The amusement park industry has always been a place where family businesses flourished, both within parks and ride companies. Here are some people who are considered to be some of the most influential family designers in roller coaster and amusement park history. Robert Cartmell said that these three families were some of the most influential families in roller coaster and amusement park history and this author agrees.
Charles Looff is considered to be one of the best carousel carvers in history. carousel.net had the following to say about the early days of his work:
"That first carousel, placed in Coney Island, New York, carried 27 figures, including horses, camels, zebras, and other animals. It was the first carousel at Coney Island. By 1880, Looff had produced three carousels and established a factory in Brooklyn where he would build carousels for some 25 years."
After this he moved to Rhode Island and then to Long Beach, California. Looff carved around forty carousels, some of which are still standing today. One of his finest stands along The Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. It resides next to a more famous occupant of the boardwalk – The Giant Dipper roller coaster.
This coaster was built by Charles Looff's son, Arthur (utilizing a Fred Church design). Prior & Church built it in 1924 and it is one of the best-maintained coasters in the U.S. This is also one of the few boardwalk coasters left in the world and gives the rare combination of nostalgia and thrills. Although it is only seventy feet high, The Giant Dipper gives great airtime as it flies over the twisting layout. The Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk is a must visit if you are in the San Francisco area.
Erwin and Edward Vettel created many wonderfully unique coasters, unfortunately few stand today. The Zephyr at Pontchartrain Beach in New Orleans, Louisiana was considered to be one of the finest out and back coasters for its size. It had beautiful N.A.D. trains that quickly darted down the twisting first drop and proceeded in and out of several strategically placed tunnels along the course. Sadly, the coaster closed with the park in 1983. Another Vettel coaster no longer with us is the Dip-the-Dips (later called the Dips) at Pittsburgh's Westview Park. It was a fun out and back coaster demolished in 1980.
A peppy Vettel coaster still running is the Cyclone at Lakeside Park in Denver, Colorado. The coaster was built in 1940 by Edward Vettel and is a combination twister and out and back. The park does a great job of keeping the track, cars and neon-lit station all in great shape. If you want a trip back in time be sure to visit the park at night and ride the coaster for some of the best traditional thrills found in the United States today. Another classic Ed Vettel coaster is the 1937 Blue Streak at Conneaut Lake Park in Pennsylvania. It still runs beautiful National Amusement Device trains as it screams through the Pennsylvania wilderness on its out and back course.
Erwin's son, Andy, was the one responsible for turning John Miller's 1924 Pippin coaster into the Thunderbolt coaster we know and love today. Kennywood said that a few hills in the valley were saved and utilized by the Pippin. However, the rest of the ride was gutted and used Vettel's new design that included a viscous helix just off the lift. The coaster is one of the few that features a lift hill in the middle of the ride. It is one of the few coasters left which has a single lap bar, no headrests and no seat divider so riders can experience the roller coaster just as the designers intended.
The Pearce's have become somewhat of an enigma as most evidence of their coasters, both physical and photographic, has disappeared with time.
In 1905, they built an Old Mill ride in Pennsylvania's Exposition Park. Later that year, Fred Pearce moved to Fairyland Park in New Jersey. He built two coasters there, one unnamed and one called the Figure Eight. Fred ran the rides for five years and then decided to work solely in the field of ride design.
The family built many coasters that were well known during their day. Robert Cartmell said they designed coasters at: "Ocean Park, in Virginia, the Big Dipper at Chippewa Lake, Ohio, a Racer at Revere Beach in Massachusetts, and a coaster at Capitol Park in Lincoln, Nebraska."
The most notable coaster was the Trip Through the Clouds at Riverview Park, Detroit, Michigan. The coaster had staggering statistics for 1915: 90-feet tall and over a mile in length. Fred Pearce's longest-lasting contribution to the amusement industry was the invention of pressure-treated, creosoted lumber. It lasted longer than untreated wood and allowed more coasters to be created for public enjoyment.
All of these families created rides and memories for millions of people. It's unfortunate that historians are limited by a lack of records. Hopefully, we will soon come across a more detailed accounting of their ride installations and advances in amusement park ride technology.
Roller Coaster History written by Adam Sandy. All rights reserved.
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