville acts, Shale said, adding that music always was an integral part of the park’s history.
To that end, popular styles included classical, big bands and swing, rock ’n’ roll and, later, polkas. On July 28, 1918, John Philip Sousa, who had been entertaining World War I troops overseas, performed at Idora Park for $1 per ticket, he noted.
Most people fondly remember the Jack Rabbit and Wildcat rollercoasters, built in 1914 and 1930, respectively, but the park’s first such ride was a slide with a figure-8 pattern that debuted in 1902, Shale noted.
Another big hit was a large, circular swimming pool that opened in 1924 and lasted about 25 years. Racial tensions and competition from the city’s other pools likely were reasons for its closing, Shale explained.
“It even had sand for a time, so you could pretend you were at the beach,” he added.
Company picnics soon caught on and were a lucrative form of revenue for Idora Park, said Shale, noting that a Beaver Falls, Pa., business brought about 10,000 workers to one gathering.
In addition, the park hosted countless political rallies and sporting events. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the New York Giants and other Major League Baseball teams played exhibition games against local ones; in 1920, for the first time, an area team beat the Giants, Shale said to applause.
Other activities over the years included indoor and outdoor roller skating, games such as Skeeball, dodge-car rides and, beginning in the 1950s, train rides that circled the park. Also popular were ethnic-heritage days that celebrated Youngstown’s diverse immigrant population, Shale recalled.
Nevertheless, Idora began to lose money, especially after the collapse of the major steel mills in the late 1970s and the subsequent population decline. Financial losses continued to mount, and on April 26, 1984, a spark from a welding torch reportedly caused the conflagration that destroyed the Wildcat and much of the midway.
“Trying to put out the fire was like bailing out the Atlantic Ocean with a bucket,” Shale said.
The park opened on time, however, but never recovered, which led to the decision that summer to close it permanently after Labor Day. Afterward, Idora Park suffered two additional fires — one in May 1986 that burned the Funhouse and another in March 2001 that destroyed the ballroom.
“The steel melted and collapsed like cooked spaghetti,” Shale said of the ballroom’s demise.
Despite the sad ending, those who remember and miss Idora Park also should rejoice in the fact that it lasted 85 years, longer than nearly all amusement parks built during the turn of the century, Shale concluded.