The first commercial roller coaster in the United States gave its first ride on today’s date, June 16 in 1884 at New York’s Coney Island, traveling at an “invigorating” 6 m.p.h. according to one source. I must admit that I’ve run into some different accounts of what the correct date for this event , including June 13 and a couple of others. I will just put it here where the History Channel website says it is and if I am able to really nail down another date at some point in the future, I will move it there next year. ANYWAY… this baby was the brainchild of one LaMarcus Adna Thompson who was looking for something that would bring wholesome fun to amusement parks.
It Started With Coal Cars….
The idea for this future ultimate fun device had it origins in hard work… the hard work of coal moving in Pennsylvania in the 1820’s. It seems that the owners of the Mauch Chunk Railway in Eastern Pennsylvania needed to move a train loaded with coal, mules and other such cargo from the top of Mount Pisgah down to a canal. So they laid this track down the mountain on a fairly gentle downgrade, loaded up the cars, brought the coal down with the cars moving by the force of gravity and then hauled the cars back up for another load. Eventually a return track was laid and the cars were switched over to that for the return trip up the mountain, and the system was dubbed the “Switchback”. However when coal production moved elsewhere, the tracks fell into disuse. So the tracks were turned into a tourist attraction giving scenic rides of the countryside in the 1870’s
And Turned Into a Thrill Ride!!
Of course the success of this new attraction brought investors anxious to capitalize on the profit making potential of this idea. A patent in 1878 to Brooklynite Richard Knudsen used a similar system of tracks and switching, but Knudsen never built his design. Enter LaMarcus Adna Thompson (below). This man was
evidently a fairly stern fellow, a moralist and it has been said that he was also a Sunday school teacher although there is no written record to that effect. But he apparently looked upon amusement parks as sinful places in need of redemption. And he based his design for wholesome entertainment on Knudsen’s of two sets of parallel tracks. Visitors would climb to the top of a tower and board a car that then moved down six hundred feet (at 6 mph) over an undulating track. At the far end the car would be “switched back” to another track and returned to the tower.
These cars, traveling at that six miles per hour, provided great scenic of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk. At a rate of 5 cents a ride Thompson was able to recoup his original investment of $1,600 in some three weeks. Thompson’s ride, the “Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway” was quickly out-paced by competitors, but continued to make improvements on his design, adding more scenic elements to future incarnations. But because of the ride that he premiered on this date in 1884 he was known the “Father of Gravity” ever after.