By Ned Johnstone
     I was lucky to live close enough to Kennywood Park to be able to go there quite a few times each season and I always rode the Ghost Ship at least four or five times per visit. I rode it with family. I rode it with my friends. In the last year or so I rode it with dates. We all changed a lot over those five years after I first braved it. The Ghost Ship itself actually changed very little.
     Then, on June 19, 1975, a tragic event changed my perspective on life. I heard about it in my neighborhood drugstore. I’d walked there to have a bottle of soda. It was hot. Someone was talking to the pharmacist. “A fire at Kennywood.” “Oh, really?” The conversation was very casual. “Yeah. The Ghost Ship burned down.” “You don’t say? Isn’t that something? Sure hope nobody got hurt. That’ll be fifteen cents.”
     My own reaction seems strange to me now. Not shock or sadness. More like curious, as I recall. But maybe it shouldn’t seem so strange really. I was thirteen. The world was a new thing. Summer evenings were mellow golden magic. A year was forever. And the things I loved and depended on would always be there. This Ghost Ship burned down. Okay. Well, the new one would be the same old one. On that very hot spring afternoon, the ride and the historic building that housed it met their tragic end.  
     Kennywood had just got the rides up and running for the day, and a local school district named Mount Lebanon was having their annual picnic. Shortly after noon time, a patron just coming off the ride told
assistant Ghost Ship manager Sandy Kalla that she smelled smoke. About this same time Henny Henninger (grandson of park co-founder F.W. Henninger, and assistant general manager at the time) was coming from the park’s kiddieland area located behind the dance hall and saw smoke. The ride was immediately shut down and cleared out. Park maintenance head Fred Weber and other maintenance workers were heading up to the cafeteria for lunch when they heard the fire bell. Fred remembers grabbing a fire extinguisher and trying to run into the ride. He recalls getting a few feet in the front and seeing the roof starting to go up in flames! Dave Procupp came running from the lunchroom to see if he could offer any help, but at this point all was lost. Within a
matter of minutes the 76-year-old building that hosted so many memories, was going up like a tinder box.
     “Me, personally, I don’t know what caused the fire,” recalled Procupp, adding that one of his co-workers on duty at the time told him that an exiting female patron saw a fire in the outhouse scene. Procupp said it’s possible a rider threw something inside the ride that ignited the fire, but he can’t be sure. “There were also rumors that somebody dumped a charcoal grill out at the corner of the building,” recalled Procupp. “I heard that, but it didn’t seem right to me that it was right at lunch time (when the fire started); they’d be getting ready for lunch then.”
     My dad took me and my friend Julie to Kennywood the very next day. Amid the wreckage, only two charred beams remained upright. As I looked at it, I thought of the “old fashioned ghost” in his boat. Wondered what that might have looked like on fire. I suppose, looking back now, that the figure in that long ago boat wasn’t a ghost at all, but Death. But like I said, I was thirteen then. Years away from recognizing death, still more years away from the sad realization that loss is marked not just by losing those people we love, but by losing those things and places we love as well.