“That’s it,” I said to my partner, Rob. “That’s the Golden Nugget.”
Not that it looked anything like the Golden Nugget as we remembered it. Or that it was even called the Golden Nugget anymore. Rob and I were at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa., standing in front of the dark ride that is known today as the Black Diamond.
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.
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.
We played Fascination in one of the country’s last spots devoted to the game. A sit-down mix of Skeeball and tic-tac-toe, Fascination is a group game run by a live announcer. Winners receive tickets that can be redeemed for prizes that line the walls. The game was popular early in the 20th century; the oldest continually operating game, in Nantasket Beach, Mass., dates to 1918.
Afterward, Rob and I went to the Grand Carousel. Brass rings still hang over the edge; riders can try to grab them with each turn. But we didn’t get on: The carousel is four abreast — four rows deep, in carousel speak. We would have had to be pretty aggressive to get outside horses, and we didn’t think that two men in their early 30s should fight children for the best seats on a carousel, no matter how historic.
But it was enough to look and not touch. I’ve always found carousels a bit twee, but this one was fairly spectacular. Famed carver Charles Carmel created its 63 horses. It was built in 1913 and came to Knoebels in 1942. The music is provided by two organs dating to 1888 and 1900.
Knoebels has a small carousel museum that made us appreciate the art form even more. We saw all kinds of mounts — horses, yes, but also lions and ostriches and elephants. We even saw a chicken, which we learned was a popular figure in England. The museum broke down the carousel into its separate parts, such as the rounding boards that decorate the sides of a carousel’s roof. On the ride, these elements can all blur together. When they were separated, we could see each as distinct creative works.
Still, Knoebels is not as precious as a carousel museum might suggest. It has all the usual amusement park trappings: Dippin’ Dots, cheap prizes and parents who yell at their children. Plus roller coasters and the teenagers who always seem to run them.
So after the carousel museum, Rob and I rode the Phoenix. Like the Golden Nugget, the Phoenix is a transplant. The wooden roller coaster was built in 1947 as the Rocket. Knoebels bought it when the Texas park that owned it closed in 1980.
Enthusiasts consistently rank the Phoenix as one of the top wooden roller coasters in the world. As Rob and I waited for our turn, one of the ride attendants played with a yo-yo. The dispatcher kept telling people in line not to sit on the railings.
Our car finally came. I sat down and was surprised by the space between me and the lap bar: This wasn’t the kind of padded restraint that seems to crush either your lungs or your bladder on so many other coasters.
Our car made the first clickety-clack climb and dropped over the top. The fall was thrilling, yes, but the rapid series of smaller hills that followed were the really scary parts. Hurtling over them, I wasn’t thinking about the age of the Phoenix. I didn’t appreciate that Knoebels had saved it or the Grand Carousel or the Golden Nugget. I didn’t worry about the fate of any other amusement park rides. In that moment, I was worried only about myself, and whether I’d fly out of my seat.
Smith is a Philadelphia writer.