H/T USA Today.
Yesterday was national roller coaster day.
We think of roller coasters as being all-American. And in many ways they are. They are such a beloved part of our culture, amusement parks and ride fans will be celebrating National Roller Coaster Day on August 16 (don’t forget to send your favorite enthusiast a greeting card and a couple of park passes).
However, as with many things in our melting-pot country, the origins of the thrill machines can actually be tracked back to Europe. The record is a bit murky, but some historians contend that this is the 200th anniversary of the rides. There are accounts of two circa-1817 attractions in Paris that we would recognize today as roller coasters. The gravity- and people-powered rides sent passengers in wheeled carts soaring down wooden tracks.
It’s significant to note that the attractions were known as “Russian mountains.” There may have been similar coaster-like rides in France or elsewhere in Europe as early as 1799. Regardless, they were inspired by events that took place many years earlier.
“The DNA of roller coasters traces back to the mid-1600s when the Russians developed ice slides, a very simple form of gravity-powered thrills,” says Robert Coker, author of Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines and senior show writer for Super 78 Studios, an attraction design company. Riders would board sleds made out of hollowed-out ice blocks and descend timber chutes that were packed with snow and ice. The Russian ice slides were popular among the aristocracy, including Catherine the Great who commissioned one of her own.
To this day, roller coasters are known generically in many countries as “Russian mountains.” Interestingly, the Russians refer to coasters as “American mountains.” Go figure.
The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad, generally regarded as the first coaster in the USA, wasn’t really a coaster. In 1873, enterprising folks repurposed a coal mining train in Pennsylvania and used it to send passengers hurtling down a mountain for the sheer thrills. According to some records, mules would take the journey aboard the runaway train and then haul it back up the mountain.
The country’s first commercially successful, more traditional roller coaster was the Gravity Switchback Railway, which opened in 1884 at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was designed, patented, built, and operated by LaMarcus Adna Thompson. While he didn’t invent the concept, Thompson’s ride was so popular, he is considered the father of the roller coaster. “He was charging a nickel a ride and making $600 a day,” says Coker.
Other entrepreneurs took notice of Thompson’s money train and quickly rolled out their own rides. The wooden lattices began popping up along with new amusement parks as coaster-mania spread throughout the country. In the early 1900s, the ride’s golden age, there were as many as 2000 of them. Most of the coasters eventually disappeared. Some were lost to fire. Others were demolished because parks closed during the Great Depression or when the value of their land skyrocketed during the post-World-War-II boom.
A few of the classics remain: the Jack Rabbit (opened in 1920) at Kennywood in Penn.; the Wildcat (opened in 1927) at Lake Compounce, the country’s oldest, continuously operating amusement park, in Conn.; and the world’s most famous traditional wooden coaster, the Cyclone (opened in 1927) at Coney Island.
A ride renaissance began in 1959 at Disneyland in Calif. “Walt Disney was traveling in Switzerland on vacation with his family,” Coker explains. “He sent a postcard of the Matterhorn to his Imagineers and just wrote, ‘Build this.’ ” Disney’s team, along with a ride manufacturer, rethought coaster design and developed a tubular steel track system and trains that used polyurethane wheels. Steel, they discovered, could be bent in ways that wooden tracks couldn’t and provided smoother rides. Disneyland’s resulting Matterhorn ride, which is still operating today, “felt more like a bobsled running down a mountain,” says Coker.
Wooden coasters continued to be built, but steel ones quickly overtook them in numbers and popularity. Although it probably wasn’t an intentional nod to the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad, many of the early steel coasters, including ones at Six Flags Over Texas and Six Flags Over Georgia, were themed to mine trains.
Using tubular steel track, innovative ride manufacturers incorporated corkscrews, loops, and other inversions into their thrill machines. They developed new breeds of coasters including inverted, in which the trains hang suspended beneath the track, and floorless, in which the trains ride above the track, but passengers’ legs dangle in open cars. They built them ever taller, first breaking the 200-foot barrier with Magnum XL-200, and then soaring past 300- and 400-foot thresholds with Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster, respectively. All three of the record-breakers debuted at Cedar Point in Ohio. With the deployment of launched coaster systems, trains began screaming out of loading stations, and speeds revved up past 100 mph.
More recently, the rides have come full circle as wooden coasters have been staging a comeback. Designers have been tinkering with the trains and tracks to produce woodies that go taller and faster than their more conventional predecessors. Some even include elements that send passengers upside-down.
One ride company has developed an I-shaped steel track that it has been retrofitting onto aging wooden coasters. The hybrid wooden-steel coasters they have created, such as Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Calif., have been remarkably smooth.