by Ginny Pasha
As near as can be determined, this postcard shows the Dance Hall in Idora Park in the 1920’s. Built in 1910, this Dance Hall was sumptuous in size and style. Soaring turrets and cupolas, broad stairways and open expanses drew hundreds of thousands to it. Built at the end of the Youngstown Park & Falls Railway Company trolley line, the trolley could loop around the beautifully landscaped lagoon (not seen in the picture) and stop in front of the Dance Hall to let-off passengers.
The Idora Park house band played in this Dance Hall until the advent of radio in the 1930’s. Radio increased the level of sophistication of listeners, and Idora Park soon began to hire to name bands. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Idora Park became a focal point and every significant band in America played here.
No admission fee was charged to get into Idora Park, and most features were free. The theater and this Dance Hall, however, did require the purchase of a special ticket. In these days, blacks were not permitted on the dance floor except for one hour per day, from noon to 1 PM. No one was permitted to dance on Sundays, so concerts were held in the band stand instead.
This card is one of a series depicting Youngstown, Ohio at the turn of the century. Another card in this series can be seen on this website and accessed by going to on-line representations and clicking on "postcards of Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Campbell Works". Typical of representations of this era, which often overlooked reality, the sky is a beautiful blue and the gardens lush and green. In the case of Idora Park, though, this representation is probably not too far from the truth. In the book, Who Built America, a young woman says "It is just like what I see when I dream of heaven!"(181). Although talking about Coney Island, for children and adults in Youngstown in the early 1900’s, the same could be said for Idora Park.
Idora Park opened on Decoration Day, May 30, 1899 as Terminal Park and was situated to the southwest of Youngstown, Ohio, adjacent to Mill Creek Park. Its placement was important to its success for two reasons. First of all, many people had already visited the nearby Lanterman Falls, in Mill Creek Park, and were familiar with the beauty of this pastoral area. Secondly, the prevailing winds in this area of northeast Ohio are generally from the southwest. Placed to the southwest of the mills lining the Mahoning River, visitors to the park could escape the ever-present soot, smog and smells of the mills endured by the population base to the north of the river. The park was built as a Trolley Park by the Youngstown Park & Falls Railway Company to increase ridership on the trolley line on the south side of the Mahoning River. At that time, the population base was on the north side of the Mahoning River and south of the Mahoning River was sparsely populated. Without a means to cross the Mahoning River, development of the south side could not occur. That changed dramatically with the opening of the Market Street Bridge, coincidentally (or not so) on May 23, 1899. This wide span crossed the Mahoning River and offered those on the north side the ability to "hop a trolley" to the new Idora Park.
Work was hard at the turn of the century, with unskilled immigrants toiling long hours in the steel mills, struggling to realize their dream of a good life in America. Where class and racial divisions had been encouraged by steel companies existed, a new mass culture was emerging. The advent of newspapers, with a large circulation and something for everyone, led the way and encouraged a new consumerism. Advertisements in these newspapers touted the newest and best kitchen aids, clothing, and tools. The children of immigrants and new immigrants began to assimilate into American culture. During this time, amusement parks saw their golden age with nearly 2000 of them at the turn of the century. Many of them were trolley parks, built by streetcar lines to increase ridership. Coney Island is the most famous (180), but Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park and Youngstown’s Idora Park, which both opened on May 30, 1899, were equally as famous. Without an admission fee, anyone who had the money for the trolley fare could go. These parks gave the illusion of commonality and all classes did indeed go. The wealthy enjoyed private parties and dances, the working class could escape the drudgery of their daily lives, and there were few language barriers for ethnic groups.
The Youngstown Park & Falls Street Railway Company, which built Idora Park, was incorporated in 1893 by Youngstowner’s, Harry G. Hamilton and Willis H. Park. Although incorporated in 1893, the trolley did not begin to run until 1897 when the franchise was awarded by Youngstown City Council. The Youngstown Park & Falls Street Railway Company began with one car and one driver and was constructed on land rented from Colonel L. T. Foster. With nothing but farm land and wood on the south side of the river, many thought Hamilton and Park to be crazy. This venture, however, was driven solely by the prospect of financial gain. Hamilton and Park bought up the land on either side of the trolley line on speculation. Later, they sold this land to buyers who had seen the land from riding the trolley to Idora Park. They also formed a lumber company to timber the land and sell the lumber to build the new houses. The Youngstown Park & Falls Street Railway Company had to pay lump sum electricity costs whether one or one hundred used the line. The new homes built on the south side were electrified with electricity bought from Hamilton and Park.
The Mahoning River and the south bank posed two barriers to the development of the south side of the river, so the north side of the river grew, while the south side remained a rural farming area. Hamilton and Park needed two things to make their new trolley company financially solvent: 1) a way to connect to downtown Youngstown and the population base on the north side of the river and 2) some reason for people to ride their trolley on the weekends and off-peak hours. Hamilton and Park did not have the capital to build a park and in 1898 turned to well-connected businessmen in the Pittsburgh area for funding. It is this group who funded the development of Idora Park.
And, although the trolley line and Idora Park were begun for personal financial gain, the area gained as well. Workers were hired to lay the track for the trolley, to run the trolley(s), to string the wire for the trolley, to construct the buildings at Idora Park and to run the concessions at the Park. With the Market Street Bridge and trolley access, the south side began to develop and construction grew as did companies to provide services to the south side.
When it opened in 1899, Idora Park had a band stand, theater, dance pavilion (the pictured Dance Hall came later), a roller coaster, early form of circle swing, concession stands and foods. Each of these features were owned by the trolley company, but were leased to concessionaires. These concessionaires paid a lease and paid an agreed upon percentage to the trolley company for the right to operate the feature, receive electricity, and access to the people. It is thought that each ride/stand had an owner, a manager who hired other people, and then workers. It appeared to be a win/win/win arrangement - the upper class made money, the middle managers made money, and the working class made money.
Work in Youngstown was hard in these days, with twelve hour workdays, six or seven days a week. Is it any wonder, then, that Idora Park was viewed as heaven?
With the opening of Idora Park, the working class was offered an inexpensive, family centered option to the saloons. For 5 cents a ride or 27 tickets for $1.00, anyone could ride the trolley to Idora Park and escape the drudgery of every-day life. All races and classes mingled freely as there was no means of segregation. You could not control who you sat next to on the trolley or who you would stand in line next to at the food stand.
Although racially segregated on the dance floor and later, in 1924, in the swimming pool, the Park promoted family entertainment and offered something for all economic classes. When opened in 1899, Idora Park offered a band stand, a theater, a dance pavilion, and roller coaster. There were bear pits, diving horses, pony rides and exotic animals - entertainment to appeal to everyone and where language was no barrier to having fun, although, the theater did offer some language barriers as did the vaudeville shows. While most homes did not have electricity, here there were electric lights that dazzled the eye.
The Park stressed high moral content and many church concerts were held there, including the upper-class St. John’s Episcopal Church choir in 1899. Carrie Nation, one of our nation’s most vocal moral reformers, visited Youngstown on several occasions. On her first visit she had stayed at a particular hotel in downtown Youngstown. On a subsequent visit, she was horrified to discover a lounge had been added to that hotel. She immediately sought lodging elsewhere rather than stay in a hotel that served liquor. She visited and spoke at Idora Park in 1903, carrying her anti-alcohol and anti-tobacco message to the masses. Had Idora Park been anything other than morally upright, she would have left, just as she had the hotel. Another moral reformer, Billy Sunday, also used Idora Park to carry his message.
To produce a stable workforce, in the 1920’s steel companies began to adopt "paternalistic plans" (291) which included housing, pensions, insurance, and playgrounds for workers’ children. Among these new benefits were the introduction of "company days" at Idora Park. On Youngstown Sheet and Tube day, as an example, more than 20,000 people enjoyed the day at Idora Park. The Park actively pursued this business and drew companies from Pennsylvania and Akron as well.
The 1920’s also saw "ethnic days". Records of Idora Park show that as early as 1899, there was a Welsh Day and a German Day. However, the records also show that in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, there were as many as twenty different ethnic groups holding "days" at Idora Park.
My sincere thanks to Dr. Rick Shale, professor of English and American Studies at Youngstown State University for his time and insight into Idora Park. Dr. Shale’s, and co-author Charles J. Jacques’, Jr., new book Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer, is expected to be available in June, 1999. Dr. Shale is the author of several articles on film and popular culture and previous books include: Donald Duck Joins Up: The Walt Disney Studio During World War II, three books on the Academy Awards, including The Academy Awards Index: The Complete Categorical and Chronological Record.
Citations are from Who Built America?, American Social History Project, The City University of New York. Herbert G. Gutman, Founding Director and Stephen Brier, Project Director and Supervising Editor. 1992, Pantheon Books, New York.