We last saw the ride in 2009 on a frigid January day at the Jersey Shore. We’d gone to Wildwood for a ceremony to mark the end of the Golden Nugget. The amusement park there was dismantling the gold mine ride after 49 years on the boardwalk. We’d been sad to see the Golden Nugget go, and with it the giant neon spider, the prospector mannequins and other goofy stuff that’s increasingly hard to find in amusement parks these days.
Details, Knoebels Amuseument Resort, Elysburg, Pa.
Three years later, here we were outside the reborn Golden Nugget in central Pennsylvania. We were excited that Knoebels had not only saved the dark ride but reinterpreted it as well. In a nod to the park’s location, Knoebels has abandoned the gold mine theme for coal. Gone are the fake cacti and faux Western cliffs that once decorated the exterior. Black metal sheeting now surrounds the ride in a stark, modern nod to coal mine towers.
Inside, we passed mining scenes. We rode through a cave filled with bats whose eyes glowed red. We entered a re-creation of Centralia — a real place just 15 miles away where coal strains have been burning underground for 50 years. In the Black Diamond, we saw houses violently sink into the ground. We were pulled through a spinning tunnel that glowed lava red all around us.
“That was pretty incredible,” I said to Rob when we were back outside. That’s not to say that either the effects or the ride itself was scary — two short hills inside had us going at about the speed of a playground slide. But with the Black Diamond, Knoebels has managed to both preserve a historic form of amusement and reimagine it for a specific place and time. As a result, the Black Diamond embodies the charm of Knoebels, a place that’s as much a living history museum as it is an amusement park.
The story of Knoebels goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Long before Rob and I came to see the Black Diamond, day-trippers would come to this spot to swim at the junction of two streams. Roaring Creek and Mugser’s Run still flow through the park (and have been the source of some devastating floods over the years).
On July 4, 1926, Henry “Old Hen” Knoebel opened the park with a stream-fed pool, a carousel, a restaurant and some arcade games. Today, the park has 58 rides. To be sure, a lot of these rides are for children — or at least are the same attractions you’d find at any amusement park. But Knoebels’s pay-as-you-go policy meant that Rob and I could pick and choose the things we wanted to see and the rides we wanted to ride.
And what we wanted to see and ride were the things that revealed Knoebels’s past and, through it, a bit of the history of amusement parks. We rode the dented metal cars of the Haunted Mansion. Built in 1973, the house contains (spoiler alert) a dragon that jumps out of a clock, a hall lined with glowing green skulls, a clown dummy that falls from the ceiling and one questionable scene that has a cannibal jump out of a jungle landscape.