- 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 explosion of gravity rides represented something more than the elaborate expansion of mindless fun. To many—perhaps most—Americans the locomotive was already a deeply poetic object, so much so that at least one foreigner observed that the average American responded to a train whistle “as if it were a mistress.” One can only imagine how much more intoxicating it must have been to board these intimate trains, with their wild, expressionist curves. It must have been like waking up to a dream as big as the world.
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. Traction companies paid flat monthly rates for their power whether their trolleys were busy or not, and thus it behooved them to encourage Sunday ridership. This problem was solved many times over by setting up an amusement park at the last stop on the line. Indeed, trolley parks proved such a sound investment that for a time they were nearly ubiquitous.
The explosion of gravity rides rides at the century’s turn represented something more than the elaborate expansion of mindless fun.
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 thirty-eight 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—he manipulated a lever at the front of the front car, just like a subway motorman—and the ability to move either forward or backward over its forty-five hundred feet of track. Coney Island had third-rail coasters, too, and even completed the analogy with red and green block signals regulating traffic along the tracks. One colorful variation of this ride at Coney Island 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 the conflict before chugging up the first rise.
The Rough Riders fared badly in the end. Perhaps hoping to match the peril and exhilaration of war, its operators tended to push their vehicles too hard, using full power even on downward inclines. Motorman E. J. Quinby recalled his boss saying, “If you want to keep your job here, ya gotta make ‘em yell bloody murder.” Murder (or something like it) followed in earnest in 1910, when a Rough Riders motorman took his train around one high bend too fast, throwing two cars loose and tossing sixteen passengers out over Surf Avenue, four of them to their deaths.
Such troubles became less common after 1912, when John Miller invented the “under-friction wheel.” Until Miller came along, coasters had been fitted with “side-friction wheels,” which rolled along the inner edges of the track. Under-friction wheels, by contrast, kept the train locked onto the track from beneath, and this third set of wheels solved the matter of accidental derailments.
Of course, this 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, who approached the roller coaster with the sensibility of a mad golf-course designer, did his part to push the envelope of physics with his Jack Rabbit at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, which began its run by diving precipitously into a gully. In the same vertiginous spirit his Cyclone in Cleveland used the cliffs and gorges at Puritas Springs to press the tracks into what some visitors described as V shapes.
By the 1920s the scream machine was evoking more screams than ever. America had as many as fifteen hundred roller coasters, the tallest of which stood 138 feet high, the fastest of which plummeted to earth at more than sixty miles per hour. 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 as they did, coasters made of wood seemed practically alive, and they 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 eighty-five-foot drop executed at sixty miles an hour, it is still considered by many to be the standard by which all others are measured.