- Historic Sites
The monarch of all amusement devices is beautiful to look at and exhilarating to ride. Even so, roller coasters nearly died out in America before recent events brought them surging back.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
I have some recollection of the cheers after we were pronounced husband and wife, but mostly I remember the pause that followed. It seems one of the television crews had yet to arrive, and Berger absolutely would not throw the switch for our ascent without a media quorum. Our well-wishers dutifully emptied their stores of rice in a series of diminishing showers. Then, at long last, the signal was given, and the train lurched forward toward the point of no return . . .
Of all the amusement rides that have ever been, the roller coaster seems particularly given to initiation rituals. Many a romance has been kindled on them, and as Berger noted, the occasional sailor has been known to use one as his ticket back to sea. Coasters have even been the site of births: In 1989 a seventeen-year-old Dawn White produced a baby boy on a coaster in Wellington, New Zealand. ("Nobody knew she was pregnant,” explained one observer, “not even Dawn.")
Yet even in the face of all this evidence—and despite the fact that both Leslie and I had musicians, even vaudevillians, in our backgrounds—some of our family members continued to scoff at our nuptial arrangements. What drove us, they wondered (aloud, in our direction), to make such a mockery of a sacred event? What was so wrong with a church?
Against this charge, I might offer the words of one Rev. Cliff Herring of eastern Pennsylvania, who once described a whirl on a coaster as “an exercise in faith” that “may put people in touch with a part of themselves ordinarily untapped.” If pressed, I might even insist that the roller coaster is peculiarly suited to the rites of matrimony. Like the prospect of marriage, it is terrifying, exhilarating, and unforgettable all at once. In a curious way it also speaks to the dangers that beset any contemporary couple. The roller coaster may not do much to set nature in line with the heavens, but for an inoculation against the dangers of modern living—the same dangers that stumped Berger in mid-sermon—it’s pretty hard to beat.
Indeed, the entire history of the roller coaster can be seen as an ongoing effort to minimize the threat of technology while maximizing its terrors. And, I might add for finishing rhetorical effect, this history goes back farther than some religions do.
In the beginning, of course, there wasn’t much technology to fear. The roller coaster has its origins in St. Petersburg, Russia, as a simple slide that took thrill seekers down an icy ramp past a variety of colored lanterns. 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.
In any event, France continued to deliver many important advances in coaster technology throughout the early nineteenth century. The Promenade Aériennes took riders along banked curves that gave the cars enough momentum to return to their starting point. A cable for lifting the cars up the critical first hill arrived in 1826, courtesy of an inventor named Lebonjer. The revolutionary year of 1848 saw the construction of the Centrifugal Railway in Paris’s Frascati Gardens, whose foreboding “loop-the-loop” subjected the leisure class to blackouts.
All this portended a bright future for the roller coaster, but oddly enough the French 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, re-creating what had already been accomplished.
Certainly the proprietors of the Mauch Chunk Railway, in eastern Pennsylvania, knew nothing of colored lanterns and decorous inclines. When they began operations in the 1820s, their mission was coal mining, and their first passengers were mules. Herded into a train laden with coal, these lucky beasts coasted from the top of Mount Pisgah down to a canal, then hauled the empty train back up for another go.
The Switchback lost its usefulness. Then, in a bout of Yankee shrewdness, its owners converted it from a miner’s helper to a tourist attraction.
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. So, in 1870, in a bout of Yankee shrewdness, the railway was converted from a miner’s helper to a tourist attraction.