This is the first in a series of “behind the book” posts I’ll be publishing periodically to highlight my research behind Idlewild: History and Memories of Pennsylvania’s Oldest Amusement Park. I’ll also be sharing photos that didn’t make the book and digging deeper into Idlewild’s history. Enjoy!
Spring has finally arrived in Western Pennsylvania. Trees are budding, flowers are blooming and Idlewild and SoakZone is poised to open within the next several weeks.
Springtime was an equally crucial time for Idlewild 140 years ago. Sometime after the Ligonier Valley Rail Road finally went into business (officially opening in December 1877), its owners – the Mellon family – conceived the idea to create a picnic grove to boost passenger business on the short-line railroad that connected Ligonier to Latrobe. By late April 1878, Judge Thomas Mellon had begun corresponding with Pittsburgh attorney William McCullough Darlington, whose wife Mary Carson O’Hara Darlington owned an approximately 275-acre tract of land in Ligonier Township that spanned both sides of the railroad. In 1872 prior directors had secured a 40-foot right-of-way through the Darlingtons’ land for the Ligonier Valley Rail Road.
Cradled by mountains, divided by the Loyalhanna Creek and bursting with native Pennsylvania flora and fauna, the tenanted farm would provide a scenic spot for local townies and Pittsburghers looking for a country escape. Judge Mellon reached out to William Darlington with a proposal to lease the property for “picnic purposes.” Unfortunately, Mellon’s letters, if they have survived, have not yet been found, and it’s unknown when the judge first reached out to Darlington and just how long the two men corresponded back and forth. Nonetheless, the first known letter – a response from Darlington dated 140 years ago today on April 27, 1878 – indicates that some negotiation would probably be necessary to broker a deal for the land:
Before I went to Ohio, over two weeks ago I called at your Bank more than once to see you with the same results you have met with in looking for me. I would suggest a writ of “mutual attachment” to bring the parties together. However, on Monday or Tuesday I will make an earnest endeavor to see you although I must say from the tenor of your “Form” of agreement and length of time mentioned in your note I fear we cannot come to an agreement. I had no idea you desired such a length of time—five years—or that you wanted any ground over the creek where I have twenty to thirty acres. I am inclined to be liberal toward your company but to tie myself for five years without recompense is entirely inadvisable.
Credit for the image above goes to the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association, which possesses a copy of Myers’ thesis. Although I’ve certainly tried my hardest, the original letter has not yet been found; Myers’ thesis claims the letter is among the Ligonier Valley Rail Road papers, but it’s a mystery as to what happened to these materials after he used them for his research. Destroyed? Lost? Hidden?
Darlington’s letter tells us some things but also prompts some questions. First, the picnic grove idea was at least in the works by early April, as Darlington had tried to meet with Mellon more than two weeks before he penned this letter. The Mellon family/Ligonier Valley Rail Road planned to use the land for at least five years, but perhaps asked to use it for free? Why was Darlington so “inclined to be liberal” towards the railroad company? What was the judge’s response to Darlington’s missive and what did he offer the attorney for use of the land?