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Ultimate Rollercoaster

Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Harry G. Traver

Ride Designers

HARRY G. TRAVER

"Everybody's equal on a roller coaster. They all shriek at the same time."

- Harry Traver

Rule

Harry Guy Traver is one of the most controversial coaster designers in history. Some say that he was a creative genius who designed thrilling rides. While others maintain that Traver was a designer who did nothing more than use riders as guinea pigs. Let's look at this controversial designer and the rides and coasters he created.

Traver's Circle Swing
The last remaining car from a Traver Circle Swing on display at Whalom Park, Lunnenberg, MA. Enlarge Photo

Traver's Tumble Bug
Tumble Bug was one of many flat rides designed by Traver. Enlarge Photo

"Seagulls got me into this crackpot business," is the quote which precedes most accounts of Harry Traver-and this one will be no different.

Traver was a school teacher in his home town of Davenport, Nebraska and many years younger than most of his students. Later he worked as a mechanical engineer, first for the General Electric Company, then for the Denver Tramway Company and for the Harris Safety Company. This company was noteworthy because it was the first to design and build a mechanically drawn fire engine in the United States, which was purchased by the New York City Fire Department.

Later in life as he recovered from diphtheria aboard a cattle boat, Traver saw a flock of seagulls circling around the boat mast and got his first ride idea- the circle swing. This ride was 80-feet high and served as a springboard to the many amusement rides he thought up throughout his life.

It was deceptively simple. A tall mast had several arms from which cars hung and swung out. The cars were first shaped as elegant seats, but later took the shape of airplanes and rockets.[1] The circle swing, the seaplane deluxe, the Tumble Bug (which can still be found at a couple of America's traditional parks), the caterpillar, laff in the dark, auto ride, butterfly (erected at Luna Park in Brooklyn and dismantled two years later), the Missouri Mule (also known as the Bumping Autos) and the Merry Mix-up were some of the flat rides created by the Traver Engineering Company. Traver can be given credit for most of the flat rides that are common today. The early success of his flat rides allowed Traver to get the financial security needed for the designs, which he would most be remembered, his roller coasters.

The Traver Engineering Company erected both the Cyclone at Revere Beach, Massachusetts and the Thunderbolt at Savin Rock in Connecticut in 1925. These were Prior and Church designs and allowed Traver's company to cut their teeth building coasters. Both of these coasters had similar layouts and were typical Prior and Church rides.

One year later Traver premiered two coasters at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition. The Cyclone was a wooden coaster with steel supports that had some of the same elements found on his later coasters, such as the spiraling drop, a sharp, downward helix, track made from eight layers of wood and articulated cars. This coaster was the first recorded coaster to use the name Cyclone, which later became synonymous with powerful wooden roller coasters. The other coaster at the exposition was the often historically overlooked Jazz Railway. Traver called it the Jazz Railway so he could leave all references to wooden coasters behind. You could tell by looking that coaster had many of the elements Traver loved to include. Roller coaster historian Richard Munch says that Traver counted among his favorite elements, "the spiral drop, deep dips and jump track." The ride was small, occupying a space of 70 by 165 feet and considered to be the forerunner of the Wild Mouse coaster. Also, it was constructed of prefabricated steel and Traver saw steel as the material which would become the main support material for roller coasters.

Revere Beach Racer
The Revere Beach Racer operated at the same location as Traver's Lightning roller coaster. Enlarge Photo

1927 marked the opening year for three of the most revered and feared coasters in history, the terrifying triplets. The Cyclone at Crystal Beach and the Lighting at Revere Beach opened that spring. At Crystal Beach over 75,000 people crowded around this new breed of terror, wanting to get a first-hand look at the legend which had spread throughout the area by word-of-mouth.

Traver had gone to both of these parks hoping to improve some of their older rides, but all were consistently well-maintained and good money-makers.

Since he could not alter their rides, Traver convinced both parks that his new "Giant Cyclone Safety Coaster" would be terrifying, profitable and unique enough to gain national attention. After both of these rides opened, they were quickly known throughout the amusement industry as some of the most extreme in existence. Late in the 1927 season, the Schneck brothers, owners of Palisades Park in Fort Lee, NJ, contacted Traver about building one of his terrifying devices at the park for the 1928 season.

Crystal Beach Cyclone
The Crystal Beach Cyclone opened in 1927 and is one of the Traver's famous triplets of terror. Enlarge Photo

All three of Traver's Cyclone clones were very similar in their designs. The basic layout was a curve out of the station onto the lift, the chain lift, a spiraling first drop little under 90-feet tall, a second hill which was 82 degrees up, an abrupt left turn down the second drop at 52 degrees, the spiral drop, the emergency brakes, a steep drop into the high speed figure eight, another drop and "hops" under the lift hill, a 210 degree high speed turn under the coaster's superstructure, and the "zigzag" or "jazz twister" track (now called trick track), a series of track which rose and fell like small, one foot bunny hops, led back to the station.[2]

The only differences in the design of the rides was that the spiral on the Cyclone at Palisades was even tighter than the two preceding coasters because of the extremely limited space in the park. It is amazing to think that the coaster was a medium-sized ride. In fact, the ride was only 40 seconds long after the train was released from the lift chain.

In 1938, the Crystal Beach Cyclone was re-profiled by Herb Schmeck & Philadelphia Toboggan Company to help re-distribute the amazing amount of stress placed on the ride's structure. Six stress ties were placed under each section of track to help ensure that the ride would not shake itself apart.

Cyclone Racer at Pike
Cyclone Racer at The Pike in Long Beach, California was another of Traver's coasters, this one in collaboration with Prior & Church. Enlarge Photo

There has been much debate about how safe and well-designed these three coasters were. Some camps of coaster enthusiasts say that they would give anything to have the Cyclone back for one day, while others would never ride it. For this part, I thought I should give you some information and allow you to make your own decision.

You may wonder about who actually died on these machines. Amazingly, only two people died on the three rides. A woman perished on the second day of the Lightning's operation. Court reports showed that no one really was sure whether the woman jumped or was thrown from the car. The accident however, helped draw more riders to the ride. In fact, a long line full of anxious, would-be riders formed as the woman's body was removed from the track.

The other death was on the Cyclone at Crystal Beach where a man named Amos Wiedrich jumped or fell to his death after the first drop and was run over seconds later by the train he had been riding in. The Crystal Beach ride also kept a nurse in the station who was there to assist anyone who fainted, although she was originally hired to help lower insurance costs. Later, it is rumored that the she was kept on the payroll to help maintain the Cyclone's reputation as one of the fiercest coasters around. Popular coaster lore says that she kept smelling salts on her and that a hot dog stand adjacent to the coaster sold splints.

According to Cartmell's book, a man who worked at Palisades while the Traver-designed Cyclone operated said that he couldn't remember one week where it operated everyday. Structural and mechanical failures prevented it from being able to be open on anything resembling a regular schedule and the sheer viciousness of the ride did not help to endear the coaster to the park's visitors.

The Lighting was closed in 1933 and the Cyclone at Palisades closed the following year. Both parks cited loss of money as the main reason they closed their Traver coasters. Palisades' Cyclone also had part of its structure catch fire during the off-season, which only served to make the ride's closure an easy decision for the parks management. In 1946, the Crystal Beach Cyclone was torn down because of declining ridership and astronomical maintenance costs. We were given a gift with the remaining pieces of the Cyclone as Herb Schmeck used them to create one of his best coasters, the Comet, which is discussed in the Other Notable Designers section. Traver sold his factory to Ralph E. Chambers in 1932 and it operated until 1962.

Certainly Harry Traver did a lot for the amusement industry. In fact, many flat rides today can be traced back to the basic ride designs constructed by Traver's company. However, the coasters he designed were some of the most brutal in history. It is amazing that someone who made the Tumble Bug could also produce the Crystal Beach Cyclone. Personally, I think that it is a good thing that the Cyclone will never be seen again, but every now and then, in the back of my mind, I wonder what that first drop and lethal figure eight were really like.

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1. Whalom Park has the only remaining Traver circle swing. Although not operating, they have a car on display (in wonderful condition) and the tower sits in the parking lot.

2. Description of the ride from Richard Munch's book, Harry G. Traver: Legends of Terror. Pages: 99-100