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Knoebels Amusement Resort: A One-of-a-Kind Park
By Lloyd S. Wagner
A tribute to earlier times with all the excitement of today’s attractions
Relaxing. Traditional. Comfortable. Such words are seldom associated with an amusement park, but perfectly appropriate for Knoebels Amusement Resort located in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. It’s America’s largest free-admission park.
If the thought of an amusement park makes your feet ache and your budget blister, consider Knoebels. This award-winning, family-owned and -oriented park, nestled in a cool, shaded grove, is proof that thrilling rides and endless amusement need not come with certain pains.
Let’s start with those admission booths, where a quick head count is multiplied by a large dollar amount. At Knoebels, there are no admission booths – just stroll in and look around – and parking is free. Amusements are purchased individually, using tickets bought at kiosks throughout the park. This means that children pay only for children’s rides, thrill seekers pay for thrill rides and no one pays for the pleasure of watching. For die-hard ride fanatics, the all-day, pay-one-price admission is available too—some rides excepted.
Knoebels maintains an ever-increasing stable of world-class amusement rides, from award-winning thrill rides, such as the roller coasters and Power Surge, to nostalgic favorites, like the classic bumper cars, the Italian trapeze and the exquisite Grand Carousel.
Rides are continually being added. New in 2008 was Flying Turns, the park’s re-creation of a classic thrill ride that was popular in the early 20th century. Built by local carpenters and craftsmen, this ride is best described as a wooden bobsled run with freewheeling cars racing through a wooden trough without any track or guide.
In total, there are 55 rides: 19 kiddie rides, 19 family rides and 17 thrill rides. To complement this collection, Knoebels offers an array of other attractions and amusements, including a bald eagle habitat, XD Theatre, carousel and mining museums, and an 18-hole golf course. Live entertainment can be found at both the band shell and Roaring Creek Saloon.
Not Typical Theme Park
All this might suggest vast acreage and much hiking, which is not the case. Rather than being built on a pre-selected, “conveniently located” site along some barren stretch of interstate highway, Knoebels grew up where it stands and its location is an attraction in and of itself.
The Knoebels story originates with the Reverend Henry Hartman Knoebel, who bought the grove along with its surrounding farmland for $931 in 1828. His son, H.H. Knoebel, or “Old Hen’” was first to see the recreational potential of the property once known as Peggy’s Farm.
By the turn of the century, Knoebel’s farm had become a destination for Tally-Hos, or weekend hayrides. Visitors would come to cool off by the creek, picnic in the woods and swim. More daring visitors were known to jump from the covered bridge into the swimming hole below.
Henry Knoebel soon capitalized on this traffic, first charging to care for visitors’ horses, but soon adding picnic tables, a lifeguard and refreshments. In time, people began leasing land and building summer cottages here as well. Some of these early cottages survived the years and have been incorporated into the park, such as the Old Mill Ice Cream stand. The formal beginning of what is now Knoebels Amusement Resort came in 1926, with the opening of the swimming pool and first restaurant.
Carousels And Covered Bridges
A steam-powered carousel operated by Philadelphian Joe Gallagher became the resort’s first ride and the beginning of a beloved tradition. Both of the current carousels, the Grand Carousel and the Spanish Bambini, have long histories. The 27-ton Grand Carousel was brought to Knoebels in 1942, having been built in 1913 by George Kremer. Its 63 wooden horses and three chariots were carved by Charles Carmel; and its two musical organs were manufactured in Germany, the larger of the two in 1888, the smaller in 1900.
The smaller carousel was created in Brooklyn, New York, by Stein and Goldstein between 1912 and 1918. First purchased by the Knoebels in the 1940s, it was sold in the 1950s, only to be repurchased and restored in 1975. Its organ is the same instrument that accompanied Joe Gallagher’s carousel in 1926. After 50 years in storage, the carousel was restored and played again in 1986.
Perhaps as treasured as the carousels, are Knoebels’ trademark covered bridges. Though the earliest of these was replaced by the highway department in 1940, two of them remain. The oldest dates to 1875 and leads into an adjacent Knoebels campground. Though damaged in a 1972 flood, which inundated the park, the repaired bridge remains in use.
The second is the pedestrian bridge spanning Roaring Creek, in the heart of the park. Though relatively new, it was built in 1975, it too contains a little history. Its 51-foot-long roof timbers were hand-hewn in 1865 to be part of the Berninger Grist Mill, which operated just a few miles from the park.
Respite Among Trees
Despite its extraordinary growth from humble beginnings, Knoebels retains its rustic charm. Seen from the air, most of the current operation remains hidden by shading, old growth trees. This is a deliberate choice on the part of the park’s family owners. The original plans for the park’s flume ride were rejected because they would have required removing too many of the trees. The final plans saved 50 percent of those trees.
The surroundings make for a cool, relaxed atmosphere that is strong enough to overcome the urge to rush from ride to ride. Coupled with plentiful seating and abundant refreshments, a day at Knoebels is more invigorating than tiring.
Within 25 miles of Knoebels there are 15 campgrounds and no shortage of sights to see for visitors to the Elysburg area. Though predominantly a combination of rolling farmland and lush forest, Columbia and Northumberland counties, which the park straddles, offer a surprising array of attractions.
Nearby Bloomsburg is a charming college town, featuring shops, galleries, a children’s museum and the nationally recognized Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, staging productions for all ages year-round. Rickett’s Glen State Park, in nearby Benton, is one of Pennsylvania’s most scenic parks, boasting more than 13,000 acres spread across three counties, with a series of waterfalls as the park’s centerpiece.
Some unexpected animal life can also be found nearby. Columbia Creek Farm in Bloomsburg breeds Peruvian alpacas, selling clothing woven from their premium wool, and Broken Wheel Ranch in Elysburg raises American bison. Tours are available, but call ahead, as both are working operations. Rolling Hills Farm in Catawissa, featuring red deer, offers educational tours in May through November. Clyde Peeling’s Reptile Land in Allenwood has been entertaining and educating visitors since 1964.
Knoebels’ central location makes it an ideal starting point for day-trippers. An hour’s drive puts one in the Pocono Mountains, home to countless resorts and attractions. Also close by, Lancaster and the Pennsylvania Dutch country or the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area host many historical locations, such as Steamtown National Historical Site, home of the nation’s foremost collection of steam locomotives, and the Lackawanna County Coal Mine, where visitors travel 300 feet below the earth. A similar attraction, the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine in Ashland, Pennsylvania, features an operating steam train. This area is also home to Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, offering casino gaming, harness racing and world-class dining.
Baseball fans might want to catch either the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the New York Yankees’ Triple A affiliate; or the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Class A affiliate. Better known as the home of Little League Baseball, Williamsport hosts the Little League World Series every August, an event everyone should see at least once in a lifetime.
So on your next trip, a visit to the traditional, comfortable and relaxing amusement park will reward you with contrasting pleasures.
For More Information
Pennsylvania Tourism Office
4th Floor, Commonwealth Keystone Bldg.
400 North St.
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Knoebels Amusement Resort
1921 E. Main St.
Hegins, PA 17938
Hidden Valley Camping Resort
162 Hidden Valley Lane
Mifflinburg, PA 17844
J and D Campground
973 Southern Drive
Catawissa, PA 17820
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park/Shangri-La
670 Hidden Paradise Road
Milton, PA 17847
For a complete listing of campgrounds in the area, please consult your 2009 Woodall’s North American Campground Directory.