A Brief History of Roller Coasters
Part I

by Jay Ducharme

copyright Jay Ducharme 1999-2007

[Note: This article was originally commissioned by Jim Serio for the now-defunct World of Coasters website. It's since been updated and is reproduced here by popular demand. For more detailed information read Robert Cartmell's terrific book, "The Incredible Scream Machine."]

For millions of people, amusement parks are a summertime diversion. It's ironic then that the biggest attraction at most parks, the roller coaster, began in the frigid winter climate of Russia. The first known records date back to the 1400s. Large slides were constructed of wood and covered with snow and ice. People would climb a long set of stairs to the top for a swift but enjoyable ride to the bottom. The experience was very much like the large, undulating slides that can still be found at some parks and carnivals today. The ice slides were so popular that they soon caught on in other countries that had warmer climates. By the 1700s, slides began appearing that didn't need ice. One-person sleds were constructed with wheels underneath, and passengers could speed to the bottom of the slide during the long summer months. Many of these rides that were constructed in France were given the name Les Montagnes Russe, which means Russian Mountains. Through the next two centuries, their popularity increased. Larger and larger versions were constructed.

By the 1800s, continuous-circuit slides appeared in Europe. Once the sled reached the bottom, it was pulled back to the top by either humans, animals or in some instances cables. Tracks were placed on the slides to keep the sleds on course. Technology couldn't keep up with the public's demand for thrills, and as the rides grew more dangerous accidents became more common. There were even attempts to build looping slides as early as the 1840s. As the slides became more common, the public's interest in riding these novelties started to wane and the slides themselves began to decrease in number.

In the United States, little interest was shown in Russian Mountains until the 1800s when a gravity-powered transportation system for moving coal was developed in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. The 18-mile-long circuit was made obsolete by the construction of a nearby tunnel. The owners of the Mauch Chunk Railway put a passenger car on the line and in 1874 began hauling paying customers instead of coal for a round-trip of nearly an hour and a half. The cost was one dollar and the venture was a success, demonstrating that people would pay money to coast down a hill. Ten years later, LaMarcus Thompson, an inventor and businessman from Ohio, installed his Switchback Railway at Coney Island, New York. It was partly a Russian Mountain and partly the Mauch Chunk Railway. Two tracks stood side by side. A single train-like car left the high point at the station at one end of one track and traveled down an undulating course powered by gravity, only to rise back up to meet with the other end. The train would enter the station on the opposite side and be switched back on to the other track. The operator would then send the train off on a return trip to the first station. The ride was an unparalleled success. Charging only 5 cents a ride, Thompson made back his entire $5000 investment in about a week. Thompson received patents on many features of his rides. Soon, others began imitating and improving upon Thompson's work. Just as in the earlier Russian Mountains, the ends of the track were eventually joined together into a complete circuit and a hoist system was added to pull the train to the top of the first hill. One design even used a track made of hundreds of rollers and passengers sat in flat toboggans. This may be the origin of the term roller coaster.

As more and more of these novelties began to appear in the United States, Thompson created a ride known as the Scenic Railway. It was a complete-circuit roller coaster that included many custom-designed scenes such as Egyptian pyramids or African jungles and special effects such as shooting flames and waterfalls. The Scenic Railways were another success for Thompson. He even built a few in Europe, where people began to re-discover the thrill of Les Montagnes Russe.

New York's famous Coney Island became a testing ground for all sorts of innovative, bizarre and sometimes dangerous rides. The Cannon Coaster attempted to have the train jump a gap in the track. (It failed during testing.) The old idea of a loop was given new life with the short-lived Flip-Flap Railway, which couldn't put through enough riders to pay for itself. A prototype suspended coaster called Busby's Spiral Airship debuted. Novelties came and went, but the public's love of this new-found thrill remained. Up until this time, even the fastest roller coaster went less than twenty miles an hour. The track was essentially a boxy wooden trough. The cars that the passengers rode in consisted of four steel wheels underneath and two on each side. The side friction wheels would bump against the sides of the trough to keep the coaster on course around corners. Because of this design limitation, the rides had to be kept tame for safety's sake. Only one of these side-friction coasters remains in operation in the United States: Leap the Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania, built in 1909.

It wasn't until a man named John Miller entered the picture that roller coaster technology advanced significantly. As a young man, Miller was employed by LaMarcus Thompson to build Switchbacks and Scenic Railways. He learned his craft well and by the early 1900s had patented over 100 improvements in roller coaster technology. The improvements allowed the construction of more severe rides with sharp drops and increased speeds. Among the improvements were upstops (located underneath each car, preventing it from coming off the track), locking lap bars to prevent passengers from flying out and safety dogs (which make that familiar clanking as a coaster is pulled up the lift hill, preventing the car from rolling backwards). He popularized the practice of track banking (tilting the track on its side around turns). He was possibly the most prolific roller coaster designer and builder in history with well over one hundred to his credit. Some of his rides are still standing today. Among them are the Racer and Jack Rabbit at Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania. Miller was also the first (with Norman Bartlett) to create a Flying Turns, where a bobsled-style train ran in a semi-circular trough. The only wooden re-creation of this exists at Knoebel's Grove in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. An example of a modern steel version of a Flying Turns is Avalanche at King's Dominion in Doswell, Virginia.

Another prolific roller coaster manufacturer of this period was the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Over the years it employed many different designers, including Miller, Joseph McKee, John Allen and an apprentice of Miller's, Herb Schmeck. There are probably more coasters designed by them that are still standing than any other built before the Great Depression in 1929. That era is known as the Golden Age of roller coasters. Many hundreds of small parks were in operation all through the United States, and nearly every one featured a roller coaster. It is estimated that during the Golden Age there were well over 1,500 roller coasters in operation across the globe. Designers and builders such as Prior and Church, Harry Baker, Vernon Keenan and Harry Traver made names and fortunes for themselves building high-thrill amusement rides for an eager public.

Harry Traver deserves special note. Though he was primarily a marketer of flat rides (a generic term for non-coaster rides) he did design a few coasters. His most famous was the Cyclone at Crystal Beach, Ontario, Canada. Traver believed that the public was ready for an extreme thrill ride, one that caused onlookers to gasp in astonishment. The Cyclone, built in 1927, was that and more -- it was also the most physically punishing ride ever built. It was so common for passengers to leave the ride with broken ribs or snapped collar bones that a nurse's station was located at the exit platform. The public's response was to flock to Crystal Beach to view the terrifying coaster -- but not to ride it. In those days, each ride was a separate fee. Eventually the Cyclone couldn't pay for itself. Because of the extreme design of the track, maintenance costs were very high. Eventually the ride was dismantled. That was the case with every coaster Traver designed. He did begin a new trend, however: constructing the coaster's structure out of steel. Until that time, roller coasters were built using the same technology as old wooden railroad bridges. Traver thought that steel would make a much more cost-effective and durable material for the structure. (The track, however, remained wood.) Though his track ripped itself apart, the structure proved to be quite durable and still exists: in 1946, Herb Schmeck re-arranged the structural steel from the Cyclone into what is now the Great Escape Comet. Now there many wood-track roller coasters that have steel structures, including the Coney Island Cyclone in New York, The Great White at Morey's Pier in New Jersey and The Cornball Express at Indiana Beach, Indiana.

Before more experimentation with Traver's ideas could begin, the Great Depression hit. Many amusement companies quickly went bankrupt. Faced with a public that no longer had spending money, many parks couldn't survive. They closed, and the magnificent roller coasters that had thrilled a generation were torn down. After the Depression came the Second World War. It's thought that some of Harry Traver's rides were sold to the Japanese as scrap metal and then fired back at us as artillery. By 1950, the only surviving roller coaster builders were the Philadelphia Tobbogan Company and National Amusement Devices. NAD built few coasters, and even fewer survive. One is Montana Rusa at Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. Perhaps their most memorable contribution was their coaster train design, beautiful stainless steel works of art with headlights in front. One of the few remaining examples still runs on Kennywood's Thunderbolt.

But as literally hundreds of parks fell into disrepair and closed their gates forever, one new kind of park was taking shape.

PART TWO or Karen and Jay's Amusement Page