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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Roaring 20s

Early 1900's


"There is no doubt that there is a place in society for providing fun and thrills that are exhilarating and where there is a perceived sense of danger."

- John Wardley, Coaster Designer


Electric Park, Kansas City
Long forgotten Electric Park in Kansas City, Missouri. Enlarge Photo

The twenties were an amazing time of change in the United States. The country came out of one of the most repressive eras in its history under Woodrow Wilson and people wanted to indulge them. Flappers danced to rambunctious jazz music, radio and film were becoming an integral part of American life and the Ziegfield Follies was a hit with young star Wil Rodgers. Another symbol of the new freethinking decade was the abundance of roller coasters. Estimates state that between 1,500 and 2,000 coasters existed during this time period, an astounding figure even by today's standards.

White City Amusement Park
Shoot-the-Chutes ride at White City Amusement Park in Chicago. Enlarge Photo

Many attribute the spread of the amusement park across the United States to Frederick Ingersoll and his family. Three years later he opened Luna Park in Pittsburgh. It was the first amusement park to use one of the names made famous by Coney Island. As Robert Cartmell said, "He followed Thompson and Dundy's format with a central Shoot-the-Chutes surrounded by rides, acts, and concessionaires." Ingersoll opened a Luna Park in Cleveland later that year and used the same park formula. Within a decade there were Luna Parks, White Cities and Electric Parks all over the United States, many with a trademark Shoot-the-Chutes and figure-eight coaster.

If Ingersoll can be thanked for helping to spread the popularity of the amusement park, we must give the credit for the spread of the roller coaster to John A. Miller. Miller had over one hundred roller coaster patents to his name. The anti-rollback device (the clank as you go up the lift hill which prevents the cars from rolling backwards), the under friction wheels (the wheels under the track which allow the track to suddenly drop out from under the car), brakes for the station and many other items were patented by Miller. They helped him and other designers create the next generation of roller coasters.

Kennywood Park
Kennywood Park, near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania still exists today. Enlarge Photo

Miller began his career under the guidance of La Marcus Thompson. He also worked with the Josiah and Fred Pearce, Frederick Ingersoll and in 1920 joined forces with Harry Baker. They broke off their partnership in 1923 when Miller went into business for himself.

He created some of America's best coasters, including the Racer at Kennywood, the Revere Beach Thunderbolt, the Coaster (later Big Dipper) at Geauga Lake (now Six Flags Ohio), the Triple Racer at the Dallas Exposition, the Puritas Springs Cyclone the Screechin' Eagle at Americana and many, many more.

Flying Turns
The Flying Turns was one of the most unusual roller coasters of the period. Enlarge Photo

Another large contribution Miller made to the world of amusement parks came out of a collaboration with Norman Bartlett. The Flying Turns was one of the more unique rides to come out of this time period and featured one car (later versions had trains of cars strung together), which sped down a trough shaped like one-half of a barrel. Bartlett had a good imagination, but knew very little about the actual engineering of such a ride. Together the two built the first Flying Turns at Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio. The second ride featured a train of cars and was erected at Euclid Beach in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a success, but was the last collaboration between the two. Bartlett built six more Flying Turns between 1931 and 1939. It is amazing that he was able to get this many built during the Depression, a time when most coasters were torn down for their wood and steel.

I cannot begin to emphasize the importance John Miller had on the spread of the roller coaster and the amusement park. All I can say is that to truly realize this man's great work, you have to ride it. I implore you to get to Kennywood for the Racer and Jack Rabbit, the Big Dipper at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England, the Wild One at Six Flags America, the Roller Coaster at Lagoon, or the Roller Coaster at the Puyallup Fair in Washington state. After riding a Miller coaster you will not walk away disappointed. Even though we have seen a second coaster Renaissance with coaster companies like Custom Coasters Incorporated and Great Coasters International creating top-notch rides, remember one thing-it all traces back to John Miller.

Playland, Rye, NY
Playland Park in Rye, New York was the first attempt at a planned amusement park. Enlarge Photo

A pioneer in the world of amusement parks was Playland in Rye, NY. Playland was one of the first attempts at a planned park. The county of Westchester, NY had an area called Paradise Park where all of the local prostitutes, beggars and petty thieves hung out. The city officials grew tired of dealing with all of the problems in the area and decided to tear it down in favor of a new style of amusement park. Rye Playland was completely designed before the first brick was laid; a change in the haphazard way parks had previously been built. Frank Darling, who helped design and managed the park, lined the mall with beautiful trees and created a new, art deco, amusement experience. At Playland, rides were separated from the picnic groves and children's areas so the noise would not bother the visitors, a beach was accessible for people who wanted to swim and seaplane rides were available. It also offered a gigantic Kiddieland with many rides scaled down for the little ones. It is still one of the largest around, with a coaster designed by Frank Darling and trains from N.A.D. dating back to 1928.

The county of Westchester still runs the park and remains one of a few cities to build and maintain an amusement park of this magnitude. Today, Playland visitors can ride the Dragon, a smaller roller coaster designed by Prior & Church that is 65-feet high and 3,400-long. It has a large wooden Dragon enclosure, built in part as a response to the tunnel craze of the 1920's. Sadly, the park removed the classic Prior and Church trains in the mid-eighties and replaced them with Morgan trains because the P.T.C.'s heavy weight were tearing the track up. It is a little consolation that the park saved one car for its great museum, but you would much rather be in a Prior & Church car than the fiberglass Morgan seating. On another reminiscent note, if you look at the entrance to the Dragon coaster it is directly across from an identical archway that was where the entrance to the Airplane coaster used to stand. This park provides a nostalgic step back in time and offers a wonderful combination of old and new rides to delight every visitor. The art deco buildings and old rides are a beautiful at night and the park still maintains the clean, wholesome and fun atmosphere it set out to provide so many years ago.

Several people have made the comment that the 1920's were a time when riders were treated like guinea pigs and that safety was a facet of ride design that did not exist. While not every ride was 100% safe (look at Traver's), there were many coasters and flat rides that gave safe rides to the millions of people. A lot of people went through park's gates during the 1920's and considering how busy these rides were, the death count was not that bad. Also, I think it is a disservice to great designers like John Miller and Herb Schmeck to say that their rides were designed and run dangerously. In fact, the coasters they designed that still run today have some of the best safety records in the country. Even though they did not have computers, these designers slaved to create rides that track as well, if not better, than many of today's coasters. So, the next time someone uses a blanket term to talk about the bad safety during this decade, remind them that many of the designers respected human life (and a good coaster ride) just as much as designers today.

This is just a snapshot of the people and parks that spread the amusement park and roller coaster through the 1920's. We owe them many thanks, as these people allowed parks to rise in popularity to an unprecedented level.

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