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A Century of Screams: The History of the Roller Coaster


The roller coaster has its origins in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a simple slide that took thrillseekers down an icy ramp past a variety of colored lanterns. Catherine the Great gave this custom a boost when she fitted her imperial sleigh with wheels for summer use. The next leap forward came when a French traveler beheld this odd national pastime and imported it to his homeland. Adapting the ice slide to a milder climate, the French soon learned to erect a track with a groove running down the middle. A bench with wheels was fitted into the groove, and down the Parisians went — facing sideways.

Some historians argue that it was this device, which rolled as it coasted, that inspired the term "roller coaster." Others trace the first usage to Stephen E. Jackson and Byron B. Floyd, two coaster inventors from Haverhill, Massachusetts, who worked in the early 1880s.

The French continued to deliver many important advances in coaster technology throughout the early 19th century, but oddly enough, they seemed to lose interest just as they were getting started. That they did little to publicize their achievements only made matters worse for American inventors, who, after stumbling onto the idea of the gravity ride, had no choice but to work blind, recreating what had already been accomplished.

When the properietors of Mauch Chunk railway, in eastern Pennsylvania, began operations in the 1820s, their mission was not entertainment but coal mining, and their first passengers were mules. (Adams, 14) Herded into a train laden with coal, these lucky beasts coasted from the top of Mount Pisgah down to a canal, then hauled the train back up for another go.

By 1844, a return track had been laid, and the system was dubbed the Switchback. But as the mines expanded throughout the neighboring mountains, the Switchback eventually lost its usefulness. And so, in 1870, in a bout of Yankee shrewdness, the railway was converted from a miner's helper to a tourist attraction. 

The Scenic Railway, as it was then called, started at a deceptive five or ten miles an hour, giving passengers who paid their nickel (Lanza, 137) a panoramic view of the Poconos, followed by an open quarry, an "Amazing Burning Mine," (reportedly on fire since 1832), (Adams, 14) and a Home Stretch, by which time the ride had attained speeds of 65 miles per hour. At the peak of its popularity, the Scenic Railway carried 35,000 passengers a year and the local railroads ran special trains to accommodate those eager to ride.  

The success of the Mauch Chunk ride brought the energies of various inventors to bear. In 1872, Baltimore native J.G. Taylor submitted what may have been the first patent for a roller coaster, although he referred it somewhat modestly as an "Improvement in Inclined Railways." Next came a 1878 patent by Brooklynite Richard Knudsen. This invention consisted of two parallel sets of tracks, each of which progressed from a height down to ground level. The car would descend one set of tracks, whereupon it would be raised by lift mechanism to the top of the other set of tracks. In this way, the ride would go back and forth all day, carrying up to four people at a time.

Knudsen apparently never built this device, which he dubbed the "Inclined-Plane Railway." As it was, that task fell to LaMarcus Adna Thompson.

Thompson was an unlikely candidate for the title of Father of the Gravity. A Sunday school teacher and dimestore moralist, he looked upon amusement parks as sinful places in need of redemption. Nevertheless, it was his Switchback Railway, erected at Coney Island in 1884, that inaugurated the "gravity pleasure ride" industry in earnest. Based directly on Knudsen's system, the Switchback Railway quickly demonstrated its wide appeal by earning $600 a day (at a nickel a ride) and paying for itself in a mere three weeks.

That was all the encouragement Thompson needed to apply his ingenuity to its fullest. For his Orient Scenic Railway in Atlantic City, he rediscovered the French trick of pulling the cars up the first hill by cable. Elsewhere, he devised triggers under the tracks that could activate an emergency cable and stop the ride, learned to link the cars together (which not coincidentally doubled his fares) and built tunnels that plunged riders into a terrifying darkness. By 1887 he held 30 patents for improvements in roller coasters.

No less prodigious in business, he organized the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company and embarked on what amounted to a franchise. By 1888 he had built almost 50 roller coasters in Europe and America. Among these was Dragon's Gorge, which recapitulated his ethical stance in an assortment of scenic views from the Bible. 

In the very year the Switchback Railway appeared, Charles Alcoke of Hamilton, Ohio devised a continuous-loop track called the Serpentine Railway. This type of coaster, which would soon be among the most common, came to be known as the "out-and-back." Meanwhile, a San Franciscan named Phillip Hinckle hit upon the bright idea of turning the seats to face forward, then upped the ante again by giving the coaster industry its first steam-powered chain lift. Soon others joined the fray, and as they sought to outdo each other, the roller coaster entered into most fantastic phase.

For a time, virtually every ride at Coney Island used gravity to work its magic. George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase ride, with its mechanical horses that descended a wavy groove, was by all accounts the most popular, but there were plenty of others that were just as exciting, if not more so. The Cannon Coaster left a gap in the rails, which the cars did or did not bridge. Mystic Screw sent passengers spiraling down a demonic helix for some 75 feet. The Flip-Flap, erected in 1900, reprised the old Centrifugal Railway with a 30-foot high circular loop; so punishing was the Flip-Flap that, before it closed due to health concerns, people paid just to watch it in action. 

If the roller coaster was a locomotive gone truly loco, it also remained closely associated with "real" transportation in ways that went beyond metaphor. To bring people in, ride owners relied on the wider phenomenon of amusement parks, and these in turn were boosted by the street railway industry. Street railways paid a flat monthly rate for their power whether they were busy or not, and with a six-day workweek on their hands, it behooved them to encourage ridership on Sundays. This problem was solved many times over by setting up an amusement park at the last stop on the line. Indeed, trolley parks were such a sound investment that for a time they were nearly ubiquitous. 

The proliferation of trolley parks--or rather, the close proximity of so many trolleys to so many parks —may well have inspired the flurry of roller coasters that were, for all intents and purposes, trains in their own right. Palisades Amusement Park, for one, was born in 1898, when the Bergen County Traction Company bought 38 acres atop the New Jersey cliffs overlooking New York. By 1910, the same park boasted the Big Scenic Coaster, which had an electrified center rail, a human operator and the ability to move either forward or backward over its 4,500 feet of track. 

Coney Island had third-rail coasters, too, and even completed the analogy with red and green block signals posted along the tracks. One colorful variation of this ride at Coney was the Rough Riders, erected in tribute to the Spanish-American War. With operators decked out in military regalia, the ride sped past tableaux of that storied conflict before churning up the first rise.

These "funny-track trains" were not entirely safe, however. The Rough Rider operators tended to push their vehicles too hard, using full power even on downward inclines. In 1910 a Rough Riders motorman took his train around one bend too fast, throwing two cars loose and tossing 16 passengers out over Surf Avenue — four of then to their death.

Such troubles became less common after 1912, (web site source) when John Miller invented the "under-friction wheel." Previously, coasters had been fitted with "side-friction wheels," which rolled along the inner edges of the track. The under-friction wheel, by contrast, kept the train bolted down beneath the track (Lanza, 144) with a third set of wheels that solved the matter of accidental derailments. 

Of course, Miller's advance did nothing to mute the roller-coaster experience. On the contrary, where the side-friction wheel had limited velocity and the depth of the plunge, the under-friction wheel allowed more dizzying speeds than ever. Miller himself pushed the envelope of physics with his Jack Rabbit at Kennywood Park, which dove precipitously into a gully, and his Cyclone in Cleveland, Ohio , which used the cliffs and gorges at Puritas Springs to press the tracks into what some visitors described as V shapes. (Lanza, 144) 

By the 1920s the scream machine was evoking more screams than ever. America boasted as many as 1500 roller coasters, the highest of which stood 138 feet high, the fastest of which plummeted to earth at 61 mph. From the simple "out-and-backs" more complex forms had evolved, with tighter curves, steeper drops and wild combinations of spirals and figure eights. In Los Angeles, there was even an "auto coaster" designed to be traveled by automobiles.

This was the Golden Age of Roller Coasters, or rather, the Wooden Age — and a bracing era it was. Clattering, jittering and lurching, coasters made of wood instilled the kind of terror that kept visitors coming back. Coney Island's Cyclone, built in 1927 by Vernon Keenan and Harry Baker, was perhaps the paragon of the wooden form. No less an eminence than Charles Lindbergh remarked that it was scarier than flying an airplane. With its 85-foot drop executed at 60 miles an hour, it is still considered by many to be the standard by which all others other measured. 

The king of the woodies, however, was not Keenan or Baker but a man named Harry Guy Traver. In the 1920s Traver began setting his own Cyclones down across the nation — and setting the nation's noses to bleeding. His most famous creation was the Cyclone at Canada's Crystal Beach Park, a coaster so nasty it came staffed with its own registered nurse. Almost as renowned was his Aeroplane at Playland Amusement Park in Rye Beach, New York. Built with the help of Frederick Church, the Aeroplane banked along the first spiral drop so steeply that riders were slammed against the sides of the cars, which themselves were tilted to increase the illusion of an imminent crash. 

With the onset of the Depression, and World War II following closely after, discretionary income became a thing of the past, and by the time people were ready to ride roller coasters again, the woodies had begun their long slide into obscurity. Traver's Cyclone at Crystal Beach Park was torn down in 1946, to make way for less sadistic pleasures. Coney Island's Tornado went defunct, despite the reported sightings of the deceased Thompson working in the office in its towers. By the Sixties, the number of coasters had fallen from thousands to a mere 200. 

Walt Disney is often credited for rescuing the roller coaster from oblivion, and while this is undoubtedly true, the rescue came at a price. Where the woodies had been as angular and abrupt as a Futurist painting, the Matterhorn Bobsled ride, built at Disneyland in 1959 by the Arrow Development Company, was as smooth and bright as a cartoon creature.

The technical explanation behind this transformation was simple: the Matterhorn's tracks were made of steel, which made the ride smoother and quieter, and thus less threatening. In fact, steel was perfectly suited for the "clean, wholesome recreation" that had eluded amusement parks for so long.

Like Miller's under-friction wheel, steel inspired designers to test the limits of what could be done, and coasters began appearing with longer drops, snap rolls. Ever since the mid-1800s, coaster engineers had been trying to build a workable loop, only to watch their customers stumble off reeling and bruised, or worse. From a scientific point of view, the effect was perfectly understandable: when riders went around in a circle, they were subjected to a force of some 12 Gs--enough to cause blackouts even in fighter pilots. 

Then, in 1975, Arrow Development began looking into the possibilities of a corkscrew design. Using steel pipes, the company designed special wheels that could hug the track, thus preventing the cars from falling in the event of an unforeseen stop. When the loop was flattened into an elliptical pattern, the G forces fell to manageable levels, and the Corkscrew at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California roared into being — with plenty of paying customers on every ride. 

Today, the roller coaster enjoys a kind of pluralistic vitality, as the steel extravaganzas permute into ever new geometries and the woodies bravely rattle on, thanks to a renaissance brought on in 1972 by John Allen's Racer at Kings Island, Ohio. And though Americans now have a wide array of video and computer realities to plunder, they have yet to tire of the scream-machine experience. After all, there is still nothing quite like being scared half-to-death.

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