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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Early Years in America

How It Started


The first American roller coaster was not built at an amusement park or city, but in the mountains of Pennsylvania. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, which was more like a runaway train than a modern coaster, is considered the forefather of today's roller coaster.

Mauch Chunk Railway 1
The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway in the mountains of Pennsylvania was America's first roller coaster. Enlarge Photo

Mauch Chunk Railway 2
Passengers would ride in a train down a long inclined slope. Enlarge Photo

Mauch Chunk Railway 3
Mauch Chunk Railway ran until 1929 when the Central Railroad cancelled all further runs. Enlarge Photo

In 1872 the Hauto Tunnel in Pennsylvania was completed and provided a new, easier way for the railroad owners to transport coal down the mountain. Previously, 2,322 feet of track had been used to bring coal directly down the mountainside. The old track stood idle for a few months, but in 1873 the railroad re-opened for business carrying passengers instead of coal. It was a success and carried over 35,000 passengers per-year. The railway was bought in 1874 by the Jersey Central railroad, but they allowed the control to remain with the Mauch Chunk management and did not stop the profitable journeys.

The railway offered spectacular views of the Lehigh River and the Blue Ridge Mountains for the region's visitors to see. The area became a large Nineteenth Century tourist attraction and people came from all over to be thrilled by the M.C.R. Because of its popularity, special excursion trains from New York and New Jersey were created to help bring people to America's first "roller coaster." Sadly, the Jersey Central cancelled all runs on the Mauch Chunk in 1929. Tourism had declined and the Depression drove the final nail in the coffin for the aging railway. It will never be known how many people experienced the Mauch Chunk Railway, but we can rest assured whet the appetite of the visitors who experienced its wild rails.

La Marcus Adna Thompson, the father of the American roller coaster, was a creative man who helped bring the American roller coaster to commercial fruition. Growing up he created many devices- a butter churn for his mother, an ox-cart for his father and numerous toys and devices for his own pleasure. As he grew older Thompson ran many profitable businesses, such as the Eagle Knitting Company, which did well under his reign. All of the success put quite a strain on Thompson and he stepped back from the financial limelight to recover and find less stressful ventures.

Richard Knudson's Patent
Richard Knudson was the first to patent a coaster-like invention in 1878, an Inclined Railway. Enlarge Photo

Being the creative man he was, Thompson could not stay idle long. He created his own version of the roller coaster. It was shaped like the early Russian slides- two hills parallel to each other. Thompson added undulating hills and the cars slowly (6 mph) rolled down a track six hundred feet long and fifty feet high. It is interesting to note that Thompson was not the first to patent a coaster-like item, as early as 1878 Richard Knudsen had patented the "Improvement in Inclined Railways," (patent #128,674), but it never opened. Some historians argue that Thompson simply took many of the concepts utilized by Knutson and added them to his own design.

No one is sure why Thompson decided to go into the amusement park business. Coaster lore says that he was a Sunday School teacher who was discouraged by all of the depravity found at places of amusement during his time. Like many legends of coaster history I found it written several places, but could find no solid evidence of the occupation. The only written statement by Thompson that talked about this aspect of his thoughts was dated very late in his life, so until more evidence is found I will relegate it to another myth surrounding the roller coaster's development.

Thompson's Switchback Railway
Thompson's Switchback Railway opened in 1884 at Coney Island, New York. Enlarge Photo

Whatever his motives, Thompson's creation was a smashing success. The Switchback Railway opened in the spring of 1884 at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York and made the inventor hundreds of dollars per-day. Considering that Thompson only charged a nickel per-ride, the success of the Switchback Railway is nothing short of amazing. History has dubbed him the "Father of Gravity" and I am inclined to agree.

La Marcus Thompson did not hold the monopoly on coasters for very long. Late in the 1884 season Charles Alcoke created a coaster that was a complete circuit and in the spring of 1885 Phillip Hinkle developed the concept of the "lift hill." A lift hill was the initial hill that often began a coaster and it was here the train was often pulled up by a chain or cable. This mechanism allowed for a higher structure and designers became more liberal with their layouts, incorporating an elliptical design into the course of the coasters.

Thompson felt that the view was as important as the ride and created scenic railways. This coaster incorporated beautiful dioramas and darkness into the course of the ride. According to Cartmell, Thompson was given over thirty coaster-related patents between 1884 and 1887, many of which were related to the scenic railways he was planning. During this time Thompson collaborated with James A. Griffiths of Philadelphia, who was known for ornately carved cars and beautifully designed coasters. Together the two designed the Scenic Railway that opened in 1887 in Atlantic City. Thompson and Griffiths parted ways after the Atlantic City project and fiercely competed for the growing Scenic Railway market. Both of these men must be thanked for helping mass market the roller coaster to the American public.

There has been much debate about the origin of the term roller coaster. Robert Cartmell provided the argument I found most sound in his book, The Incredible Scream Machine. It involves a small town in Massachusetts and a wooden ride. According to Cartmell, "The Sliding-Hill and Toboggan was built around the inner walls of a skating rink on the third floor of a brick building. The 1500 foot tracks ran around the walls from ceiling to floor criss-crossing the rink in a spiraling figure eight formation." The ride was patented by Stephen Jackman & Byron Floyd and utilized a sled that ran on a track made of wooden rollers stacked next to each other. Built in Haverhill, Massachusetts the coaster only survived for three years and had little to do with the physical development of the roller coaster. However, the roller coaster did get something from the Haverhill ride- a name.

The early part of the century saw a rise in a new style of amusement park, the trolley park. These were parks created by, or in conjunction with, trolley companies. Streetcars and trolleys were the main mode of mass transportation during this time, but they earned little revenue on the weekends because people did not have any reason to travel farther than the city park at the street's end. So, the companies created new amusement parks that gave city dwellers and their families a reason to hop aboard the trolley and head to the countryside for a day of fun. Whalom Park is a great example of a park created specifically by a company for extra revenue that still exists today, tucked away in the rolling hills of Massachusetts. Many parks that already existed, such as Riverview, worked with local streetcar companies to help their parks get extra patrons and the trolley companies some passengers.

One of the few surviving coasters from this period of coaster history is the Leap the Dips at Lakemont Park in Pennsylvania. Riding this coaster is like stepping back in time. The refurbished cars are two rows deep, hold two passengers each and some of the most comfortable to be found anywhere. The coaster was built in 1902 by E. Joy Morris and featured a height of 48 feet, a drop of 9 feet and a top speed of 10 m.p.h. It was constructed at Lakemont to replace the Gravity Railroad that burned down in 1901. This coaster's story is not about its stats, except for one- 1902.

This ride is the oldest operating coaster in the world. It was built in an age where side-friction was state-of-the-art and a lift hill standing 48 ft. was thrilling. While thousands of older coasters were torn down because of age, or because they no longer had the thrills necessary to bring in modern audiences, Lakemont stood behind its timeless treasure. However, growing maintenance and repair costs made Lakemont close the coaster in 1985. The coaster had gotten to the point where an overhaul was necessary, but the park could not afford to refurbish the coaster without outside support. People from around the world donated money to help the coaster run again. However, it was not just the structure itself, which was re-habilitated. said:

According to Ashley Rishel (product superintendent), the restoration of the entire coaster utilized 70% of the original structure's wood. In addition to the roller coaster itself, the car shed, the station house and the engine house were all restored. When construction began the coaster sat in two feet of mud and water in some places and concrete footers were created to bring the structure up off the ground. There was a natural spring that ran underneath the structure, which was redirected to avoid puddling underneath.

The Leap-the-Dips was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and approved as a National Landmark five years later. Visitors in the area of Altoona should stop and visit Lakemont as a gesture of thanks for working to keep this national treasure alive. The park also worked to preserve John Allen's Skyliner coaster originally built at Roseland Park (discussed further in 1960s Wooden Coasters) and their Allan Herschell Wild Mouse first ran at Pittsburgh's White Swan Park. Lakemont did a great job of preserving valuable coasters for future generations. Now, it is our responsibility to patronize this park to say thank you for keeping important parts of our coaster heritage alive.

This early world of American roller coasters was an interesting and ever-changing place, much like the atmosphere today. However, many of these designers and businessmen risked much more. Then, the roller coaster was a risk, and we owe respect to those who risked a lot to build the early coasters.

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