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Friday, February 7, 2014

White Oak/McKeesport's Former Rainbow Gardens Amusement Park in Retrospective

At one point, this seemingly ordinary spot had something extraordinary, an amusement park, a place where folks go and leave their worries behind and partake in the joy of taking a day or evening at a park. The park was founded in the roaring twenties in 1924 as a getaway for then booming McKeesport and other Mon Valley workers. They built off of the success of Kennywood, located only 6 miles away, and they thrived. 

Rainbow Gardens would later add on a Drive In Theater and roller rink at the height of their popularity. Nearby in North Versailles a competing huge drive in theater sprung up. As a side-note, in the 90s this competing huge drive in would be replaced with a scene you can see in 11,000 other places worldwide, a Wal Mart Supercenter and a large Loews Movie Theater. The theater and restaurants that were a part of the property closed. Lost is a piece of Americana in that drive in, but I digress.
This priceless postcard shows the drive-in theater and pool that they had at the park. This is a giant shopping center now. Photo credit to cinematreasures.org the RCDB of old movie theaters. I could sit on that page for hours looking at the amazing information they have.
Here is the swimming pool. That high dive looks pretty awesome. Notice the mountain in the background, very similar to what you can see in the photos from the view today. Photo credit to Images of America McKeesport

The park built a swimming pool with sand beaches in 1926, complete with water features and primitive water slides. They also added some amusements. In 1954 they added a National Amusement Device (NAD) designed wooden coaster named the Bomber as an ode to the critical role the region played in what FDR called "the Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II. They also added a Schiff Wild Mouse at some point, presumably in the 50s.  
McKeesport Daily News Photo of the Bomber. Look at that NAD train beauty!
Accounts from folks say that while the Bomber NAD beauty was small, it packed quite an airtime punch. You can also see the pool and what appears to be the carousel shelter on the left. There is not a ton of information out there about this park. Does anyone know the manufacturer of the carousel or have more photos? I am intrigued by this little park.
Photo from the "Stuff Thats Gone" Facebook Page
Here is an aerial view from 1968 of the park when it was about to be closed in 1968.
Here you can see the back of the drive in screen on the right and what appears to be an Old Mill ride front and center. It is tough to see shots like this and how this old Americana is dying. Be sure to support your local amusement parks, drive in theaters, roller rinks, bowling alleys and more. Photo credit to drive-ins.com for the above and below photos.
News paper clipping about the demise of the park.

McKeesport and the Mon Valley were booming manufacturing centers for anything steel. GM even had a plant in nearby West Mifflin because of the close proximity to steel, the most important element in the creation of a car. This money in the region and the sheer amount of people was wonderful for the amusement parks in the region as you can see in visiting Kennywood. The bulk of Kennywood was built during the Roaring 20s including all three wood coasters, the beautiful Dentzel carousel and more. 
Displaying photo.jpg
A sign with an ode to the old park
At the same time, the manufacturing boom in this time period would eventually lead to the demise of this amusement park for additional infrastructure was needed to support the industry here and at points south, all the way down to West Virginia. Route 48 needed to be expanded into a freeway, something that was a precursor to the idea for the controversial Mon-Fayette Expressway plan. The plan for this highway was (and still is) to connect the area with points south. At that point it was to support the local industry, but now it is to help the struggling area and areas south economically develop. The right of way for this proposed highway was to cut directly through the site. Not ideal and it did kill this park, but this freeway would have been huge for the region that is now hurting. You can read about the Mon-Fayette Expressway here. The freeway is completed to Elizabeth and it is a decent and quick connection to points south, but it is disjointed in that there is no direct connection to Pittsburgh. Once this gets rolling, places like Clairton, Duquesne, McKeesport and places south like Brownsville will greatly benefit. The planned highway also creates a direct highway connection to Kennywood, which will greatly benefit the park but I digress.
Source: contextsensitivesolutions.org

A previous plan for highway right of way for this project went right through Rainbow Gardens, so the park closed in 1968 and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (Penndot) condemned the property with eminent domain. They decided not to run the highway through that alignment anyways and ended up not building it, the damage was done though. The park was closed already. Penndot offered the land back to the owners, but they opted to not rebuild. Eventually the shopping center would be built in 1994, creating a scene that you can see in anytown USA. The folks in the locality of Conneaut Lake should look at the effect the closing of this park, and all of the defunct parks, has made upon their communities. I think Allentown's Central Park, a post I had a few weeks ago, would be a great example for them to look at as to what happens when you close an amusement park in an area. We cannot afford to lose these treasures of Americana to sanitized, big box places. While this story is a bit different because the park was not torn down to make this shopping center, the story still ends up the same, the community lost a place in which folks go and forget about all of their problems. 

A great source for information on the park is Rick Sebak's "Stuff That's Gone" documentary. 

My questions for anyone reading this, do you have any photos of the park and do you know who the manufacturer of the carousel was? It is such a shame this park's life was cut short like this. The folks up at Conneaut Lake need to realize just how important the park is to their community and that a healthy and fully restored park is the best thing to both revitalize the community, provide a sense of cohesiveness in the community and provide a living to folks. 


  1. This information and photographs bring back fond memories of my teenage years. I worked as a ride attendant (Carnie) in 1966-1967. What a blast! It was my most favorite job ever. Keith R. Phillips

  2. Good info about the park. I remember going to it with my family. The USS in Vandergrift had their company picnic there. It was a gr8 time for all. Good family time.

  3. Good job on the info. I remember the park from the years that my Uncle would take the family there. He was employed by the USS in Vandergrift. It was where the steel mill had their company picnic. It was a gr8 time spent with family. I could have been around 7yrs old but remember the park and the good times spent with family

  4. I thank you for the memories. My Dad took us there quite often. He was employed by US Steel Homestead Works.
    I often tell my kids about the Park and Drive Inn, that is now a WalMart, when we shop there.
    Diane Carr

  5. I remember Rainbow Gardens quite well. When I was in school, we would have our school picnics there. In the summer, I could walk to the park to go to the swimming pool. My favorite ride was the Wild Mouse roller coaster. LOVED that ride. I spent a lot of time at the roller rink and the bowling alley too. Family used to go to the drive-in on Saturdays. Then they closed it, saying they were going to widen the road. It sat empty for at least a decade before they put in the shopping mall--total waste!! I have lots of great memories of Rainbow Gardens!

  6. Our grade school, Our Lady of the most Blessed Sacrament, rotated our school picnics every 3 years to Rainbow Gardens, West View Park, And Kennywood. We were really lucky to get to experience all 3. We also had relatives who worked at companies that had summer picnics at Idora, Geauga Lake, Cedar Point, and Euclid Beach. I was lucky to always be invited to go with them. Todays parks really czn't compare to those.

  7. I think I maybe able to come up with pictures. My grandfather was in charge of maintenance when the state made them close. I remember being a young kid and watching the drive inn movies from the house my grandparents lived in on Rainbow Gardens.

  8. My father worked for the Pittsburgh Press,and his Union picnics were at Rainbow Gardens in the early to mid-1960s (Local 211). Had a lot of fun there. The above picture that you call the old mill was really a ride similar to Kennywood's Pittsburgh Plunge.