ROLLER COASTER HISTORY
Posted by Luis Vera on 29 October 2020 07:26 PM
ROLLER COASTER HISTORY
It’s difficult to trace the origins of the thrill ride — for all we know, Stonehenge is just the ruined supports for an early roller coaster. But we do know one thing: that mind-clearing adrenaline buzz you only get from being scared out of your wits is a timeless human endeavor.
The Ice Age
Most coaster historians consider Russian ice slides the forerunners of roller coasters. These large wooden structures, up to 70-feet tall, were popular throughout Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Riders would use a wooden sled or block of ice to slide at up to 50 miles-per-hour (mph) down giant ice-covered wooden hills and crash-land into a sand pile at the bottom. Somewhere along the line, a French businessman brought the ice slide idea back to France, perhaps forgetting that Russian-like winters might be a prerequisite for their success. Undeterred, he or someone else developed an all season solution by waxing the sled runners. Eventually, someone swapped wheels for runners, and more ambitious and thrilling tracks were created. In 1817 someone attached the carts to the tracks and dubbed the ride the Russian Mountains of Belleville. It had two tracks that ran next to each other, so riders could race (and onlookers could bet on the outcome).
The ultimate American thrill ride — past or present — may well have been the Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad, in Mauch Chunk, Penn. (now called Jim Thorpe, Penn.). It was the second railroad ever built (1827) in the United States and was originally used to haul coal from mountaintop mines down to the Lehigh River. The track was built so that miners could load mine cars with coal, shove them over the hillside, and let gravity do the rest. Mules, whose job was to pull the cars back up the hill, and a brave, solitary brakeman were apparently the first participants in this nine-mile, hair-raising tear down the mountain. Thrill-seekers soon took notice, and the track was converted to a thrill ride in the afternoons. Eventually, the mules were replaced by a steam engine that hauled the empty cars up a longer, more gradual track. People would pay $1 to ride up the gradual incline, then the steam engine was removed, and the cars were pushed back down the hill, with speeds apparently reaching nearly 100 mph. Now that’s a roller coaster! In 1872, a new tunnel was constructed, which made the track obsolete for coal-hauling. Eventually, a restaurant and hotel were built at the top, and the ride attracted more than 35,000 passengers a year. It continued to operate, with an amazing safety record, until it was closed in 1933.
Upside Down Side
Way back in 1846, an Englishman apparently sold a loop-the-loop coaster ride to the French. This Paris attraction, called the Centrifuge Railway (Chemin du Centrifuge), featured a 43-foot high hill leading into a 13-foot wide loop. The rider would sit in a wheeled cart, pray to the physics gods, and hang on as the car whipped down the hill and through the loop with only centrifugal force keeping the cart and rider on course. Nearly 50 years later, in 1895, Lina Beecher revived the idea with the Flip-Flap Railway, a 25-foot circular loop at Coney Island. The circular design was very unforgiving in the g-force department, and whiplash complaints were no doubt part of the reason why it only lasted a few seasons. In 1901 a man named Edward Prescott built a new looping coaster, also at Coney Island. This ride, called Loop The Loop, was oval-shaped to reduce g-forces. Its low seating capacity, perhaps, was why it only lasted six years.
The first “roller coaster tycoon” was probably La Marcus Thompson, the man who created the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, which opened at Coney Island in 1884. His ride was a 650-foot long wooden structure shaped like the Russian ice slides. Riders would climb a platform, board cars and be pushed down a hill and over a few bumps. At the other end, workers would hoist the car to the top of a second station, riders would board again and coast back in the other direction. The early ride focused more on sightseeing than excitement, so the bench-like coaster cars faced sideways and the ride traveled at a mere 6 mph. But people loved it:Thompson charged just a nickel a ride, and made more than $600 a week. Thompson’s success was an inspiration. In late 1884, a man named Charles Alcoke created a U-shape version of the Switchback ride that did not require riders to unload and reload mid-way. In 1885 Phillip Hinkle added a cable hoisting mechanism. Soon, track-mounted brakes were developed, track designs improved, and the rides began to look and act like modern-day roller coasters. In 1912, coaster designer John Miller, who got his start as LaMarcus Thompson’s chief engineer, patented a design for the under-friction roller coaster. This revolutionary safety advancement made steeper drops and faster speeds possible by holding the cars to the tracks and reducing drag. Miller, a complete coaster tycoon, held over 100 patents on roller coaster devices and designed more than 100 roller coasters. Miller’s safety advances apparently inspired inventors to push design limits even further. Take the infamous Cyclone of Crystal Beach, Ontario, Canada. This ride, designed by Harry Traver in 1927, topped out in the intensity department — often leaving riders with broken ribs or snapped collar bones. (An on-staff nurse was always present.) It failed to profit and was eventually shut down, apparently because more people came to watch others ride it rather than“enjoy” the ride themselves. The Cyclone was not the only roller coaster from this era that didn't last. The Great Depression and World War II saw the decay and destruction of more than 1,500 roller coasters in the United States, and at least that many overseas.
Back on Track
The amusement park industry was given a shot in the arm in 1955 with the opening of the first successful theme park: Disneyland. Disney’s contribution to coaster history was Matterhorn Mountain, the first tubular steel coaster. Steel construction allowed for much faster and more thrilling rides, including the Corkscrew at Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park, Calif.), in 1975, and Magic Mountain California’s Great Revolution, built in 1976. Both rides revived the centuries-old novelty of going upside down (this time with proper safety restraints). These led to rides with double loops, triple loops, and combinations of corkscrews, loops, and other elements — the race was on! Since then we’ve seen inverted coasters (cars travel beneath the tracks), linear induction motor coasters (power-launched), “giga-coasters,” (over 300 feet tall), multi-dimensional coasters (free-spinning cars), vertical coasters, air-powered coasters, and more. No one knows what the future will bring, but it’s safe to predict that — whatever it is — it will be faster, taller, longer, scarier, and, best of all more fun.