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Friday, June 4, 2010

Coney Island's Switchback Railway: America's First Roller Coaster

Last weekend, the new Luna Park opened at Coney Island to much fanfare. Today, of course, the amusement park section of Coney Island is tiny compared to what it was in its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, when rides and amusements filled the boardwalk from end to end.

Modern visitors who want to relive a little bit of the area's history can ride the Cyclone, the 1927 wooden roller coaster on Surf Avenue. However, the history of the roller coaster is much older than the Cyclone and this Sunday marks the birthday of Coney Island's (and America's) first roller coaster, the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, which opened on June 6, 1884.

Modeled on an earlier coal railroad at Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, that had been successfully turned into an entertainment, the switchback was the brainchild of LaMarcus A. Thompson. Visitors would climb to the top of a tower and board a car that then dropped six hundred feet over an undulating track. At the far end the car would be "switched back" to another track and returned to the tower. Thompson envisioned his ride as wholesome family entertainment -- in a period when amusement parks were often seen as dens of sin and iniquity -- and the cars, traveling at an "invigorating" six miles per hour, provided great views of the Coney Island beach and boardwalk.* He charged 5 cents a ride and made back the $1600 he'd invested in the roller coaster in less than three weeks.

It is unclear how long the Switchback Railway lasted at Coney Island (or even precisely where it stood). Despite its early success, Thompson soon faced a host of competitors and his original coaster may only have stood for three years. However, Thompson's career in designing roller coasters was just beginning. Firmly believing that his passengers wanted to see beautiful things as they rode his rides, Thompson went on to create numerous scenic switchback coasters where the cars entered tunnels painted with dioramas of nature scenes. Eventually the painted scenes gave way to dark tunnels, adding to the thrill.

As Thompson built more rides, he improved their technology adding such features as cable pulleys to haul the cars to the top, linked cars to create longer trains, and emergency brakes in case of accident. Though Thompson didn't hold the patent on the original roller coaster,** by the end of his life he had patented more than 30 improvement to the ride and is still known to this day as the "Father of Gravity."

* The ferris wheel -- normally the best place to get a view at an amusement park -- was not invented until the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

** The patents for the first roller coasters were issued in 1872 and 1878; however neither of the original patentees ever built a working model, making Thompson's ride the first of its kind.

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Read more about New York in the 19th century in

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