Every history has a starting point and most roller coaster historians agree that the roller coaster's origins were the Russian Ice Slides.
These slides first appeared during the 17th century throughout Russia, with a particular concentration in the area of in what would become St. Petersburg. The structures were built out of lumber with a sheet of ice several inches thick covering the surface. Riders climbed the stairs attached to the back of the slide, sped down the 50 degree drop and ascend the stairs of the slide that laid parallel (and opposite) to the first one. The slides gained favor with the Russian upper class and some were ornately decorated to provide entertainment "fit for royalty." It is said that Catherine the Great was a large fan of the thrills provided by the slides and had a few built on her own property. During the winter festival season slides were built between seventy and eighty feet high, stretched for hundreds of feet and accommodated many large sleds at once.
There is some dispute as to who actually added wheels to the equation and created a rolling coaster. Robert Cartmell, who wrote the book The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster, gives the Russians credit for building the first wheeled machine. He states that it was in the Gardens of Orienbaum in St. Petersburg. Cartmell says that this ride was built in 1784 and featured carriages that undulated over hills within grooved tracks. Other historians say it was the French who added wheels to the slides. For now this historian will have to side with those who give the credit to the French. After examining Cartmell's book I can find no source cited for his claim giving the Russians credit, only an engraving which might be coaster, dated c. 1784.
It is known that by 1817 two coasters were built in France called the Les Montagues Russes a Belleville (roughly translated: the Russian Mountains of Belleville) and Promenades Aeriennes (The Aerial Walk), both of which featured cars that locked to the track in some manner. David Bennett, author of Roller Coaster: Wooden & Steel Coasters, Twisters and Corkscrews, said that Bellville's ride was the first coaster to lock the cars by having the axles slide into a groove cut in the track. They were designed so that the axle of each car fit into an open area carved in the side of the track and served as an equivalent to the modern-day upstop wheel. This coaster had two tracks that ran next to each other with riders loading in the same tower.
The Aerial Walk featured a heart-shaped layout with two tracks that flowed in opposite directions from a central tower. They then went around the course, came together at the bottom and ascend parallel lift hills.
The first looping coaster was located in Frascati Gardens in Paris, France. The hill was 43 feet high, had a 13 foot-wide loop and was tested with everything under the sun before humans were allowed on. The layout was simple: the rider rode down the gentle slope on a small cart and through a small metal circle.
William Mangels' book, The Outdoor Amusement Industry, quoted a journal of the day that said (in 1846): "Today has been tested for the first time in France, in the Frascati Garden, the only existing Chemin de Centrifuge we have in France. It was imported from England where there is another, built on a smaller scale, the loop of which has a diameter of only six and a half feet, instead of the thirteen-foot diameter of ours." (Mangels cites this date as 1848, but Robert Cartmell corrected him, saying it was two years earlier).
The ride ran for about twenty seasons and the pleasure railway grew out of fashion. A Centrifugal Railway was built in the Circus Napoleon, but fell victim to an accident on the trial run and was quickly shut down. It would be several years until a man named La Marcus Thompson would create the first roller coaster in the United States and change the amusement industry forever.
Roller Coaster History written by Adam Sandy. All rights reserved.
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