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The Giant Dipper and the Save the Coaster Committee

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All ACE members, watch for the summer issue of Roller Coaster! magazine. The San Diego Mission Beach roller coaster had one close brush with the wrecking ball after another since it the park went into decline as early as the 40's. My cover story will feature an article about the trials and tribulations and eventual success of the Save the Coaster Committee and our efforts keeping the Giant Dipper guarded from one wrecking ball after another.


Here is a much longer and detailed version (I still need to finish):


Hi Everyone, Tim Cole reminiscing...


For those of you who are a little behind on your roller coaster history, let me tell you about a 1925- built Prior and Church roller coaster located in Mission Beach, San Diego, California.


The 70’ tall all-wooden seaside attraction, originally named “The Giant Dipper” opened on July 4th, 1925 as part of the new Mission Beach Amusement Center. Between 1925 and 1976, there was a steady rotation of owners and operators of the amusement area and surrounding facilities.


The condition of the park over the decades went back and forth, from being freshly rehabilitated to showing signs of neglect. A fatal fire caused the coaster to shut down for 2 years in the 50’s and it was almost demolished. Late in the 60’s the coaster was condemned for six weeks in the middle of the summer until sufficient repairs were made to some sagging trusses.


In November of 1976, Belmont Park (as it was renamed in the 50’s) closed its gates due to too much costly upkeep required by the city to keep the park profitable.


The park closed and the rides and attractions where sold or demolished within a year. The coaster was actually slated for demolition in 1980 and was on its way to getting the final permit when at the 11th hour, a viable interest was proposed that would keep the coaster around for a while longer.


Soon after, a community group called “The Save the Coaster Committee” was formed for the purpose of restoring this ride. I was a member of that group.


On August 11th, 1990, the Giant Dipper opened to the public resulting in quite an interesting preservation story.


This photo journal will take you through a brief history of the coaster with most photos taken by me during the Save the Coaster years. After all, what good are they sitting in a shoe-box?


Keep checking back every so often for additions to this crazy, dramatic story.


Feel free to comment or ask questions, it's all part of the process.


I hope you enjoy strolling down the memory midway with me...holding hands.


~Tim Cole~


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FOREWARD – by Tim Cole


I'm not sure if my family’s 9-year absence from San Diego makes me a TOTAL native although I was born here. My Dad was in the Navy and I was 5 when we moved to the bland lifeless mountains of Adak, Alaska. For the latter five, we lived in Honolulu, Hawaii where my love for carnival rides began to germinate.


The first coaster I ever rode was a Mad Mouse in 1973 at the 50th State Fair. My love for roller coasters really started when I saw the Brady Bunch kids riding the Racer at King’s Island on the “Cincinnati Kids” episode of the Brady Bunch in 1973.


I was 13 when we returned to San Diego on May 15, 1974. By the time we arrived back in California, I had already developed quite an appetite for carnival rides and the new ones that were introduced to me over-filled my stomach, pardon the pun. There was the Turbo, the Toboggan, the Zipper, and the Sky Diver all at a small carnival in an empty lot in Chula Vista. Then I went and peeked under the canvas tents to see the poor abnormally-formed livestock. Roller coasters were my favorite and I got to enjoy Disneyland’s Matterhorn and the Del Mar Fair’s High Miler before cutting my tooth on a wood coaster.


My first trip to Belmont Park was on May 10th, 1975 while on a school field trip. We departed from Chula Vista Jr. High at 11am late one foggy morning. As we crested the bridge over the San Diego river, I caught my first glimpse of the roller coaster, looming afar like a dinosaur through the marine layer. There were not yet trees in the surrounding Mission Bay Park, so I could not take my eyes off if it as the bus pulled up to the parking space.


Taken in the mid 50's The Belmont sign was placed there in 1954 after the park changed over from Mission Beach Amusement Center. Note the light standards holding the lights high above the tracks.


Mid 60's - the light standards were taken down with bulbs being relocated to just below the handrail. Watch for the Prior and Church coaster train!

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Very interesting--I've already learned new things about the coaster and park, and I like the personal storytelling as well. Great photos, especially that construction one that makes it look so twisty.


I'm not the one to ask, but I feel like this would be right at home in the main forum?

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Belmont Memorys


I rode about 5 or 6 flat rides before I mustered up the courage to ride the roller coaster. I remember clearly, being very nervous when we ran up the station house ramp and then very VERY nervous when I slid into my well-cushioned seat and saw there was only a fixed grab bar and no seatbelt! I remember the first time I rode it (with classmate Michael Wong) and how I bonked the left side of my head against the high rounded handle bars attached to the sides of the car as we went over the top. It was a rough and tumble kind of ride, I never got up the courage to ride in the front seat of the open front car, but I did get as close as the second.


Other than an involuntary symptom of puberty, the Belmont roller coaster was my first woodie. I believe I rode it 5 times that first day.


Have you ever had post-park letdown the day after a park outing? Oh, I hated it. Even though the park was 15.2 miles north from our apartment, it seemed worlds away because of strict parents who worried too much about their only child going anywhere on his own.


Since that trip to Belmont, I channeled my coaster frustration using my HO-scale train set to make this Mad Mouse-type coaster. It was a rainy afternoon while the radio played the newly-released “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John. I just remember that, I don’t know why.


The parents always showed little to no interest in wasteful things like carnivals and parks so it took a good amount of pleading to get them to take me to Belmont Park for my 15th birthday. So we and some friends of the family took a three-hour visit to the park where I remember riding the coaster multiple times in a row. Still never did get the courage to ride in the front. That October 4th of 1975 would be my final day at Belmont Park which had become my favorite spot on earth, even more so than Disneyland.


One of 9 coaches from the coaster train. Note the fixed lap bar and the ball in the front that hitched to the socket under the seat.


Taken in 1976. 1 - looking east toward the entrance. 2- looking north west towards the entrance. 3 - looking north up the midway, roller coaster is at far end. 4 - looking northwest towards the coaster. 5- Looking south down the midway. Note the station house is red white and blue for the bicentennial.


Taken around the time I first visted Belmont Park in 1975. Note the Orange, purple, and mustard yellow colors of the station house.

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I wasn’t shattered when I heard of Belmont Park’s closure in November of 1976. Nobody was really clear as to whether or not it was going to ever open again so I remained optimistic. It wasn’t until the late spring of 1977 when I learned the closure was permanent. I didn’t think much about it for there were many other diversions that were holding my attention.


Model building has always been a passion of mine. In high school I was taking drafting classes and I wanted to work in Hollywood making miniatures. Roller coasters were stored on my shelf at the time I was building a model of Hollywood’s iconic Capitol Records building when I discovered Gary Kyriazi’s book, The Great American Amusement Park.


Suddenly I had school trips to Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm coming up and I was really excited about a summer trip to Magic Mountain. My high school band played at a competition parade in Long Beach and the awards ceremony was at the arena there. I had NO idea there was an amusement park right next door - The Pike. I was so excited about roller coasters that I began designing what was to be an operational model of the Revolution, but I never got beyond making the train.


And let’s not forget that summer’s release of Universal Studio’s thriller, Rollercoaster! My rekindled love for roller coasters went over the top at this point, so much so that in photographs, I tried to reenact the opening scene from the movie (out take in lower right corner).


After weeks of grueling yard work, I earned my second visit to (pre-Six Flags) Magic Mountain on June 30th, 1977. As we entered the park I saw, on the main plaza, an astonishing scale model of their next upcoming attraction, Colossus! The sign boasted this would be the largest twin racing coaster in the world. The model fascinated me as well as the ride stats so getting to ride this was all I could think about for one entire year.


Here is a picture I took the moment I thought, “Forget building the Revolution, I want to build a model of the Belmont Park coaster!”


A 1/8th scale of the newly introduced Colossus. By Tim Cole - 1977


The top two are my first attempt at making a roller coaster train (Magic Mountain's Revolution). It rolled pretty good! BL: Models I built in high school including Hollywood's Capitol Records tower that functioned as storage for cassettes, 45's and LPs. BR: The only photo I can find of my "Rollercoaster" opening sequence in photos. By Tim Cole (1978)


My High School Drafting Class. My desk is in the forefront.

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Maybe it was a discouraging news report I heard on TV about the coaster because on one rainy day in March 1978, I did something I’d never done before. I ditched school so that I could take the bus to Belmont Park and take some pictures of the roller coaster while I could. When I arrived, I was heart-wretched when I saw all the rides gone. Only the roller coaster, former roller skating rink, the Plunge indoor swimming pool and a few colorful vestiges remained. I watched workmen demolishing the Enchantedland section of the park for a while, with a guard dog standing watch at the gate. Using my pocket instamatic, I took a series of photos from end to end of the coaster making a panoramic view when taped together.


With only a few amateur photos, I remember thinking they would be a good enough reference to see if I really could build a model of the coaster for historical posterity. This is also when I learned the roller coaster had a name, Earthquake, as it was painted in big bold letters on the station's billboard.


My first day of summer break and it was a gorgeous June day. I - now brandishing a new driver’s license, drove my Dad’s Cadillac down to Mission Beach and look more at the Earthquake. Here is when I first gained illegal access to the roller coaster property. Once through a hole in the wooden fence, I found myself in a forest of 6” x 6” weathered posts all around me with 2”x6” boards going every which way. I was so overwhelmed with emotion I had NO idea where to begin exploring. I thought maybe I should start at the beginning so with a camera, tape measure, a scale ruler, and some vellum paper to sketch notes on, I headed for the station house. Below are the photos I took the first day I stepped foot inside.


1) The outside of the faded station house. 2) At one time this was one of many free entrances into the park. Once the POP policy was adopted in 1971, a fence with one entrance gate went up all around the park. 3) Inside the station house. The 50's added drop celing towards the front became home for half the world's pigeon population. 4) Looking at the back of the station. The queue rails over on the left were also part of the 50's renovation.


1) Inside the North turnaround looking south. That is the tunnel in the middle with the brake tunnel up on the right. 4) The last photo shows the wooden fence that went up around the coaster some time in the 50's.


Belmont Park and its closed front gates.

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During the early part of 1979, the demise of the abandoned Earthquake roller coaster looked more certain with every passing news report. Around this time, I learned that the owner of the roller coaster was Hotelier Bill Evans, operator of Belmont Park since 1969. His abandoned roller coaster was sitting on city property and beach residents were actively working on having it removed. Belmont Park was the favorite playground for his two teens and he didn’t want to pay for the demolition if only for sentiment. Questions over who should have to pay for the demolition delayed the process.


In the interest of keeping the bulldozers away, San Diego City Architect Consultant, Anthony Ciani, succeeded in having the Mission Beach Earthquake placed on the National Register of Historic Places in October of 1978. That designation happily hampered Evans' attempts to get a demolition permit as ordered because now there were extra legal hurdles to jump over. In frustration, the city went ahead and stapled “Intent to Demolish” notices to the coaster’s surrounding wood fence. They were going to simply rip down the coaster and charge it to Evans. Threatened with the possibility of losing federal funds by tearing down a recognized landmark, that motion was not passed by the San Diego City Council.


I was taking a film class my senior year and my final project was a stop-motion ride on the Earthquake. My classmate, Howard Washburn, and I negotiated our way around the entire track, inches by inches, manually clicking the shutter on my new super 8mm movie camera. It took three afternoons. To this day, I think the resulting animation is impressive considering the circumstances. I got an A on the film and it was shown in part, on the local news!


Barren Belmont Park in 1979. The old roller rink aka bumpercars aka Spoof Safari is in the foreground with the "Earthquake" roller coaster behind. Hard to believe the Earthquake would stand like this for 11 more years.

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For the rest of the summer of ’79 I visited the property a half a dozen times, mostly to get clarity on issues I was having in the early stages of drafting plans for the Earthquake model. Even though I was trespassing, not once was I ever questioned or busted by authorities.


Maybe it was because I had become closer and more familiar with the roller coaster, for when I saw a headline in an August ’79 edition of the San Diego Union that read: Panel Approves Demolition of Roller Coaster, my heart sank. The one ray of hope I held on to was the article’s mention of some beach locals who wanted to restore the ride. “I just might have to look into that,” I thought.


I saw a local news story on TV where a couple of two very young clowns climbed atop the 70’ tall ride with balloons and banners trying to attract attention for the cause of preserving the coaster. The news also showed grounded police officers coaxing them off the scaffolds and then citing them once they were down. What was supposed to be a press conference about a handful of beach locals fighting to preserve the coaster, turned into a story of heartless police taking two clowns into custody.


I forgot exactly when I met Eddie Forrey, the leader of that press conference. He was an 86-year old self-proclaimed beach poet who lived across the street from Belmont Park. I knew nothing of a petition drive he started to save the coaster in 1978. He showed up at every city council meeting that had to do with the topic of demolishing the coaster and would rally for its preservation. He would show up at the meetings with his troupe in tow, defending the coaster’s right to exist by holding up signs and reading poems such as:


“What callous people would vote to destroy

The last monument to thrill and joy?

The echo of screaming laughter of children we’ll no longer hear

The end for the coaster, I feel, is near.”


I remember being a little skeptical after I learned his group was made up of a few clowns, vagrants, hippies, bikers, and some tag-alongs, none of whom had any strong community influence. Regardless, I could already see myself immersed in such a restoration project. I wanted so much to believe that it could happen.


The roller coaster already had two strikes against it - two pro demolition, each vote from the San Diego Regional Coastal Commission and the San Diego City Council. The next and final hearing was to be before the California Coastal Commission. This is where Evans would get the final granting of the permit at a hearing scheduled March of 1980. It was April 1st, 1980 when I thought someone was joking with me about the sudden turn of events that took place at that meeting.


I felt like a pet of mine died when I saw this in the San Diego Union.



Pamela Sue Whitner (1959 - 2004) a.k.a. Flutterby Baby the Clown. One of the two clowns who was arrested after having climbed on top of the coaster. Pamela entertained kids at many Save the Coaster Commitee fundraisers.

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In the April 2nd edition of the San Diego Union, I learned that what I heard the day before was no joke. At the meeting where the California Coastal Commission was expecting to hear a standard objection to razing the coaster before approving Evan’s demolition permit, instead were brought forth an intriguing proposal.


Evans pitched his idea for a “Coaster Village”. He envisioned a restored, yet dormant, roller coaster serving as a sculpture weaved through a village of boutiques, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and sporting-good rental stores. Based on the then-brand new Seaport Village retail/tourist center on downtown San Diego’s waterfront, the Mission Beach version would also include jogging paths, basketball and volleyball courts, and the original Plunge. The roller coaster would remain as a monument to the development of the area as well as serve as an example of the simple technology used back in the early days of roller coaster construction. It might even have a merry-go-round.


The Coaster Village main draft.

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I immediately called Bill Evans’ office at the Bahia Hotel across the street from the ride. I wanted more details and expressed my wanting to be involved in this idea somehow. I spoke to his secretary Melanie who invited me to the hotel where I had a wonderful conversation with her. She told me some of the ideas they had in mind for the Village including people riding the coaster train up to the top where there would be a restaurant. I clearly remember thinking, “How the hell are they going to do that?” But I also thought if they could save the coaster, they can do anything.


My eyes were glued to the art boards that showed color drafts of the proposed plaza with a roller coaster loosely sketched in the back ground.


I was really excited and for the first time felt very VIP-like when she asked if I wanted to go to the presentation of the plan at his Bahia hotel the next night. HELL YEAH! It was more of a loose social reception-type gathering with invited guests, I’m sure there was a brief presentation of Evans’ idea, but I don’t remember it.


From that day for more than a year, it was a waiting game for me. All I knew was that Evans was getting all preparations in order to get approval for his Village and that would take a long time. I was going to College and started taking theatre classes in the spring of 1980. College kept me occupied enough so I placed the coaster on the top shelf until I heard news.


The Bahia Hotel and its proximity to the roller coaster (arrow)

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San Diego City leaders were also willing to grant Evans time to develop his plan. Revamping the park was not in the city's budget until 1983 so they felt there was time to explore any option that kept the roller coaster. While the thought of having a commercial enterprise develop the area seemed appealing, they were hesitant to stick with only one idea. Rather than allow coaster-owner Evans exclusive rights to redevelop the former Belmont Park, other entrepreneurs and developers were asked to present more ideas and concepts. Those proposals for commercial development of the property were to be drafted with the understanding that the Plunge be included, and while it was preferred that the roller coaster be incorporated into the plan, it was not required. Seven initial responses made it to the city, and not all of them included keeping the roller coaster.


January 1983 - If you look close, you can see the original signatures of Church and Prior. It was in far better condition until city workers removed the roof off the coaster's transformer room. I'm really disappointed a bigger effort was not made to preserve this.

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There were interests that saw the roller coaster as being in the way of progress. Its vulnerability to vandalism became clear on the evening of February 27th, 1981 when someone set it on fire. When firefighters arrived at 9:50pm, they witnessed one of the coaster’s storage rooms engulfed in flames. The braking mechanism and the final tunnel were also scorched.


News of the coaster’s fire and its timing was curious news to Mike Gotch, city councilman for the Mission Beach district at that time. As a supporter of the roller coaster, he publicly said that while the fire was unfortunate, it was not severe enough to warrant the razing of the ride.


The first fire destroyed the hairpin part of the lower tunnel, the attached store room, the upper brake tunnel, and three coaster cars.

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As if to squeeze lemon juice onto freshly burned skin, less than one month later, on March 18th, the roller coaster became victim to another evening fire. This one started in another storage room under the grease-soaked wood near the sprocket that turns the chain. The damage was double the size of the first fire.


The second fire destroyed the entrance to the start tunnel, an attached store room, three more coaster cars, and some critical support posts. If you look close at the tunnel entrance, you can see the caboose.

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Arson investigators were quick to start interviewing those that were at the scene. By 2pm the next day, police made their arrest. A 22-year old drifter from Canada was booked into county jail under suspicion of setting the fire and committing several local burglaries. He had spent his evenings in the living quarters set up in the various rooms and tunnels under the coaster. The other inhabitants found him to be troublesome and evicted him - as revenge, he set the fire.


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This is a really great thread. As someone who's never ridden the coaster I never knew much about it or it's troubled history.


Its troubled history is what makes it all the more amazing it stood neglected as long as it did. Since the thirties, the park and the roller coaster were always under threat everytime old leases expired which was about once or twice per decade. This coaster sat waisting beachside property for fourteen years, survived three fires, three orders of condemnation, two bankruptcies and the park's ultimate closure. It was caught up in a heated controversy when the surrounding area was developed into an unwanted commerical enterprise which was built AROUND it instead of in place of it.


Amazing Indeed

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Personal Crazy Moment #1


I had driven down to the coaster the day after both fires – I think I took some photos. I was disappointed but I did not let that damper my dream that Coaster Village would still see the light of day. Almost two weeks after the second fire, and the same day that President Ronald Reagan was shot, I began a new job at a nice steak and seafood restaurant only one mile north of the coaster. It was more than 17 miles from home but I got to drive past the coaster to and from work. I worked nights, and occasionally before or after working, I would park near the coaster and let myself dream.


One night after work, I decided I was going to climb up to the top of the ride and take the one remaining light bulb from the coaster’s chase lights as a souvenir. It was located just over the lift hill on the side of the track that had no catwalk. I had climbed up to the top a few times in the daylight, but never at night.


Let me tell you it is a whole other experience. It was after 1am, it was dark, a little foggy, and the only noise was the distant surf and a street sweeper below. My legs were becoming more and more wobbly the higher I got, but I managed to make it to the spot. I tied myself off using one of those orange extension cords as a rope. I stepped over the tracks (to the side that had no catwalk and only the track to stand on) and reached up under the handrail…I could touch that bulb but it was screwed in too tightly for me to chance breaking it so I retreated down, glad only that I was back on the ground safe.


Top photo is the new Save the Coaster Donor board, posted in front of the second burned area. The bottom is a good contrast shot, the first burned section up against the curve the Save the Coaster Committee painted in 1984.


The coaster is really creepy at night. The arrow shows where the light bulb is. We eventually got it down, whoever got to keep it broke it eventually.


Beach side restaurant where I worked one mile north of the coaster, 17 miles from home.

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In July of 1981, I finally got word that the San Diego Public Park and Recreation board would decide which one of three commercial development proposals it would consider to build on the Belmont Park property. One of them was Evans’ previously unveiled “Coaster Village.” Another coaster-saving proposal was time-share condos by longtime Mission Beach resident Norman Starr. The third proposal came from Bryant Morris who envisioned keeping only one section of the Earthquake roller coaster to be used as a gateway to his waterpark.


There was a little controversy over turning public land over to a developer at the time, so there was a good chance the board would reject all three proposals.


One of several proposals that would be considered for developing the vacated amusement park.

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But I had this other vision in my head for a while and I thought it was a good time to draw it out and at least show it to somebody. My idea was using the space as a Family Fun Center type amusement park with a miniature golf course around and inside the Earthquake. Built up on the lower track paths would run go-karts that would use the station house for loading and unloading passengers. In the center of the north turn around I thought would be a fun place to have an activity jungle gym with rooms and tunnels inside the structure and two slides – one that goes down the first drop and a smaller one on the adjacent hill.


I was only trying to introduce a concept I thought was being overlooked. I presented large painted versions of my design (below are the first drafts) before the Public Facilities and Recreation board on August 5, 1981. I knew nothing about city politics and was surprised at how casual everyone was in their behavior. It was a long meeting with the topic of redeveloping Belmont Park not starting until well over an hour later. My memory is a little fuzzy but I guess all three proposals were displayed and explained by the developer.




My idea was using the space as a Family Fun Center type amusement park with a miniature golf course around and inside the Earthquake. Build up on the lower track paths would run go-karts that would use the station house for loading and unloading passengers. In the center of the north turn around I thought would be a fun place to have an activity jungle gym with rooms and tunnels inside the structure and two slides – one that goes down the first drop and a smaller one on the adjacent hill.


Note: These drawings were done the exact same time the first mention of what is now called AIDS started making the news.

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During public input, I , with 20 year-old legs as quivery as my voice, made my two-minute presentation. As I looked at the faces of the board members, I noticed I had more of everyone’s attention than did the previous presenters and they were all smiling – they were more amused than taking me seriously I’m sure. I had all my artwork displayed towards the council, and I remember Bill Evans coming up and around to look at the front of it.


I had done nothing like that before, but I was glad I did and it was a good experience watching a real council session.


Mission Beach councilman, Mike Gotch, after advising the council that just because there was no money until 1983 for park improvements doesn’t mean they should be in a hurry and have someone do it for them. He read a memo aloud that he authored to his colleagues, “No matter how well intentioned when conceived, the combined commercial/parkland must be stopped now. First and foremost, Mission Beach is public parkland, a rare oceanfront jewel with historical significance.”


The council made public apologies to the presenters after they rejected the idea putting of any commercial development on the property at all.


Mike Gotch (1948 - 2008) Popular councilman whose district included his beloved roller coaster.

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The coaster was back at square one but that did little to shake my belief that somehow it could still be salvaged. I left the forum feeling pretty good that day. Not only was I proud of myself for having the courage to hold it all together before city officials, but I heard an unexpected proposal for the Earthquake.


After my presentation, a woman had gone up before the council and identified herself as Carol Lindemulder, former President of the Save Our Heritage Organization, (S.O.H.O). The group is synonymous with historic preservation in San Diego. She pointed out before the board that in case all three proposals are rejected, there could still be a chance to save the roller coaster.


She stated a few facts about what made the coaster unique. This is when I learned that the “Earthquake” once had another name, “Giant Dipper.” And who are Prior and Church? A “bobs” type of coaster? What’s that? An out and back versus a twister? Talk about excited!


Carol added that she received a letter from coaster owner Bill Evans quoting, “I’m willing to donate the roller coaster to a non-profit group for the purpose of its restoration.” All Evans asked for in return was to obtain a professional’s estimate of the coaster’s value so he could use it for a tax advantage. S.O.H.O. advised Carol that a separate committee would have to be formed for the exclusive purpose of restoring the ride.


Founder and first President of the Save the Coaster Committee Carol Lindemulder (left)

Her successor, Judy Swink, on the right. 1982 photo by Tim Cole

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Keeps getting better and better, really an engaging read! Again, I'm enjoying the combination of personal stories and detailed historical information that might not come to light otherwise.


It's always sad to see a closed coaster standing, but I do think it would help ease the pain a little if the structure were used in a creative way, rather than being left to rot or used as mere decor. Interesting concepts.

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