By Ned Johnstone
was lucky to live close enough to Kennywood Park to
be able to go there quite a few times each season and
I always rode the Ghost Ship at least four or five times
per visit. I rode it with family. I rode it with my
friends. In the last year or so I rode it with dates.
We all changed a lot over those five years after I first
braved it. The Ghost Ship itself actually changed very
on June 19, 1975, a tragic event changed my perspective on life.
I heard about it in my neighborhood drugstore. I’d walked there
to have a bottle of soda. It was hot. Someone was talking to the
pharmacist. “A fire at Kennywood.” “Oh, really?” The conversation
was very casual. “Yeah. The Ghost Ship burned down.” “You don’t
say? Isn’t that something? Sure hope nobody got hurt. That’ll
be fifteen cents.”
My own reaction seems strange to
me now. Not shock or sadness. More like curious, as I recall.
But maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange really. I was thirteen.
The world was a new thing. Summer evenings were mellow golden
magic. A year was forever. And the things I loved and depended
on would always be there. This Ghost Ship burned down. Okay. Well,
the new one would be the same old one. On that very hot spring
afternoon, the ride and the historic building that housed it met
their tragic end.
Kennywood had just got the rides
up and running for the day, and a local school district named
Mount Lebanon was having their annual picnic. Shortly after noon
time, a patron just coming off the ride told
assistant Ghost Ship manager Sandy Kalla that she smelled
smoke. About this same time Henny Henninger (grandson
of park co-founder F.W. Henninger, and assistant general
manager at the time) was coming from the park’s kiddieland
area located behind the dance hall and saw smoke. The
ride was immediately shut down and cleared out. Park maintenance
head Fred Weber and other maintenance workers were heading
up to the cafeteria for lunch when they heard the fire
bell. Fred remembers grabbing a fire extinguisher and
trying to run into the ride. He recalls getting a few
feet in the front and seeing the roof starting to go up
in flames! Dave Procupp came running from the lunchroom
to see if he could offer any help, but at this point all
was lost. Within a
of minutes the 76-year-old building that hosted so many memories,
was going up like a tinder box.
“Me, personally, I don’t know what caused
the fire,” recalled Procupp, adding that one of his co-workers
on duty at the time told him that an exiting female patron saw
a fire in the outhouse scene. Procupp said it’s possible a rider
threw something inside the ride that ignited the fire, but he
can’t be sure. “There were also rumors that somebody dumped a
charcoal grill out at the corner of the building,” recalled Procupp.
“I heard that, but it didn’t seem right to me that it was right
at lunch time (when the fire started); they’d be getting ready
for lunch then.”
My dad took me and my friend Julie to
Kennywood the very next day. Amid the wreckage, only two charred
beams remained upright. As I looked at it, I thought of the “old
fashioned ghost” in his boat. Wondered what that might have looked
like on fire. I suppose, looking back now, that the figure in
that long ago boat wasn’t a ghost at all, but Death. But like
I said, I was thirteen then. Years away from recognizing death,
still more years away from the sad realization that loss is marked
not just by losing those people we love, but by losing those things
and places we love as well.