Did you know Jeannette, Pa. was once home to a popular amusement park? Although nature has reclaimed the land, the area once was home to Oakford Park, Greensburg and Jeannette’s very own trolley park.
Like many of the amusement parks of yesteryear, Oakford Park in Jeannette (sometimes listed as Greensburg) started out as a trolley park. These parks were designed as picnic and recreation areas located at the ends of trolley lines. The streetcar companies usually created the parks in order to incentivize people to use the trolleys, or streetcars, over the weekend.
The parks originally consisted of things such as picnic groves and pavilions as well as featured events such as performances, dancing, and fireworks. Many of these parks eventually rides and attractions, making them amusement parks.
The Opening of Oakford Park
Oakford Park officially opened to the public in May of 1896. That year, a dam was constructed on the Oakford Park grounds in order to hold back the waters of Brush Creek in order to form Lake Placid. Similar to the lake at Altoona’s Lakemont Park, Lake Placid was a large draw for the park. In the summer the lake was used for boat races, rowing, and picnics. In the winter, it became an ice skater’s dream.
The park enjoyed instant success, bringing in a steady stream of guests. There even have been reports of having as many as 20,000 guests in one day! In those early years a restaurant and dance hall were built. There was even a small roller coaster which was most likely an Ingersoll switch-back railway, as well as the trolley station and merry-go-round.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
The Dam Breaks at Oakford Park
July 5, 1903 started out as a typical day at the park with a reported 800 guests in attendance when a sudden cloud burst brought extremely heavy rains. The waters in Lake Placid began to rise, putting pressure on the Oakford Park dam. Grounds manager James McGrath, realizing the situation, began urging those who were taking shelter in the buildings to evacuate to higher ground.
Water began rolling over the dam, and shortly before 4 o.m. and with a thunderous crash, the dam broke and unleashed a six-foot wall of water into the park.
The water swept through the park, sweeping away its victims and lifting buildings and attractions off of their foundations. All that was left standing in the park when it was all over were the restaurant and the dance hall. The raging waters carried everything else to the next town over, creating a disaster in the city of Jeannette as well, completely wiping our their sewer system. All-in-all more than 5.5 inches of water fell on Jeannette that afternoon.
There were more than 20 lives lost that day.
Rebuilding Oakford Park
Despite the overwhelming damage to the park and surrounding area, the park reopened in 1904. The new park featured a new figure-eight roller coaster called the Leap Frog. This coaster was similar in design to the Leap-the-Dips coaster at Lakemont Park — which is still operating. The number one attraction in the park, this roller coaster remained in the park until the park’s closure.
Another notable ride that was at Oakford Park is the Circle Swing. Wicker gondolas were suspended from chains which created seats for riders. The top circle of the structure turned, spinning the riders around. It was located next to the skating rink, which were all built in the footprint of Lake Placid.
Both the Leap Frog and the Circle Swing can be seen on this fire insurance map of Jeannette done in March of 1916. Other notable structures are the merry-go-round, picnic shed, dance hall, skating rink, and band stand.
Some other rides and attractions at the park included a merry-go-round, theater, miniature railroad, and an arcade.
The park remained in operation for another 34 years after the flood. However, like many of its trolley park counterparts, with the rise of automobiles and the fall of streetcars, traffic to the park dwindled. In 1938 the park closed. Competition from neighboring amusement parks, Kennywood and Idlewild, was also part of the reason for the closure.
All of the assets of the park including the Caterpillar, Skooter, Aero Swing, and the Leap Frog were sold at a receiver’s sale to Olympia Park in McKeesport for only $200.
Oakford Park Swimming Pool
The Oakford Park swimming pool was constructed in the park in 1921. Despite the rest of the park being torn down in the 1940s, the swimming pool remained. It was purchased in 1945 from West Penn Power, but at the time there were no other structures on the property. A bathhouse had to be built in order to get the pool operational. At one time, the pool was once the largest in the state. Locals who visited the pool often recall the pool’s famous French fries made with vinegar and ketchup as well as the soft serve ice cream.
The pool remained opened until the 1980s when it also closed. Remnants of the pool remained until as late as 2003 before the area was completely bulldozed over.
Not much remains of Oakford Park today. You can still see the old pool gate at the Jeannette Area Historical Society though. A gas station now marks where the trolley entrance once stood. And to the very keen observer, you may notice that a brown building across the street, which is now an automotive repair shop is now, was once one a trolley shed.
The only thing that remains unchanged is Brush Creek. The creek still winds through what was once the park, a silent reminder of the power of nature.