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June 16, 1884: The first purpose-built roller coaster opens in New York City's Coney Island amusement park.  

 

GregBO
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17/06/2020 12:50 am  

On June 16, 1884, The first purpose-built roller coaster, LaMarcus Adna Thompson's "Switchback Railway", opens in New York's Coney Island amusement park.

The original Switchback Railway at Coney Island

The original Switchback Railway was the first roller coaster at Coney Island and one of the earliest designed for amusement in America. The 1885 patent states the invention relates to the gravity double track switchback railway, which had predicated the inclined plane railway, patented in 1878 by Richard Knudsen.  Coney Island's version was designed by LaMarcus Adna Thompson in 1881 and constructed in 1884. It appears Thompson based his design, at least in part, on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway which was a coal-mining train that had started carrying passengers as a thrill ride in 1827.

Mauch Chunk and Summit Hill Switchback Railroad, looking down on the boat landings at Mauch Chunk.

For five cents, riders would climb a tower to board the large bench-like car and were pushed off to coast 600 ft (183 m) down the track to another tower. The car went just over 6 mph (9.7 km/h).  At the top of the other tower the vehicle was switched to a return track or "switched back" (hence the name).

Thompson's Switchback Gravity Railway is the precursor to modern roller coasters. Passengers climbed up stairs and rode a gravity-powered cart very slowly down tracks at roughly 6 miles per hour. They faced out instead of forward so that they could take in the surrounding scenery.  At the bottom, the passengers would get off, attendants would push the cart up to another set of tracks (hence the name "switch-back"), and passengers would get back on and ride back to the starting point while facing the opposite direction.

This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete-circuit ride designed by Charles Alcoke and called the Serpentine Railway. In 1885 Phillip Hinkle developed a lift system which appeared in his ride called Gravity Pleasure. The Gravity Pleasure also featured cars in which the passengers could face forward instead of in the awkward bench-like seats of the first two roller coasters. The next year, Thompson patented his design of coasters that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. Thompson built many more roller coasters under the name "The L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway" across the United States. Some of these operated until 1954.

There was also a switchback railway at the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition in 1888. The Melbourne International Exhibition is the eighth World's fair officially recognized by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) and the first official World's Fair in the Southern Hemisphere.

​"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." -Albert Pike

​"​My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.​" - Clarence Buddinton Kelland


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GregBO
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Joined: 2 years ago
Posts: 3814
17/06/2020 1:03 am  

LaMarcus Adna Thompson is widely regarded as the Father of the American Roller Coaster. After building his pioneering Switchback Gravity Railway, he developed the concept of the 'scenic railway' and built a large and successful company that operated dozens of these rides across the world.  A (6 mph) ride cost 5 cents.

LaMarcus Thompson

The Dragon's Gorge at Luna Park, shown in this photo above, is a great example of the pride that Thompson took in his scenic railways. This ride was active at Luna Park from 1905 until 1944, and has the distinction of surviving Fred Thompson's (no relation) and Skip Dundy's annual spring cleaning during which they would remove any ride at Luna that hadn't paid for itself the prior season.  

Luna Park's Dragon Gorge, a longstanding and popular Thompson Scenic Railway

The Brooklyn Museum describes the Dragon's Gorge well:  "The Dragon's Gorge was an enclosed roller coaster, a scenic railroad that brought the passenger on a fantastic trip from the bottom of the sea, through a waterfall, to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and even into Hades, the kingdom of death, over the river Styx.  Two dragons framed the entrance, their eyes glowing from globes of green electric light."  

Thompson's scenic railways were immensely popular during the first and second decade of the 1900s, and his company operated six major scenic railways at Coney Island alone during that time.

Views were a big deal because there were no tall buildings back then, so people would pay to go up in Ferris Wheels or the Iron Tower at Coney Island for panoramic views. However, Thompson came up with a clever twist on the 'scenic' aspect, and developed into rides that simulated trips through foreign landscapes like the Swiss Alps or Venetian Canals (both, at Dreamland) using elaborately painted backgrounds and montages. These rides became incredibly popular at a time when photographs of foreign places were rare and very few people could afford to travel abroad.

As roller coasters became faster, Thompson stuck with his scenic railway game plan instead of pursuing the thrill aspect that we associate with modern coasters.  He'd market his rides as "safety" coasters to highlight that the faster rides were less safe. His rides remained popular until the early 1920s, when fast roller coasters became safer following several inventions.  By then, people were also able to travel in cars, so slow rides lacked thrill.

​"What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal." -Albert Pike

​"​My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.​" - Clarence Buddinton Kelland


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