The following is a poem I originally wrote for a college class and recently dusted off and rewrote. Wildcat was inspired by a roller coaster at Idora Park in Youngstown, Ohio where I grew up. Idora Park started as a trolley park in 1899. Located on the south side of Youngstown, it was simply named Terminal Park. The park was a way for the trolley company to make revenue on the weekends and quickly became Youngstown’s “Million Dollar Playground.” People from all over the area came in droves to the park which, at the time, featured a carousel, an outdoor theater, a picnic area, and a few other amusements. Each year, the park grew bigger, adding new attractions. Terminal Park became Idora Park around 1900. In 1910, the T.M. Harton Company of Pittsburgh built the Jack Rabbit roller coaster. The Jack Rabbit provided thrills for 74-years. During Idora’s final year, they put the thing on the track backwards and called it the Back Wabbit. During Idora Park’s nearly 90-year lifespan, it grew to become an urban amusement park, featuring the legendary Wildcat roller coaster, a 1.2 million gallon salt water swimming pool (the only one in the country at the time), and a gigantic Grand Ballroom, attracting top names in entertainment from 1910 to the mid-1980s.
The swimming pool was cemented over in the 1950s to build Kiddieland for the Baby Boomers (of which I’m one). The ballroom survived and continued to flourish (until fire destroyed it in 2001) and, so too, did the Wildcat. The Wildcat, designed by Philadelphia Toboggan Company designer and president Herbert Paul Schmeck, was built in 1930. Even at the time of its untimely demise in 1984 from a devastating fire, Wildcat was still ranked number 10 in the nation for thrills.
Wildcat drew roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the country. It was a wickedly fast, brutally unapologetic beast. There was no modern restraint system, just a fixed steel bar to hold onto. There were no fancy devices to keep the cars on the track and Wildcat frequently “jumped the track” (lifted off of the track). It cornered so hard that riders were often thrown against the side of the car and rumors were that kids had dislocated their shoulders or broken their arms. Legend has it that one kid died, but it was because he got out of the car and raced the coaster up the first hill. He jumped back in and sat sideways then somehow fell out. In later years, we often went to Idora during the time the Canfield Fair was running. Crowds at Idora were light and we had almost unlimited access to the rides. My most thrilling ride on the Wildcat was during one of those visits.
I was riding the Wildcat for the umpteenth time that day. The train approached the station. There was no one in line, so the operator let the thing go around without stopping it! The beast sailed through the platform area and into the tunnel beyond. There in the darkness of that tunnel, the monster I’d ridden dozens of times by myself, put a new fear in me. We hit that first rise and it was almost like that first time I put my life in the claws of the beast.
At a park in the town where I grew up,
Rockets soared o’er the best fries in a cup.
Carousel, Ferris wheel, usual stuff,
One day at Idora, never enough.
Smells of popcorn, cotton candy and fries filled the air,
But like the children’s gay laughter, they’re no longer there.
One of the rides had gained nationwide fame,
A wicked, untamed beast, Wildcat by name.
Raced down the midway to that fabled ride,
I joined the que with my dad by my side.
Kaleidoscope of lights, rides, games swirled ‘round,
Mighty beast thundered past, held me spellbound.
I’d heard that a kid had broken his arm,
Urban myth, Dad said, part of Wildcat’s charm.
Another allegedly fell and died,
I watched the beast run, I felt Dad had lied.
Taking our turn, we stepped into the car,
No mod restraint, just a fixed metal bar.
Anxiously waited, how long would it take,
For the guy to pull that big wooden brake.
The train started rolling down a slight hill,
Into a tunnel, Oh God, what a thrill.
Plunged into dark like we’d just closed our eyes,
Suddenly daylight and awesome first rise.
A jerk, a thunk, and a clackety-clack,
Chain grabbed and hauled all the cars up the track.
Chain disengaged as the train reached the top,
Slowly coasted toward that fearsome first drop.
I thought to myself that the view was so cool,
Dad, over there, it’s our church and my school.
Dad hugged me real tight, real close to his side,
All of us screamed from the thrill of the ride.
My heart, I felt, would leap out of my chest,
I laughed and I yelled that this was the best.
At the base of that hill, a Wildcat treat,
A dip lifted me right out of my seat.
Thrilling and scary all at the same time,
Dad held onto me before the next climb.
Faster than lightning to rise number two,
Screamed as we plummeted, felt like we flew.
Third hill came at us like Wild Toad’s ride,
A banked turn slammed us right into the side.
A few speed bumps popped us out of our seats,
I’d give the lot for that ride to repeat.
We sped through a tunnel, one final bend,
Into the station, our ride at an end.
I beamed at Dad from the seat where I sat,
Thrilled by my first ride on the Wildcat.
Jim Amey has faithfully and lovingly tried to preserve the memory and spirit of Idora Park and has collected and restored artifacts from the park. The Idora Park Experience is a small museum in Canfield, Ohio that is worth visiting should you find yourself in northeastern Ohio. Go during the Labor Day weekend so you can visit the Canfield Fair. You’ll discover two things that made growing up in the Youngstown area uniquely special.
Photo obtained from www.coasters101.com