The high speeds and impressive stature of roller coasters in amusement parks all over America make them one of our nation’s greatest tourism draws. As of 2002, more than 300 million people were riding American roller coasters every year, which as ABC News points out was greater than the population of our country at that time. Those 2002 numbers accounted for $9 billion in revenues, proving that there is a good market out there for providing consumers with a thrilling experience.
However, America is not setting the pace when it comes to the sheer number of twisting steel or wooden structures populating the landscape. According to statistics collected by the Roller Coaster DataBase, the total number of roller coasters currently operating in North America is 802, trailing Europe which has 875 roller coasters, 839 of those being of the steel variety. Both of these continents are well behind Asia, which boasts 1,681 coasters; like Europe, the vast majority (1,666) are steel. North America is home to the largest number of wooden roller coasters with 123.
The development of the roller coaster as a ride for thrill seekers is primarily an American invention but the story of the modern coaster’s development spans centuries and continents. Roller coasters have served purposes as diverse as human entertainment and coal transportation. They have been the centerpieces of some of the most famous theme parks in history. As millions of people lower their shoulder harnesses and strap in for the ride this summer, let’s take a quick look back at the intriguing story of the origins of the modern roller coaster and how it has changed over the years.
Russian Mountains and Early French Designs
The earliest precursor to the steel giants found all over the world today were first constructed out of ice. Records going back to 15th and 16th century Russia indicate that ice slides were constructed for the public during festivals taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg. These slides could have steep drops at angles of 50 degrees and the tallest slides reached 70 feet tall. After a time, Russian royalty developed a taste for these ice slides and through the 1800s, Russian ice slides became increasingly sophisticated and began to be known as Flying Mountains.
By the beginning of the 19th century, aspects of the ice slide contraption had emigrated from Russia to France, where wheeled versions of the conveyance system became the norm. There are reports that the term “roller coaster” first originates from these early French editions because of their wheeled motion. The earliest known coasters in France were both built in Paris during the year 1817: Les Montagnes Russes á Belleville, or “The Russian Mountains of Belleville;” and the Promenades Aeriennes, or “The Aerial Walk.” Both of these structures had mechanisms for securing the cars to the track while allowing the wheels to move freely.
The Russian heritage of the roller coaster is something that has been honored by roller coaster developers since those earliest French models. For example, the Spanish term for roller coaster is montaña rusa, which roughly translates as “Russian mountain.” Other Latinate or “romance” languages observe the same traditional turn of phrase. Interestingly, the Russian term for roller coaster is pronounced amerikanskiye gorki, which translates into “American mountain.”
France can also lay claim to the first coaster which sent its travelers through a loop. A single loop measuring 13 feet in diameter was installed near the end of a roller coaster commissioned in 1846 for the Frascati Gardens in Paris. These looping varieties were only popular for a short period of time and a series of these rides which opened in Lyons, Bordeaux and Havre eventually closed.
The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, America’s First Coaster
The eastern Pennsylvania town of Jim Thorpe used to go by the name of Mauch Chunk and it’s in this earlier incarnation of the former coal mining community that the next steps in roller coaster technology were taken. The reasons for building a better system for wheeled cars to travel along a railway had less to do with entertainment, however, and much more to do with industry.
By the early 19th century, sources of coal had been discovered in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh River Valley but the difficulties of navigating the Schuylkill River and other transportation issues greatly added to the coal’s transportation costs. Part of the solution developed to address these problems was the construction of a nine-mile length of railroad track which connected Summit Hill, the source of the coal, to Mauch Chunk. The railway, which the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company began to build in 1827, was constructed upon a path specifically designed to travel downhill for the entirety of the trip. This allowed the forces of gravity to play a larger role in transporting tons of coal, although the mule-driven cars had to be returned to the summit once they had delivered their payload.
Although this system was very effective at delivering loads of coal downhill, the return trip could take hours and served as a bottleneck on business operations. Josiah White, one of the partners in the Lehigh coal company, conceived of a return railway constructed as series of inclined planes. Pusher cars would be pulled up the inclined planes by a steam engine located at the railway’s apex, driving the empty coal cars back towards the summit for refilling. The finished Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway coasting railroad system totaled 18 miles, 17 of which were downhill.
The introduction of the steam locomotive as a form of freight transportation rendered the Mauch Chunk obsolete by the early 1870s. Owned by the Central Railway of New Jersey at this point, it was decided to operate the Switchback as a tourist destination. The Lehigh River Valley, surrounded by the Pocono Mountains and offering some impressive views, grew to become known as “the Switzerland of America.” In 1873, one year after the Switchback ceased operation as a coal line, it carried 35,000 visitors. It would continue to operate for more than six decades.
Early patents in the roller coaster field show that the success of the Mauch Chunk line inspired others to create their own recreational amusement rides. In May 1872, Baltimore, MD, inventor John G. Taylor filed U.S. Patent No. 128674, titled Improvement in Inclined Railways. Issued in July of that year, the patent disclosed an inclined railway with passenger cars that travel between two platforms. Reports of a ride based on this technology and built in the Savin Rock section of West Haven, CT, indicate that 250,000 people rode the contraption in its first year of operation. Another early patent was filed by Richard Knudsen of Brooklyn, NY, as U.S. Patent No. 198888, entitled Improvement in Inclined-Plane Railways. Issued in January 1878, the patent protected an inclined-plane railway track with two tracks having opposite inclines. Hoistways located at the end of either railway would lift the car from the end of one track and place it at the beginning of the other.
Coney Island and American Amusement Parks
Over the course of the 19th century, the southwestern portion of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, known as Coney Island, grew to become a resort and entertainment center. By 1904, three Coney Island amusement parks were operational. Much of this spurt in tourist activity at Coney Island owes a great deal to the roller coasters which started being built about two decades earlier.
The first Coney Island roller coaster started taking passengers on June 16th, 1884 and was built by American inventor LaMarcus Thompson. The Switchback Railway, as his coaster was called, was incredibly popular and has led some to confer the honorary title of “Father of the American roller coaster” upon Thompson. The ride was similar to Knudsen’s in that it had two towers, each 45 feet tall, situated opposite each other and connected to an inclined railway which allowed cars to travel at a top speed of six miles per hour. Thompson’s design can be seen evidenced in U.S. Patent No. 310966, titled Roller Coasting Structure. This patent, issued in January 1885, discloses a coasting structure with parallel tracks and a means for transferring a car from one track to the other once it has reached the terminus of the track. According to the patent, the improved coasting structure is intended to be used primarily for “pleasure and amusement.”
A few years after the first Switchback Railway opened in Coney Island, Thompson worked with another coaster developer, James A. Griffiths of Philadelphia, to construct the Scenic Railway that opened in Atlantic City in 1887. Thompson would go on to found the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company, building nearly 50 roller coasters in Europe and America by the year 1888.
Other Coney Island rides, however, would lead to some important advances in roller coaster tech. The Gravity Pleasure, or Oval Coaster as it was also known, opened in 1885 and was the first to incorporate a powered chain lift to raise roller coaster cars to the top of the hill. The ride’s developer, Phillip Hinkle, protected his invention through U.S. Patent No. 307942, entitled Gravity Pleasure Road. Coney Island also saw the world’s first roller coaster with a vertical loop when the Flip Flap Railway opened in 1895. The ride was very dangerous, however, as it could deliver 12 G’s of positive g-force, enough to cause neck injuries in riders and cause them to pass out.
Roller coasters proliferated the world and, at least in America, much of their development was supported by the growth of trolley parks, places for public amusement which were built by trolley companies as a way to encourage people to ride the railways on weekends. Most of the 1,000 amusement parks operating in America by 1919 were trolley parks. As roller coasters became more advanced, robust safety features were required to keep passengers safe. An important advancement in this field came from John A. Miller of Homewood, IL, an inventor who would hold dozens of patents related to roller coasters. U.S. Patent No. 1319888, titled Pleasure-Railway Structure and issued in October 1919, claimed a pleasure railway system with horizontal and vertical rollers which engaged track beams in such a way that prevented horizontal and vertical displacement of a car’s supporting wheels.
The Great Depression hit leisure activities and amusement parks very hard in America and many of these early coasters went defunct in those years and the decades to follow. Roller coaster development in America would be fairly light until another huge name in American entertainment, Disney, would revitalize the notion of the thrill ride.
The Matterhorn Bobsleds were not the only major railway improvement to California’s Disneyland that began operations on June 14th, 1959, which was also the start date of the Disneyland Monorail System. The ride, still in operation today, kicked off a new roller coaster revolution in the second half of the 20th century. The Matterhorn Bobsleds were the first roller coaster cars to travel along a tubular steel track, which may be more easily manipulated into loops and turns for a greater entertainment value.
Ever higher and more nerve-wracking thrill rides are being thought up for amusement parks and continue to be constructed today. Hundred-foot vertical loops, 90 degree drops and 100+ mile per hour speeds can be found on some of the world’s most terrifying roller coasters. Today, thousands of steel and wooden coasters are being used to thrill amusement park attendees all over the world. From their earliest days as Russian ice slides to Kingda Ka, the Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari behemoth and North America’s current champion for the tallest and fastest roller coaster, coasters have proven to be popular diversions which have entertained human beings for many generations.