- 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
The Scenic Railway, as it was then called, was anything but demure. Starting at a deceptive five or ten miles an hour, it gave passengers who paid their nickel a panoramic view of the Poconos, followed by an open quarry where Americans first discovered anthracite; an “Amazing Burning Mine,” which had been on fire since 1832; and a Home Stretch, during which the ride attained a speed of sixty-five miles per hour. It’s said that the wooden seats sometimes bore the marks of fingernails. At the peak of its popularity, the ride carried thirty-five thousand passengers a year.
The success of the Mauch Chunk ride led to various “coasting courses” in America, with rollers that gave way to wheels, just as they had in France. It also brought the energies of inventors to bear. In 1872 a Baltimore native named J. G. Taylor submitted what may have been the first patent for a roller coaster, although he referred to it somewhat modestly as an “Improvement in Inclined Railways.” Next came an 1878 patent by Richard Knudsen of Brooklyn. 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, whereupon it would be raised by lift mechanism to the top of the other. In this way the ride would go back and forth all day, carrying up to four people at a time.
Knudsen apparently never built his device, which he dubbed the “Inclined-Plane Railway.” That task fell to LaMarcus Adna Thompson.
Thompson was an unlikely candidate for the title show people bestowed on him: the father of gravity. A Sunday-school teacher and dime-store moralist, he looked upon amusement parks not as fertile wonderlands but as sinful places in need of redemption. “Many of the evils of society,” he once wrote, “much of the vice and crime which we deplore come from the degrading nature of amusements . . . to substitute something better, something clean and wholesome and persuade men to choose it, is worthy of all endeavor.”
Thompson was clearly a man out of place at Coney Island. Nevertheless it was his Switchback Railway, erected at Coney 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 reportedly earning six hundred dollars 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 Oriental 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 darkness. By 1887 he held thirty patents for improvements on roller coasters.
Today the roller coaster enjoys a pluralistic vitality, as the steel extravaganzas permute into ever new geometries and the woodies bravely rattle on.
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 fifty roller coasters in Europe and America. Among his later efforts was the Dragon’s Gorge at Coney Island’s Luna Park, which recapitulated his ethical stance in an assortment of Biblical scenes.
If Thompson seemed to be unusually productive, he had good reason: His success brought competition fast on his heels. 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 its most fantastic phase.
For a time, virtually every ride at Coney Island used gravity to work its magic. George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase, with its mechanical racehorses that coasted on undulating rails around the outside of his amusement park, was by all accounts the most popular, but there were plenty of others that were just as exciting, if not more so. The Mystic Screw sent passengers spiraling down a demonic helix for some seventy-five feet. The Cannon Coaster fired its patrons across a gap in the rails. The Flip-Flap, erected in 1900, reprised the old Centrifugal Railway with a thirty-foot high circular loop; so punishing was the Flip-Flap that before it closed because of health concerns, people paid just to watch it in action.