The following story, “The Pipe Line Picnic at Conneaut Lake Park”, is one of several by LeRoy S. Kuhn, a man I never met and who has no known surviving immediate relatives. As I mentioned in a previous blog post (Are Stories of the Past Worth Preserving?), I believe his stories are worth preserving and sharing.
Because they serve as important historical records for the area in which he resided and provide a glimpse of what life was like for a polio survivor in small-town America in the mid-twentieth century. His stories are even more poignant to me since I was born and raised in the area of northwestern Pennsylvania, of which he writes.
Note that I have slightly modified his original writing for clarity and ease of reading. In addition, I have incorporated some historical anecdotes and added relevant links to help you learn more about the topics he addresses. You can read the full, unedited manuscript here. Also, the featured image for this article is not a photo of the actual Blue Streak roller coaster Mr. Kuhn mentions in his story; actual images I found became pixelated when enlarged for this blog post.
I hope that you enjoy his story below and I welcome your feedback in the comments.
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The Pipe Line Picnic at Conneaut Lake Park
by LeRoy S. Kuhn
I was scraping the paint on the house next door when mother came out of the house and said, “You’d better quit or you’ll be too tired to enjoy the Pipe Line Picnic tomorrow.”
I had talked all summer of going to the Pipe Line Picnic, and my mother so wanted me to go and be able to enjoy the day, especially since I had endured a long polio operation that forced me to go the entire school year on crutches. (This early effort to help polio children is now Easterseals serving those with special needs of all ages.)
The polio parents who had refused to try such a new, serious, and unusual operation on their own children predicted I would become more lame than ever but instead, I could now, for the first time in my life, do a man’s work. It felt great to be completely worn out; to lie on the cool grass for a bit and then jump up like a new person.
Taking mother’s advice, I quit for the day and eagerly anticipated the next day’s activities.
The Train Ride
The Western Allegheny Railroad that went through the town of Hooker, Pennsylvania ran from Kaylor to Queen Junction to New Castle, didn’t have enough facilities to transport people to such a big affair. They had only two coaches on the passenger run – one for the general public and the other equally divided, half as a baggage car and half as “The Smoker” for men only.
So, for this big affair, the Bessemer Railroad backed seven coaches into Kaylor and picked passengers up not only at every station, but also all along the way where anyone flagged them down until every seat was taken. At Hooker, 35 to 40 of us boarded the train and found scattered seats; I was the only one from my family who went. It was a most exciting day for a boy of twelve.
On this trip, we were allowed to walk the coaches; going from one to another was a scary experience. As you opened the door, a blast of air took your breath away and an upward draft almost knocked you down. As you stepped on the shifting steel plate between the coaches, you felt the strain on the great coupler holding the cars together as they continually tried to break apart.
To the rear of every coach was a drinking fountain and above the spigot, there was a slot holding envelopes that unfolded into a drinking cup. Each tiny cup held one gulp of lukewarm water.
The toilet was beside it and was to be used only when the train was moving. If the train stopped for any length of time, the conductor locked the doors. So while the train traveled down the tracks, my friends and I went in to look down the closet hole to watch the railroad ties flash by, a hundred a minute. It gave the feeling of traveling at a terrific speed.
To help pass the time, the older boys matched pennies with the odd man winning. Two boys would agree by certain signs to either throw heads or tails, but always in that combination so the sucker had no chance of ever being odd man and always lost. They moved about the train always finding some fool anxious to make some easy pennies.
The Pipe Line Picnic
Finally, we arrived at Conneaut Exposition Park. Most families carried big picnic baskets off the train as few had the money to buy a complete meal at the eating stands; anyhow, it seemed like a waste of money.
Conneaut Lake is Pennsylvania’s largest natural lake and is located halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie, minutes from the Ohio border.
The park officials were smart. They had arranged the Pipe Line Picnic to come on a slow day when little else was going on. It seemed we had the whole place to ourselves.
I had never seen a roller coaster before and went there first thing. It was such a thrill speeding around the curves, going up small humps, when suddenly the car was hooked to a chain taking us higher and higher. We paused at the top a moment to see the danger ahead and when we were not watching, the bottom dropped out of everything and in seconds, we were back on ground level. It took my breath away, and I must have passed out.
The next thing I realized, the car had stopped and my buddies hollered, “It’s all over.” I was sure it was.
The Blue Streak roller coaster at Conneaut opened to the public in 1938. Today, it is the 17th oldest wooden roller coaster in the United States.
There always seemed to be a long line waiting at the Tunnel of Love. A boat built just for two people floated on a narrow canal, pushed along by a rapid current. The last part of the ride went into a dark tunnel, and as the couples came out into daylight, everyone hollered and yelled. In the last afternoon, we boys went back and took a ride. There was nothing to it; it wasn’t a bit spooky.
On the train ride home, we sat in our seats like little angels, completely worn out. It had been a great day, never to be forgotten, and never to happen again. It was the last holiday to honor the oil men at the Pipe Line Picnic; a renowned tradition that had started in 1887.
The History of the Pipe Line Picnic
LeRoy ends his personal reflections here and then launches into the background of the picnic. I have moved his original concluding paragraph to the following paragraph in order to provide proper attribution. Note that the link goes to a 1916 issue of the magazine; I was unable to locate the particular issue he quotes below.
The July 1913 issue of The Oil and Gas Magazine gives us this [following] early history and proudly relates that in the first 27 years, a quarter of a million people had attended the Pipe Line Picnic without an accident.
The first picnic was planned on a moment’s notice. Mr. C.A. Hite, superintendent of the National Transit Co. was sitting in the office of C. H. Wattson of the Oil and Gas Men’s Association at Petrolia and noticed in the paper that the railroad was opening a new park at Kiester, to be called Slippery Rock Park, a place where picnics could be held by Sunday schools and other organizations. In a few minutes, a suggested plan that was drawn up and on June 28, 1887, that same year, the first Pipe Line Picnic was held, a holiday honoring the oil men. The excursion started at Foxburg on the old Shenango Railroad.
“It was the most grotesque looking combination of cars that was possibly ever hooked together. The track was narrow gauge and the engine and cars were miniature in size. The railroad company could only spare one passenger coach from its regular service, so the remainder had to be improvised from the flat and box cars. Seats were provided for by the use of boards laid cross-wise. When the steep grades were met, the little engine was unable to pull the weight; so everybody climbed out to lighten the burden and incidentally, to help by pushing. In the course of several hours, Butler was reached (30 miles) where the excursionists were transferred to the cars of the Pittsburgh Shenango and Lake Erie Railroad (regulation-wide tracks). As their cars were already well filled, most had to stand up. All were good natured and enjoyed the trip and the day on the grounds to the fullest extent.”
There were no amusements or eating stands at this first picnic. These hardy, robust men dressed in dark Sunday, three-piece suits and straw hats enjoyed talking and exchanging stories of the oil field on a hot summer day in June. The picture of the first picnic shows more than a 100 in attendance.
The small Slippery Rock Park at Kiester could not accommodate the increasing popularity of the oil men’s Pipe Line Picnic, and with great fanfare, on June 28, 1892, they opened the new Exposition Park at Conneaut Lake with a crowd of 3,000 people.