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ARTICLE: Roller Coaster History

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Found some stuff that may interest some. Its a short history of our favorite hobbies.


Part one from invention to the turn of the century http://www.thechronicle.us/news.php?id=2156


And part two 1920 to 1950 http://www.thechronicle.us/news.php?id=2193


Part three will be next week.

Here are the articles below.


They have earned the name, “The Incredible Scream Machines.” For some, a ride on a roller coaster is the perfect way to celebrate a beautiful summer day. For others, a ride is the realization of the worst fears imaginable. My aunt once got so scared riding a coaster that it took emergency workers 45 minutes to pry her hands off the front bar of the ride after the trip was over. The whole time she kept screaming, “The holder you tight, the faster you go.” Way to go, Aunt Vickie.


For me, they are fun as long as they don’t try to simulate reentry into the earth’s atmosphere or get packed with people who get sick to their stomachs on a ride. I especially like the old wooden ones that look and sound rickety and start with a not-too-steep lift. They are extra good if located in an old-fashioned amusement park with a penny arcade. I digress.


Many experts believe that coasters got their start in 17th century Russia. In and around the St. Petersburg area entrepreneurs built ice slides by the dozens and wealthy customers loved them. Often 70-80 feet high and a hundred or more feet long, patrons would climb stairs on the back of the slide and ride a sled down a slope that gradually tapered to a flat surface.


Historians differ on exactly when and where the first wheeled cars appeared. A few credit the Russians with building the first around 1784. There is a bit more evidence to give the French the distinction. Around 1817, they constructed wheeled coasters named Les Montagues Russes a Belleville and Promenades Aeriennes. The first looping coaster was built in England and erected in Paris at the Frascati Gardens. It was 43-feet high and had a 13-foot wide loop in it.


In this country, LaMarcus Thompson is recognized as having built the first roller coaster. Well, it wasn’t really a roller coaster after all. It was a switchback railroad built on an inclined plane in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. It gave riders a fantastic view of the Lehigh River. The switchback operated from 1872-1929 and was purchased by the Jersey Central Railroad before it shut down.


Thompson had competition from the get-go. In 1878, Richard Knudsen received a patent on “Improvement in the Inclined Railroad,” but he never operated one. In 1884, Coney Island opened “Thompson’s The Switchback Railroad.” He made hundreds of dollars a day on a ride that cost 5 cents. The same year, Charles Alcoke built the first complete circuit coaster, and a year later, Phillip Hinkle developed the “lift hill,” which became the hallmark of many subsequent coasters. The lift hill got things started by pulling riders up a steep hill by cable or chain and then let gravity take over from there.


In total, Thompson garnered over thirty patents on coasters during his career. He is perhaps best known for his efforts to make roller coaster rides scenic. He teamed with the legendary James A. Griffiths of Philadelphia, he of the ornate car and design school, and built “The Scenic Railroad” for Atlantic City. Though they never collaborated again, Griffiths’ company designed and built some of the most beautiful coaster cars and merry-go-round horses ever constructed.


So where does the name “roller coaster” come from? Based on much of the early history of the things you would think they’d be called switchbacks or slides. It seems a small town in Massachusetts claims that prize. There a ride called the “Sliding Hill and Toboggan” was built and it used a track made of wooden rollers. Hence, the name “roller coaster.”


The next great period of development in coaster history came in the early twentieth century. It was named the Trolley Park. In those days trolleys were the main forms of transportation in and around cities. Only trolley owners noticed that, on weekends, business was slow — real slow. To try and pick things up, the owners began building amusement parks, often at the end of the road. People had to ride the trolleys to get to the parks. One such park, Lakemont, near Altoona, Pennsylvania, is home of a famous roller coaster named “Leap the Dips.” It was built in 1902 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is 48-feet high, has a nine-foot drop and achieves speeds of ten miles per hour. Wow!




From the Golden Age to the Beginning of Decline

With the end of the First World War and the onset of the Roaring Twenties, America was about to witness the greatest period of roller coaster construction in its history. It isn’t coincidental that this “Golden Age” accompanied the development of the modern amusement park.


Some historians estimate that by the late ‘20’s there were over 2,000 roller coasters in the United States. Frederick Ingersoll was a prime mover in this phenomenon. His concept of the amusement park, with its central Shoot-the-Chutes and roller coaster rides, was replicated time and again as his famous Luna Parks, White Cities and Electric Parks were built in cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh.


During this time, John A. Miller, a devotee of La Marcus Thompson, became the king of roller coaster patents. His inventions included the anti-rollback mechanism, and brakes, among many others totaling over 100. New technology contributed to newer and better coasters, such as the Racer at Kennywood Park, Revere Beach’s Thunderbolt and the Big Dipper at Geauga Lake. He would collaborate later with Norman Bartlett to build The Flying Turns ride. This innovative coaster consisted of a car, and later trains of cars, that traveled in a trough shaped roughly like a large half-barrel.


Amusement parks flourished and with them coasters. Yet, it wasn’t until Playland in Rye, New York that the amusement park was designed, from the beginning, to be an amusement park. Playland brought us the first amusement park as a planned community. With it’s tree-lined streets and art deco style, picnic areas and separate kiddie park, Playland was designed from scratch to be the ideal spot for wholesome, clean, family fun. It even had a beach and a seaplane ride!


Amusement parks in the early years were often in neighborhoods considered unsavory by many. Others were little more than a few rides scattered through the end of a trolley line. Then in 1897, Captain Paul Boyton fashioned Sea Lions Park at Coney Island and enclosed several rides behind walls. That kept out most of the drunks and prostitutes and seemed to improve the public’s image of amusement parks. Boyton later added the famous Water Chute ride to SLP.


The same year Sea Lions opened, George Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park and so began one of the signature rides in all of Coney Island history. The steel track had eight horses on it and patrons never seemed to tire of riding them. In 1903, Boyton’s Sea Lions Park became Luna Park and over a quarter-million electric lights were added.


With the growth in the number of coasters came further technology. Soon Coney Island produced the first full-circuit coaster, then the lift hill. Ever ridden in a loop-the-loop? It originated here, too. One more fairly important roller coaster innovation also came from Coney Island - the lap bar. How did riders hold on in the past? Usually with a rope or chain. So much for safety.


Playland was the first, true. However, Coney Island was the Mecca. Many consider it the birthplace of the modern amusement park and it grew to become the test site for many of the break-through coaster designers and builders. Thompson, Alcoke and Hinkle all built coasters here and eventually they were joined by many others.


As the roller coaster count at Coney Island reached 30 between 1884 and 1930, we saw such beauties as the Giant Racer, an all-white wooden structure, in 1911. In 1925 came the famous Thunderbolt, the first steel- structure roller coaster. In 1926, the Giant Racer gave way to the trademark Coney Island Cyclone, which cost over $100,000 to build and still stands today. Not so fortunate are the Thunderbolt (torn down in 2000) and Tornado (burned in 1977).


The onset of the Great Depression and the two decades to follow were nearly a total cataclysm for roller coasters in America. Few had money for things like rides or amusement after 1929. That spelled financial trouble for the coaster owners, who couldn’t maintain the rides. Most fell into disrepair. Later, World War II led to shortages of raw materials and still more maintenance issues. A few great coasters were built during this period, like the Blue Streak at Conneaut Lake Park and the Comet at Hershey Park. However, by the onset of WWII, the number of amusement parks in this country declined from 2,000 or so to about 250. With that decline came the corresponding decline in roller coasters.


Just when things seemed they couldn’t get worse for the roller coaster, World War II ended…and America’s love affair with the automobile began. That love affair just about wiped out the remaining coasters. Americans discovered the open road and, suddenly, amusement parks and roller coasters seemed so tame and boring.

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