- John Wardley, Coaster Designer
With the popularity of the roller coaster rising, Henry Auchey and Chester Albright combined forces in 1904 and opened the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC), toboggan referring to coaster cars of the day. According to Cartmell, by the mid-1970's PTC had created over 75 carousels and 150 roller coasters. Today it is still putting out coaster cars, but the company is no longer designing roller coasters. Their official statement is that they do not want to compete with the same companies to whom they supply coaster trains.
Herbert Schmeck is the man considered responsible for helping PTC gain credibility in the Golden Age of Coasters. He cut his teeth working with John Miller on Paragon Park's Giant Coaster and took over PTC in the 1920's.
Each company produced a signature ride that was found at many parks throughout the U.S. PTC's was the Wildcat coaster, examples of which were found at parks like Coney Island in Cincinnati, Ohio, Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio and Rocky Springs Park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. These twisted rides curved in and out of themselves and were known for their powerful lateral g's. In fact, the Wildcat in Dayton was infamous because of the light show it put on. Many summer nights people gathered and watched as the trains flew over the second hill where sparks danced under the train as a result of the track's severe banking.
Cincinnati's Coney Island was known as the PTC testing ground. The Wildcat, a twister and Shooting Star, an out-and-back wooden coaster were some of the company's best designs. Unfortunately the park closed in 1970 because of flooding and many of the rides were moved to Kings Island.
One amazing Schmeck coaster still flying is the Phoenix at Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1947, the coaster opened as The Rocket at Playland Park in San Antonio, Texas. That park closed in 1978 and the coaster sat unused for several years.
Luckily for us, Dick Knoebel moved the coaster from San Antonio, Texas to Elysburg, Pennsylvania in 1985 and re-christened it The Phoenix. John Moyer, a man who worked on many facets of The Phoenix's move, talked about the reasons why the park considered moving the coaster.
"By the fall of 1984, the rumors were growing. Knoebels had investigated the price of building a new wooden coaster and found it beyond their means. After looking at a few other possibilities, attention focused on the 'Rocket.' As word circulated through the amusement industry, the idea was widely dismissed as either impossible or impractical. Thankfully, this did not deter the Knoebel family. Preliminary contacts were made with Gene Zartman, a Pennsylvania contractor to erect the ride at Knoebels. Charlie Dinn was contacted and agreed to serve as a consultant. Finally, and what turned out to be the key factor for me, a local San Antonio firm, Joe Ramon and Sons, was found to dismantle the ride. The price was great but the catch was that they would provide only men and material. The dismantling project would have to be supervised by Knoebels employees."
This was the first time a high-profile wooden coaster was moved in many years and it set a precedent for wooden coaster preservation. The Phoenix was a simple double out-and-back and features some of the most impressive moments of airtime found on any coaster. It must be experienced to be believed! We are lucky that the Knoebel family took time to save this coaster, but John points out an even more important thing that the Phoenix did. He makes the assertion that this was the ride that started the resurgence of mid-sized wooden coaster. What started out as a rare event turned into a common occurrence by the late 90s.
John points out that coasters like Great Coasters' Lighting Racer, Custom Coasters' Raven and even Dinn's Timber Wolf all point back to one trendsetter – Phoenix. If there is one coaster that jumpstarted a trend of mid-sized wooden coasters and an appreciation for coaster history, it is Herb Schmeck's simple ride, with the simple name – Phoenix.
What is even more amazing is that the Phoenix had a big brother with even more airtime. The Traver designed Cyclone at Crystal Beach was dismantled after the 1946 season, but that left the park with a problem. They still had a mid-sized family ride, the Giant Coaster (a side friction design), but no large coaster to fill the hole left by the loss of the Cyclone. So, the owners contacted Herb Schmeck and PTC, who designed a new coaster that offered thrills, just not ones to the brutal extreme of Traver's ride. Herb Schmeck, assisted by John Allen, designed a double out-and-back coaster chock full of delicious airtime.
The designers utilized the steel from the structure of the Cyclone to build The Comet. They also made the layout of the coaster very low-slung, which kept costs low, but let the the speed and airtime soar. The Comet was unveiled in 1948 and quickly became one of the hallmarks of the Canadian park. It stood 95-feet tall, featured an 87-foot first drop, 4,197 feet of track, reached speeds of 50 miles-per-hour and sported both floating and violent airtime.
Unfortunately, the park closed in 1989. Like so many parks, a victim of aging rides and skyrocketing insurance costs. Norton Ride Auctioneers, who have sold off many of the world's best rides, conducted the auction of the park and found a buyer for The Comet in Charles R. Wood. Wood was the owner of The Great Escape, which was sold to Six Flags, Inc. for the 1996 season, and knew the reputation that The Comet carried with it. The park went to great pains to make sure that the same layout and feel was kept from when the ride operated in Canada. The only changes made were a switch from three-bench to two-bench cars with individual-locking lapbars and they replaced the skid brakes with fin brakes.
Some facts about the Comet's re-birth supplied by Great Escape:
- Construction began on October 7, 1993 and the ride opened in the Spring of 1994
- Cost 3.5 million dollars to rebuild
- Used 1,632 gallons of paint, 1,200 yards of concrete, 253,225 feet of board lumber and 56,930 boards
The Great Escape should also be commended for keeping the 1920's station from the Cyclone and hiring Martin & Vleminckx Amusement Group to do the tight track work. They are one of the best firms in the world and have helped the coaster track (ride) exactly as Schmeck wanted. The Comet continues to ride glass-smooth and if the park takes care of it, the coaster will always give a fast, airtime-filled ride.
Thomas Prior and Frederick Church were a partnership that created some of the most beautiful and wicked coasters in history. Prior handled the business and marketing for the firm, while Church was the master designer. There is much debate about which of their coasters were the best. Two of their most infamous rides were The Bobs at Riverview in Chicago and The Airplane at Playland in New York.
The Bobs has been regarded by many as one of the most brutal and exhilarating coasters in history. The loading station was hidden behind a group of Grecian columns, but the ride's reputation was not hidden from anyone. From the day it opened in 1924 the Bobs always drew crowds that wanted to experience the wicked ride. It was 85 or 87 feet high, depending on who you talk to, and over 3,253 feet long (very few of these pieces of track were straight). Unfortunately, the Bobs was destroyed after the park was sold in 1967.  Its demolition was a blow to the Chicagoans who had thought this park, which had created so many memories for their families, would be around forever. Luckily, at least we still have great pictures of the ride to show what a wonderful coaster it once was. But, they only hint at the power and viciousness this ride possessed.
The Rye Beach Airplane featured amazing speed taken at extremely sharp curves and was a beautiful coaster. After taking a tight 180 degree turn off the lift riders were dropped, taken back up a hill and flew down a tight spiral drop, only to be tossed around as the cars navigated a negative-g hill and several other spiraling drops. The ride gave both great airtime and punishing laterals throughout the course. At night, the entire coaster was lit by gooseneck street laps that stood the length of the coaster's structure. The builders used many diagonal bents to help spread out the stress from the tightly curved bottleneck section of the coaster. I cannot state this for certain, but it looks like this coaster was one of the first (if the not the first) coaster to use diagonal bents for support. Although the top speed of 39 m.p.h. may seem slow by today's standards, we must remember that the coaster performed some amazing acrobatics throughout its course. In fact, legend has it that famous coaster designers John Allen and Andrew Vettel both received bloody noses from encounters with the Airplane.
In 1957 Playland's new insurance corporation deemed the coaster unsafe for public use and the park was told it would cost over $100,000 to repair. According to Richard Munch's book, Harry G. Traver: Legends of Terror, the directors of Playland had their hands tied when it came to the destruction of the Airplane. Rye's former director Edward Kilcullen said, "At the time of the demolition, we had considerable difficulty obtaining adequate funds for the maintenance of the park because Playland projects had a lower priority than other country needs, such as hospitals, roads, health services, etc."
Probably the best-known Prior, Church and Traver collaboration was the Cyclone Racer, which was built at the Pike in Long Beach, California. It was one of the most expensive roller coasters built at the time ($140,000) and one of the few to open during the great depression. This beautiful coaster featured a 90-foot drop and was over 3,400 feet long.
The ride was also unique in that the trains alternated being on the inside and outside of the curves, helping further the illusion of an equal race. The Cyclone Racer became one of the most photographed coasters in Hollywood as countless movies used the ride as a backdrop or prop.
The Cyclone Racer closed in 1968 to the dismay of many in Long Beach. The Queen Mary was being moved nearby in Long Beach and the city did not feel that the wooden coaster had the right look or feel for the "rebirth" of the beach so it was torn down. The Pike limped along until 1979 when it finally closed for good. Are we really surprised? When you take the heart of the park, the body will eventually die too.
One of the main reasons coasters survived the dark period between the Depression and the Seventies was Aurel Vaszin and his National Amusement Device (NAD) company. The National Amusement Device company in Dayton, Ohio created some of the best coasters of their time. It began as The Dayton Fun House and Riding Device Company in the 1920's. By the decade's end the company gave PTC a run for their money.
NAD built many thrilling roller coasters– here are some of their most notable rides. Sterling's Million Dollar coaster at Rocky Glen Park in Moosic, Pennsylvania was built in 1945 and demolished in 1957. The coaster had a beautiful location, even though it was pressed between Glen Lake and the Lackawanna Railroad tracks. NAD designed their out-and-back coasters with plenty of airtime and this ride was no different. In fact, John Allen quoted Vaszin as saying that he advertised, "more humps per-mile," on his roller coasters.
Another famous NAD collaboration on was the Atom Smasher (a.k.a. the Coaster and the Cinerama Coaster). It was built at Rockaway Playland and featured in the 1952 film "This is Cinerama." Like many NAD coasters, the Atom Smasher featured arguably the best coaster trains to ever be built. They had headlights, single-locking lap bars, were well-padded, wonderful to look at and even better to ride.
The trains on Kennywood Park's Thunderbolt are some of the best examples of NAD's wonderful craftsmanship. Arguably their most famous coaster is La Serpiente del Fuego (formerly known as La Monta Rusa). It still operates at La Feria Chapultepec Magico. It was erected in 1963 and the height of 110 feet was quite tall for the period. It is fast, intense, well kept and shows what the Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain used to run like.
We need to thank all of these people for creating some of the best roller coasters in history, many of which still stand today. The Phoenix, Comet, La Serpiente del Fuego and many others still give the rides that their designers intended. In an age of trim brakes, single-ratcheting lap bars and fiberglass trains, that sensation is getting harder and harder to find. Be sure to say "thank you" to these parks that keep tradition alive by paying them a visit. After you ride a well maintained Philadelphia Toboggan Company or National Amusement Devices coaster, you will not walk away disappointed.
Roller Coaster History written by Adam Sandy. All rights reserved.
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