- 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 king of the woodies, however, was not Keenan or Baker but a man of uncommon pluck named Harry Guy Traver. One measure of Traver’s character was his original impetus to go into the amusement-ride business. According to legend, he was lounging about on his boat one day, recovering from a bout of diphtheria, when he became entranced by the sight of gulls encircling the mast. This scene stayed with him after he returned to shore and led to his construction of the Circle Swing, a fleet of airborne vehicles suspended by wire.
Not long after that Traver began setting down his own Cyclones across the nation—and setting the nation’s noses to bleeding. His most famous creation was the Cyclone at Crystal Beach Park near Buffalo, a coaster so nasty it came staffed with its own registered nurse, but the others were nearly as lethal. A reporter writing for the New York Telegram described Traver’s Cyclone at Palisades Park as an overpowering gargantuan: “On it, you’re a fly on a racing motorcar. You’re less than that, really. You’re God’s lowliest creature with gravitation gone back on you.”
Traver was working at the height of his powers when he created the Aeroplane at Playland Amusement Park in Rye Beach, New York. 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.
This was a new kind of coaster experience. Turn-of-the-century coasters had presented some very real perils, to be sure, but their dangers had been born mostly of incompetence or ignorance. A Traver coaster, on the other hand, was knowingly malicious. Such were the wages of technological innovation: The roller coaster had become safe enough that the designer could brutalize his charge with impunity.
If only that impunity had extended to Wall Street. With the onset of the Depression, discretionary income became a thing of the past. World War II followed not long after, 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 room for a less sadistic successor; his pernicious Aeroplane gave way to a ride whose name suggests its lesser grandeur: the Wild Mouse. By the 1960s the number of coasters had dwindled from the thousands of the Golden Age to a mere two hundred.
Walt Disney is often credited for rescuing the roller coaster from oblivion, and while this is undoubtedly true, the rescue came at a price. From his animations to his amusement parks, Disney promoted a safe, almost bland experience, and the results could be seen in his rides from the very beginning. 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, and as it gained favor in the 1960s and 1970s in theme parks like Six Flags and Busch Gardens, LaMarcus Thompson’s redemptive ideal was realized at last.
Not that the success of steel did anything to stem the tide of innovation. On the contrary, because it afforded gambits with gravity that were ever more daring, the years to come would see coasters with features that the early designers could only dream of: suspended cars, longer drops, snap rolls, even the long-elusive loop design.
Ever since the mid-1800s coaster engineers had been trying to build a workable loop, only to watch their customers totter 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 G’s—enough to cause blackouts in fighter pilots. A nominal solution had been found in 1901, when E. A. Green stretched the Eoop-the-Eoop at Atlantic City into an ellipse, which lowered the overall centrifugal force by varying the speed of the cars as they passed through the loop. Unfortunately, the Eoop-the-Eoop couldn’t carry more than four riders every five minutes—a bad business proposition no matter how good the science.
The dream of a “somersault” coaster remained just that until 1975, when Arrow Development began looking into the possibilities of a corkscrew design. Using steel pipes, the company developed 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, surged into being—with plenty of paying customers on every ride.