September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
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.
Thank God for failed screenplays and the ideas they set free.
Thank God for failed screenplays and the ideas they set free.
Some years ago, when I suffered from a fitful delusion that it would be fun to write for the big screen, I sentenced one of my characters to be married on the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. This scene, like so many others I had written, promptly disappeared into my drawer, where it soon crossed that mysterious line past which food becomes garbage and screenplays become paper. But then, equally mysteriously, it progressed farther along the spectrum—onto my list of things to do. And so it was one wretched winter night that I surprised my girlfriend, Leslie Fratkin, by making the Cyclone a condition of my marriage proposal.
She cried for a while. Then she said yes.
Certain problems were quickly dispatched. George Robinson, a Unitarian minister with a flowing red beard, was more than amenable; when we described what we had in mind, he quietly asked if he could take the ride twice. As for securing permission, the man then in charge of P.R. for Astroland, the amusement park that owns the Cyclone, was Milton Berger, and Berger was nothing if not a publicity hound. “This could be big,” he ventured when I reached him by phone. “I mean, really big. Who knows? If it’s a slow news day, why, it could be . . . front page !” With that, he set about calling every media operation this side of the Mississippi.
The particulars of the ceremony, however, were another story. A roller coaster is not a clean white building with four square walls, and as far as I’ve been able to learn, there is no established etiquette for getting married on one. Where, for example, was the minister supposed to sit? Could a movie camera be brought on board? For the answer to these and other vexations, only a careful look at the machine in question would do.
Berger proved to be a vision of a Coney publicist: polyester leisure suit pushing his shoulders into a trapezoidal shape, big rings reflecting the sun from every finger, a pair of sunglasses reminiscent of Florida circa 1972. Meeting us outside the Cyclone entrance, he escorted us down to the boardwalk in a stiff but dignified gait and treated us to French fries at Gregory and Paul’s stand. That accomplished, he spirited us back to the Astroland offices for a tour of the Cyclone’s assorted awards and memorabilia. Then he did something unusual even for an amusement-park impresario. He led us into a conference room and sat us down for a fatherly talk.
Weddings had been performed on the Cyclone before, he admitted, taking his sunglasses off and running one hand through his short gray hair, but it had been some time since the last one—exactly how long he wasn’t sure. He also mentioned that a man had recently been reinducted into the Navy on the ride, and that the dates of our wedding day and his own anniversary were one and the same. “Of course,” he explained, “in these turbulent times the institution of marriage is not what it used to be—”
Here he stopped short, apparently at a loss for words.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, finding himself again, “I wish you the best of luck. It’s a very appropriate place to be married, and we’re very happy to help you however we can. And now, if you’d like, we can take a look at the ride.”
We had always imagined reciting our vows on the way up the first rise, with a climactic “I do” at the apex, but a quick survey of the scene disabused us of this idea. The simplest variant of “for better or worse” timed out at a minute and a half—a full sixty seconds longer than the duration of the first ascent. What’s more, insurance considerations precluded the use of a movie camera on the Cyclone once it was moving.
Fortunately an answer presented itself soon enough. We would perform the ceremony in the coaster as we had hoped, but before the ride began, with the guests looking on from the platform. For anyone so inclined, Berger would provide two extra rides gratis before opening the coaster to the public. This solution was good both in letter and in spirit; it followed rules without skimping on the drama. We had ourselves a plan.
June 12, 1993, was clear and warm and just about as perfect as a wedding day could be. Arriving in white tie and tails, I soon found myself ensconced in the front car, looking out at a large gathering of friends, relatives, and—thanks to Berger’s efforts—a phalanx of television cameras. The enthusiastic George Robinson sat in the car behind me, the best man and the maid of honor in the car behind him. Leslie appeared in a splendor of white and took her place to my left. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today. . . .”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Today the roller coaster enjoys a kind of pluralistic vitality, as the steel extravaganzas permute rides into ever more ecstatic geometries and the woodies bravely rattle on, thanks to a renaissance brought on in 1972 by John Alien’s Racer at King’s Island, Ohio. And though Americans now have a wide array of video and computer realities to plunder, they have yet to tire of the coaster experience. Indeed, the modern enthusiast comes in many varieties. Some take their families, some ride alone. There are marathon riders, and riders who never get past their first time. Then there are those who see in the sinuous curves of the roller coaster a deeper meaning, something irreducible about the life they lead . . .
I was thinking hard about the life I led as the Cyclone’s first rise opened onto a panoramic view of Coney, with its whirring, creaking machines and its wide expanse of sea. Then I received a direct confirmation that I was no longer involved in the writing of screenplays. Somewhere to my left Leslie was screaming, “I want a divorce!” and trying to screw my arm off. Seven punishing dips and rises later, we cruised back into the station, addled and thoroughly awake, to congratulations all around. We were married.
There isn’t much else to tell. While the others jockeyed for a seat on the next ride, Leslie and I took a leisurely promenade around the grounds. We paused at the Wonder Wheel and watched its great steel arc circle through the sky. At Dick Zigun’s sideshow I made sure I got a photograph of my wife kissing Michael Wilson, the “illustrated man,” right on the tattoos. Slowly making our way back to our car, we proceeded down a row of game booths, suffering the carnies to greet us like cadets in an unusual military review. We stopped at one, and I was instantly presented with a stuffed flannel pig, even though I missed the target by a mile.
There are times when an object, no matter how inane, can bring reality into sharp focus. Presenting this one to Leslie, I thought of all the roller coasters that had ever been and of the insistent pull of the earth that, if triumphant in the end, must nevertheless take pause at our heroic strategies of delay.
No doubt about it. For that fleeting moment we were king and queen of gravity, pleasure, and everything between.