For one day, Knoebels was the happiest place on earth

ELYSBURG, Pa. — Here is a park that has survived a Great Depression, a World War and a half-dozen floods. And rather than looking old and tired, Knoebels—85 and counting—is as spry as amusement parks half her age, but with ten times the class.

I decided years ago that I’d had my fill of amusement parks. I’ve done La Ronde to death, and I’ve spent countless hours of my life standing in lines at other Six Flags, the CNE, and county fairs all over North America. I get plenty of thrills driving back country roads and the freeways around New York City, so I don’t need to pay for the feeling of my stomach falling out every time I turn a corner.

But our friend Ginger suggested we go to Knoebels, and Ginger understands the kind of travellers we are.

This gorgeous chunk of Pennsylvania mountain was purchased by the Knoebel family for $931 back in 1828 and while the third generation to live here did farm it, Henry “Old Hen” Knoebel was forward-thinking enough to see the property’s recreational potential. More importantly, the Knoebels built their park while respecting the land. There are trees everywhere here, spaced just far enough apart to safely plant rides that are shaded and cool. The terrible brightness of the July sun is filtered through lush leaves and chill breezes come off the creek each time one strolls over a pedestrian bridge.

The Grand Carousel is one of the world’s largest, but what makes this 1913 merry-go-round fun and unique is that it has a working brass-ring dispenser. Riders on the outer ring stretch with their arms out, collecting metal rings with each pass—the rider who’s lucky enough to catch the brass ring gets bragging rights and the cost of the ride back.

Oh, and the prices! Admission is free, so people like me who are long finished with roller coasters and bumper cars don’t feel like we’re wasting our money, yet tickets are inexpensive enough that it doesn’t take long to get your money’s worth if rides are your thing, or if you’re escorting a child or two to the many, many activities for them. The food stands are plentiful, the food delicious and remarkably well-priced.

I am finished with amusement parks with the exception of Knoebels. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again and again to this magical little place.

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We visited two other amusement parks during the week we went to Knoebels.

Waldameer Water World is more than a hundred years old, a beloved picnic-spot-turned-tourist-attraction beside Lake Erie. I loved its 1960s feel and Jilly loved its lax height limits—she enjoyed her first roller coaster ride and spent far too much time (if you ask me, which I guess you didn’t) on grownup rides. The water park seemed lovely, but the water was frigid, making even the lazy river uncomfortable. We were visiting Erie during a cool week, though, so it’s not like it’s their fault.


Adventureland in Long Island was twelve kinds of terrible. We were there for a birthday party that was so disorganized the host took things into her own hands and fired our animator. I suspect the poor girl was suffering from a serious lack of training, and the faces of nearly all staff we encountered suggest the park isn’t the happiest place to work. Communication with ride operators was next to nil, and it was hot and expensive. I tweeted a complaint, which the company favourited, so I guess making children miserable is just a job well done.

adventureland tweet

Long Island mystery: Who is Catherine M. Walsh?

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. — There were just two things I really wanted to do while stateside for March break: drive the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel again, and visit a few thrift shops. Here we are tripping through the tunnel:


Circumstance and bad timing kept me away from thrift stores in North Carolina and Virginia, where they are plentiful, but our host in Long Island had just the place for me. I spent a gleeful 45 minutes at Unique and unearthed a mystery.

Flipping through the handbags in my never-ending search for the perfect purse, my fingers lighted on a small leather billfold. It was structurally sound, the plastic envelopes for displaying photos just barely yellowed. And it was empty, except …

walsh wallet

I put the treasure in my basket.

I have since discovered just enough about Catherine M. Walsh to drive me mad. She was born in 1917 and died in 1982, and seems to have lived most of that time in Long Island. But what about the empty plastic envelopes? Whose pictures did she cut out and place in there?

I can only imagine. And so imagine I have.

* * *

My Catherine—never Kate, never Cathy—was the fourth of five children born to Irish immigrants who staked their claim to a potato farm on Long Island, back when potatoes were what grew there, rather than subdivisions. Her brothers were nearly grown when she arrived, followed two years later by sweet Alice.

What their father lacked in riches he made up for with a sense of adventure. When my Catherine was 10 and sweet Alice 8, he borrowed a friend’s truck (he was one of those people who, always the first to step up and help out, could ask a favour of anyone and be met with a slap on the back) and loaded the sisters into it for a drive to nearby Garden City. They parked on a dirt road near Roosevelt Airfield and he lifted them into the bed of the truck excitedly. He thrust a newspaper at my Catherine and said, “Read that, Baby. Read what that man there said.”

Their father could read, but he was slow at it, so it was my Catherine’s job to read aloud when he asked. She cleared her throat. “’What kind of man would live where there is no danger’—”

“Right enough!” their father interrupted, laughing, barely containing his excitement. “I face danger every day, sure ’nuff. Nearly split me ankle just yesterday on a stone big as me heart. And how big is that, Baby?”

“Big as Paris!” yelled sweet Alice.

“Big as Paris, Baby. Big as Paris.”

My Catherine gave him a stern look and continued reading. “’Nothing can be accomplished by not taking a chance at all,’ he said. Mr. Lindberg makes his attempt for the Orteig Prize on May 21’—papa, that’s today!—’aboard the Spirit of the St. Louis. Several lives have been lost already in pursuit of the $25,000 award offered to that airman who completes the first non-stop transatlantic flight’.”

“That’s right, Baby!” their father laughed, pointing at the airfield. “I got a good feeling about this guy. I got a good feeling about St. Louis.”


That was the day my Catherine fell in love with aerospace. Her passion for planes and the romance of the open skies would be her welcome shadow throughout her school and teaching-college years. She would become known for using flight analogies in her classrooms and she would—of course—fall in love with a pilot. How could she not?

He was a dashing test pilot for Republic Aviation and he dashed her heart into a million pieces when she caught him kissing a girl outside the robotics pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York City. His buddy Rory Walsh drove her home and didn’t say a word as she sat in the passenger seat and sobbed.

long island women library of congressBespectacled Rory Walsh had a name far more extravagant than his personality, which was cautious and whisper-quiet. My Catherine’s father and brothers were slightly suspicious of that deep stillness, but her mother and sister liked him right away. They were married within the year and would have honeymooned in Paris if it were not for the war.

It was sweet Alice, after all, who married a pilot, then stood helplessly by as he was called to war. Rory was blessedly not called up, because of his poor eyesight and because his position as a parts manufacturer at Republic made him valuable to the war effort on home soil. Sweet Alice came to live with them in their newly built Northport home so she wouldn’t be alone.

My Catherine and Rory were eager to start their family, but the first baby born in their little home was sweet Alice’s Colleen. Ah, how they loved her! The house was filled with sweet Alice’s singing. My Catherine sewed little pinafores, and though her stitches were atrocious—she never had any patience with needles—Colleen only cooed and eyed her adoringly. Rory fashioned her little airplanes from spare parts and bits of metal at Republic, and told her stories of faraway places. When letters from her father were delivered, my Catherine and Rory shared secret glances, guiltily hoping the war would last a little longer so they could keep Colleen just a few weeks more. They could not meet each other’s eyes at all when they learned he had been killed in action.

When it was time for kindergarten, my Catherine walked Colleen to her classroom each day. As time went on, Colleen helped with lesson planning and my Catherine helped with homework till they became one unit of education, teaching each other with every step.

Everyone commented on how alike they were. It was her greatest joy and deepest heartbreak.

republic aviationRory held her tighter on the nights she cried into her pillow, but they never spoke about the cradle that was empty but for Colleen’s dolls and metal airplanes.

They planned to go to Paris the year Colleen turned 10, but Rory was offered a golden opportunity with Grumman Corp. and he had a feeling they were going places. He couldn’t even imagine how far they would go, but that was years away and in the meantime he and my Catherine lived a blessed life, with Colleen and sweet Alice and a ginger cat named Moses.

Rory made a mark on Colleen’s doorframe for each of her birthdays and when he took her measure the day she turned 18, they all cried and wondered at what a lovely young lady she had become. To celebrate her coming of age, she and her mother took a two-week holiday in Paris, a gift from Rory and my Catherine.

Things were changing in the world and in Long Island, and Colleen was in the middle of it, bringing the future to the Walsh household via a record player and tales from the city, where she had a job answering phones in a lawyer’s office. If my Catherine wished she’d become a teacher rather than a switchboard operator, she kept her own council.

She wore short skirts and high boots and showed no interest in the patriarchal idea of marriage and motherhood. Rory clucked his tongue like a disapproving old woman, while her mother and aunt smiled behind their hands and did what they could to encourage her, secretly hoping they’d get to burn their damn bras in the back yard.


The day Kennedy was assassinated was already dark in the Walsh household, as Colleen had just announced she moving in to the city, sharing an apartment with her lover. For the rest of her life she would credit poor dear Kennedy with protecting her from an old-fashioned strapping from sweet Alice or my Catherine, who giggled at the prospect of bra-burnings but had to draw the line somewhere.

They said they would turn her room into an office or a sewing room or a library, but it was never changed. Everything remained as she had left it. Rory was too busy to start building a library or otherwise converting her room anyway, once Grumman won the contract to help build lunar modules. He came home late each night, tired but oh so excited about their progress.

long island home library of congress“The moon, ladies!” he would say, and they would look at each other and smile, and remember their father and his excitement. “We’re going to land men on the moon!”

My Catherine added space-themed projects to her curriculum and won an award for her ingenuity in teaching. She bought a dress for the awards ceremony that she would repurpose for the grand party Grumman put on for the lunar landing. Sheathed in silk but wearing practical black pumps, she stood close to Rory, holding his damp hand as they and dozens of others watched a blurry, monochrome Neil Armstrong descend the craft’s ladder and misspeak what would become one of the most famous sentences in human history.

One perfect tear escaped the corner of Rory’s eye—the enormity of the moment was too much to bear. My Catherine wiped the tear away before anyone noticed and thought about the Spirit of St. Louis, whose journey had seemed impossible 40 years before. And she smiled at Rory and thought about how impossibly deeply she loved him, to the moon and back.

armstrong moon nasaTheir friends became grandparents throughout the 1970s, but Colleen showed no interest in bringing a new baby into their lives. When their family changed again, it was a great surprise—sweet Alice announced her heart had at last softened and she was to marry. Her new love’s feet were firmly planted on the ground—he was the owner of a drive-in theatre in Nassau county.

It was the first time my Catherine and Rory had lived alone. While they giggled like newlyweds, they were of course completely thrown off and wandered about some nights marvelling at how quiet and empty their home had become. They ate their dinners on the couch while The Waltons and Quincy played in the background. They used the dining-room table to spread out travel brochures. Their long-overdue Parisian honeymoon was planned for the summer.

That was the spring she found the lump.

Rory was paralysed with terror, but my Catherine calmly put the brochures away and said they’d go the next summer instead and stop fretting darling, I’ll have to be better by the time school starts. She was back in class the following Christmas, though her doctors advised against it. She needed children to live, she told sweet Alice, who already knew.

highland school long island library of congressShe spent the next summer recovering from disfiguring surgery. My Catherine had never been in a hospital, had rarely visited her family doctor, and had never been away from home for more than a weekend. She hated the white walls and nurses’ soft footfalls. Hated them enough that she was back in her home weeks before her doctors predicted.

It’s not that the fight went out of her. It’s that when the cancer came for her a third time, her battlegrounds had changed. She had watched the landscapes of her loved ones’ faces change and she wanted peace for them. Her tiny family had given her more than a lifetime of joy. (If she had carried on just a few months, that joy would have doubled, but no one knew just then—not even Colleen—that the next generation was starting to develop.)

She let the illness take her quickly, for Rory’s sake. His heart was broken and it couldn’t heal while he hurt for her. Their love expanded, became a living, breathing thing over their home, a membrane that coated visitors when they crossed over their threshold.

Rory’s tears at the end were hot on my Catherine’s cheeks. “I never took you to Paris,” he apologized over and over. “I never took you to Paris.”

She held his hand as firmly as she could, more firmly than her illness should have allowed.

“My love,” she said to him, “You took me to the moon.”


Tesla’s Wardenclyffe and Home Depot’s ghostly secret

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. – I spend far too much time during each vacation waiting in parking lots. Until Sunday, the parking lot had never been the destination. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because Tesla was first.

I’d never heard of Nikola Tesla until David Bowie played him in 2006’s The Prestige. Tesla revolutionized electricity, but it’s Edison’s name we all know. Construction on Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower on Long Island began in 1901; the plain building has a red-brick tower topped with a weather vane, but over that in Wardenclyffe’s heyday was a giant, 187-foot telecommunications tower that was “intended for commercial transatlantic wireless telephony, broadcasting and to demonstrate the transmission of power without interconnecting wires,” according to Wikipedia.

The money ran out. Wardenclyffe was vandalized. By 1915, Tesla no longer owned the land and two years later the radio tower was destroyed so it couldn’t be used as a landmark by enemy submarines.

Various groups have tried to have Wardenclyffe designated a historic site and have tried to raise funds to fix up and maintain it. The building is on a quiet suburban street a few steps from a fire station, on Tesla St. It is covered in graffiti and overgrown with trees and weeds that make it nearly impossible to get a view of the building from the street.

“Hayley,” our friend Zon called as I fruitlessly snapped shots through the fence. “Umn, there’s a hole here.” The hole in the fence was probably left by the taggers – it was plenty wide enough for us to walk through and snap several pics. The spray paint is depressing. Wardenclyffe would make an excellent radio or communications museum, or a grand community centre. Instead it’s rotting away and even the deer roaming the back yard can’t keep the vegetation at bay.

* * *

We snuck back out of Wardenclyffe and headed down the highway to the Home Depot parking lot at Jericho Turnpike. It’s not your average suburban parking lot, you see – there’s a cemetery in the centre of it.

Scouting New York did a little research on the graveyard (you can see plenty more pictures there) and discovered this: “This was once the family cemetery for the Burr Family, who first came to the United States in 1630 and arrived in Long Island in 1656, situating their family farm on land now owned by Home Depot. The cemetery was in use until about 1880.”

Long Island is alive with ghosts, of radio towers and 19th-century farmers.