In the beginning…! Though it may not be the prologue you’d expect from a trip down an amusement park’s memory lane, there’s no better nor more biblical way to begin a look into one of the most unique and under-recognized attractions on Earth – a last-of-its-kind historic whale of a walkthrough found only at Kennywood Park just outside of Pittsburgh…
A classic attraction that’s survived the Great Depression, a World War, fifteen Presidents, countless redesigns, and (imagine this) a real flood, Noah’s Ark at Kennywood has been shared between nearly 90 years of Yinzers. Like a story passed from generation to generation, this ultra-original walkthrough still floats today, rocking back and forth atop a mountain smack dab in the middle of “America’s Finest Traditional Amusement Park.”
A climb through Noah’s Ark is to step into history. So just as we've explored Son of Beast, TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, VOLCANO: The Blast Coaster, and dozens more classic attractions in Theme Park Tourist's Legend Library, we hope you'll join us for a journey to Noah's Ark.
“In the beginning” might be the best way to begin the story of Kennywood, because for generations of Pittsburgh locals, the park has simply always been. You can imagine why! Like so many of the amusement parks that dotted the American landscape throughout the early 20th century (long before the master-planned Disneyland, mind you), Kennywood’s “start” isn’t so easy to pin down.
George Washington himself set foot there as a colonel in 1755’s Battle of the Monongahela. Sixty years later, westward traveler Thomas Kenny settled there, figuring the 365 acre plot overlooking the Monongahela River would make a fine farm and homestead. By the end of the 1800s, a wooded portion of the property nicknamed “Kenny’s Grove” had been opened to the public as a pleasant picnic park on the outskirts of an industrializing city.
In 1898, the picnic grove’s land was leased to the Monongahela Street Railways Company, ensuring little Kenny’s Grove could offer leisure and amusements to the city’s steelworkers… while also cleverly increasing weekend trolley ridership. The turn of the century saw dozens and dozens of such “trolley parks” bloom in cities across the country, and like its contemporaries, the newly designated Kennywood Park added a carousel, a casino hall, a bandstand, a lagoon with rowboats, and a dance pavilion to serve as a one-stop-shop for Victorian entertainment.
In 1901 – 120 years ago! – Kennywood added its first dark ride: The Old Mill. Drifting down a flume channel powered by a spinning waterwheel, riders would pass through simple scenes depicting grottos and caverns, underscored by music.
For couples, the draw of these early, rudimentary dark rides was the chance to canoodle in the dark – a rare opportunity in the prudish Victorian era. For most people, though, the Old Mill’s real draw was the ability to see those interior scenes lit by the breathtaking, new electric lightbulb. (Restored and reimagined in 2020, The Old Mill remains the world’s oldest operating dark ride today.)
Fun House, Fun Boat
Though no one alive today would remember it, DAFE – the Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts organization – reports that in 1902, the park opened the “Pavilion of Fun.” Within, guests could walk through the blustery “Cave of the Winds” (where surprise compressed air streams would send women’s skirts flying and men chasing after hats) and the “Earthquake Room” (with wooden floors trembling, rumbling, and shaking).
They’d find relief at the “Spring Water” oasis… only to find that connecting the fountain’s tin cup with a secretly-electrified stream of water caused a “shocking” surprise. (It was, to say the least, a very different time… as also evidenced by a peep hole through which guests would see a reflection of their own face on the body of “a fat policeman making love to the house-maid.”)
Finally, guests would climb “The Crazy Staircase” (with steps rising and lowering opposite one another, patented by Coney Island’s George Tilyou) for a ride down the “Swirly Slide.”
Suffice it to say that Kennywood’s “Pavilion of Fun” would today easily be recognized as one of the first ever in a new genre of attractions: a funhouse! Evolving parallel to the first walkthrough attractions in New York’s Coney Island, Kennywood added a handful of amusing funhouses in the era: the endless mazes of the House of Trouble; the Laughing Gallery mirror maze (the first-of-its-kind, imported from the Paris Exposition); The House of Mystery (ironically, for which no known images or descriptions remain); and the Daffy Dilla Fun Factory (featuring a human roulette wheel!).
One after another, Kennywood refined the art of the laugh-out-loud walkthrough in subsequent installations and redecoratings… The Tumble Inn; Hilarity Hall; the Bug House; Tut’s Tomb (capitalizing on the actual 1922 archaeological discovery, in real time)... You have to imagine that even by the 1920s, funhouses, slides, and walkthroughs still vastly outnumbered even the most traditional dark rides. (The definitive, single-rail, bus-bar powered "Pretzel" dark ride wouldn't even be patented till the end of the decade.)
While meandering Old Mills and Tunnels of Love may have given guests respite from the summer heat in darkened, musty chambers, walkthroughs were the way that guests could step into new worlds, filled with special effects, laugh-out-loud tricks, and (sometimes literally) shocking surprises. (It's probably no coincidence that even with the cart-based dark ride at his disposal, Walt Disney himself initially envisioned both the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean as walkthroughs!)
But the most unique subgenre of funhouse was soon to arrive...
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth [...] And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them
Dozens of religious texts around the globe dating to ancient times tell of a "Great Flood" brought from the heavens, with only those selected by the divine spared to replenish the Earth. The story of Noah is among the most well-known in the Western world. Chosen by God to collect two of every animal, Noah and his family were said to build and board a floating Ark, surviving forty days and forty nights of rain before receding water set the ark down among the mountains of Ararat.
You might think of "Noah's Ark" as a theological Atlantis: understood by some as a mere allegory or myth, pursued by others like a treasure waiting to be discovered. Of course, the latter set need not look too far, given that dozens of Arks have been found atop as many Mount Ararats across the United States and Great Britain!
The first "Noah's Ark" opened in 1919 at Venice Pier in California. Inside the curiously beached boat, guests would pass through a maze populated by not only traditional "funhouse" gags like rocking floors and wacky mirrors, but by simple, static vignettes stylized after Noah, his family, and sculpted animals on board. Designed by Leroy Ramond, the uniquely-themed walkthrough was a hit.
In 1920, Ramond sold the rights to build further Arks to William Dentzel (of the Dentzel Carousel Company), which sold and constructed Arks across the country. In fact, "Noah's Arks" became the funhouse-du-jour for amusement parks in the ensuing decades. According to Joel Styler at Laff in the Dark, when Dentzel passed away in 1928, the Carousel Company was purchased by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (a well-known roller coaster manufacturer to this day), who were able to sell the model on a wider scale.
During the 1920s and '30s, Noah's Arks spread around the country! Nearly three dozen versions of the attraction were known to have existed, from New York's Coney Island to Maine's Old Orchard Beach; Cedar Point in Ohio to Frontierland and Blackpool Pleasure Beach in the UK. Typically set in a pool of water (with access to the Ark via floating platforms) or atop a carved Mount Ararat (with ascending tunnels and bridges to the ship), Noah's Arks were about as synonymous with amusement parks as Ferris wheels or bumper cars!
Today, just one is left... And on the last page, we'll trek inside to discover what can be found inside the last Noah's Ark on Earth...