American History, Idlewild, Ligonier Valley History, Pennsylvania History, Westmoreland County history

Idlewild: The Right and Privilege for 140 years

Postmarked 1908, this souvenir postcard is courtesy of the Latrobe Area Historical Society.

Happy Birthday, Idlewild and SoakZone! Today marks the 140th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s oldest amusement park. On May 1, 1878, William Darlington penned another letter to Judge Thomas Mellon settling terms for the Ligonier Valley Rail Road to lease part of a scenic Ligonier Township estate for “picnic purposes or pleasure grounds.”

A photograph of the original letter, William Darlington to Thomas Mellon, May 1, 1878. as reproduced in James Madison Myers, “The Ligonier Valley Rail Road and Its Communities” (1955). The original letter was purportedly among the Ligonier Valley Rail Road papers.


Dear Sir:
In compliance with your request, I will and do hereby agree to grant to the Ligonier Valley Railway Company the right and privilege to occupy for picnic purposes or pleasure grounds that portion of my land in Ligonier Township, Westmoreland County as follows—the strip or piece of ground lying between the railway and the creek and extending from the old cornfield to Byards run —also two or three acres on the opposite or South Side of the creek adjoining or near the same. Without compensation in the shape of rent for three years from the first of April 1878 provided no timber or other trees are to be cut or injured—the under brush you may clear out if you wish to do so.
Yours respectfully,
Wm. M. Darlington

It’s only been four days since William Darlington’s last epistle to Thomas Mellon. Plenty of time to raise some more questions about this deal! Did Darlington receive a letter from the judge during this time, or did the two men finally meet in person to hammer out the terms that would allow the Ligonier Valley Rail Road to use the Darlingtons’ land for picnic grounds? Darlington’s letter states that the three-year, no-rent lease agreement with the railroad company began as of April 1st, a full month before the date of this letter, but why backdate the lease? In his April 27 letter, Darlington balks at a longer agreement that’s implied had no rent attached, so the agreement wasn’t fully arranged as of April 1. Perhaps there was a gentlemen’s agreement to allow some casual picnic activity on the grounds while the two men negotiated. It’s conceivable that folks were picnicking and camping on the Darlington property long before the railroad established Idlewild and perhaps Idlewild itself existed a little bit earlier than the May 1, 1878 date that we’ve all come to understand as the park’s “birthday.” Without Mellon’s letters, or additional ones from Darlington, we don’t know any further details about the park agreement, unfortunately.

Land surveys and abstract of title, 1803-1879, Box 3, Folder 32, Darlington Family Papers, 1753-1921, DAR.1925.01, Darlington Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh

Idlewild Park’s original boundaries were much smaller than the amusement park complex we know today.  In 1878, there was comparatively little development of the land, presumably some type of dwelling, as the property served as a tenanted farm for many years. The railroad company wouldn’t be permitted to develop the park on the northern side of the train tracks until 1891, so any early improvements (i.e. railroad station, dining hall, dancing platform) would be confined along the creek. I included the two earliest surveys I could find of the Darlington estate in my book, but I also wanted to share a survey dated May 9, 1879, so readers can see the footprint of the entire Darlington estate around the time of Idlewild’s creation. The survey description reads:

Surveyed the above described tract of land in Ligonier Township, Westmoreland County, PA at the instance and request of Wm. M. Darlington of the city of Pittsburg, Pa. Containing three hundred and thirty acres and one hundred and thirty-eight perches strict measure be the same more or less.  

Mary Darlington, Deed, March 21, 1866, Box 26, Folder 14, Darlington Family Papers, 1753-1921, DAR.1925.01, Darlington Collection, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh

In Idlewild: History and Memories of Pennsylvania’s Oldest Amusement Park,  I trace the history of the land that would eventually become Idlewild Park, back to when the Pennsylvania Land Office opened in 1769, before Westmoreland County was created and before the United States of America was even established. But one fact I like to continuously stress is that, at the time the Ligonier Valley Rail Road was vying for use of the land, it was legally owned by Mary Carson O’Hara Darlington, NOT her husband, despite the fact that William describes it as “my land” in his May 1 letter. In short, Mary and her two siblings inherited an extensive amount of land in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties that their grandfather, James O’Hara (an important name in western Pennsylvania history), had amassed, including the future Idlewild property.

Portrait of Mary O’Hara Darlington, circa 1885-1888, Darlington Family Papers, Darlington Digital Library, University of Pittsburgh.

I have to speculate that Mary Darlington had a strong voice in the decision to allow the Ligonier Valley Rail Road to use her land for its picnic grove, based on a December 24, 1844 trust agreement between the couple and James O’Hara. The deed “recites that a marriage is to solemnized between William M. Darlington and Mary C. O’Hara, and that said William M. Darlington is desirous that all the estate belonging to the said Mary O’Hara shall be secured for her separate use during her marriage free from any control on his part.” Both Darlingtons were passionate about preserving and promoting art and local history, particularly of Western Pennsylvania, and I like to imagine they were more equal partners in marriage than the 19th century norm.

Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library.

Today is a momentous day in Idlewild history. The railroad company now had the “right and privilege” to proceed with setting up and promoting picnic grounds along the line. Within the next several years, a covered depot, shelters, creek bridge, swings and sports would be added to the park, with more extensive improvements towards the turn of the century and beyond. The Ligonier Valley Rail Road would partner with the Pennsylvania Railroad to promote group excursions to Idlewild, which soon became a chief source of revenue for the LVRR as its inbound passenger count would steadily increase each year, with more and more people flocking to the picturesque mountain retreat.


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