March 20, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Roller coasters originated in Russia as ice slides. According to some experts, these appeared in St. Petersburg as early as the 1400s. By the 1700s, they were popular across the country as attractions at fairs. The ice slide was constructed entirely of ice, with a steep drop. Some, known as “ice mountains,” were as high as 70 feet with a 50 degree angle of descent! Riders sat on straw patches for the ride and were (hopefully) slowed to a stop by sand placed at the end of the hill. Creative owners added a series of bumps at the end to enhance the thrill—and the danger. Others built “cars” of hollowed wood or ice with a short rope for the rider to hold onto. Enterprising riders who developed skill in steering such devices often made money teaching others. Eventually, waxed wooden slopes were built indoors to make the ride a year-round attraction.
French soldiers in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars loved the slides and brought the idea home. The first attempts failed, since the climate was warmer and the ice wouldn’t stay frozen. Businessmen then adapted the indoor version of the slide to the outdoors, creating dry slides with waxed wooden slopes and hills and wheeled boards. Accidents were common but only seemed to attract more people to the rides. In 1817, two such rides were opened: the Les Montagnes Russes at Belleville and the Promanades Aeriennes in Bouujon Gardens in Paris. Riders would start their descent from one of two towers, curving down and back up, reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour. Grooves were cut into the walls of the slide and an extended axle fit into the groove, thus keeping the cars on track. Workers would push the cars back to the top of the tower. In 1926, a cable system was invented to more efficiently move slide cars to the top of the towers.
French innovators continued to experiment and some experts claim France as the true birthplace of the roller coaster. The double towers proved very popular, simulating racing. Frenchmen also made the first attempt with a loop-the-loop in the 1850s. This ride was called the Centrifuge Railway. Cars (basically seats attached to a chassis) would descend and loop with nothing but centrifugal force anchoring the car and rider to the track. Government officials put an end to the ride after accidents resulted.
American roller coaster history began with the Mauch Chunk Railway. This early coast was actually a coal mine transportation system. It was designed to take coal from the top of a 1260 foot high mountain to the port town, some 18 miles distant. Since 17 of those miles were downhill, the railway used simple gravity with mules pulling the empty cars back up. To solve the problem of too many mules ending up at the top, a car was designed to accommodate the animals so they could ride back down with the coal. Someone decided the workers should ride down each evening! Eventually, the mules were replaced by a steam engine that pulled the cars up a more gradual incline. It didn’t take long for the entire system to become the Mauch Chunk Scenic Railway with passengers paying $1 to ride to the top and back down. In 1870, the coal mine began using shorter route and the Mauch Chunk was devoted entirely to pleasure rides with a hotel and restaurant springing up at the top. The railway remained open until 1930. Today, the site is a historic landmark.
Haverhill Downs was an American adaptation of the French indoor slides. It consisted of a multi-passenger toboggan sled which was hoisted to the top of the slide via an elevator. Passengers pushed the sled onto the slide—a series of rollers that followed a figure 8 path. The cost was five cents per ride or six rides for a quarter. The first true “roller coaster” was the switchback railway, designed by La Marcus Thompson in 1890. Riders climbed stairs to board a car that was pushed from a station atop a wooden structure. The route went down a hill and over bumps until it ran out of momentum. The car was then hoisted back up to a second station while riders climbed a second set of stairs and followed a mirrored, opposite route down. These early switchback railways focused more on sight-seeing than thrills and traveled at six miles per hour. Adaptations were soon made to incorporate different routes and higher speeds as well as man-made dioramas to represent foreign lands.
Figure 8 roller coasters also developed in the late nineteenth century. This design allowed more turns. Early coasters at Coney Island were based on this design, as was the first roller coaster at Elitch Gardens in Denver. Track mounted brakes were developed so that brakes could be controlled from the station rather than by an attendant in the car. In 1898, the loop-the-loop was tried again. The Flip-Flap Railway used a true circle loop and the forces snapped riders’ necks! Modifying the loop to an oval made it safer but the low capacity (only four could ride) and fear from the public kept it from catching on at that time.
Next week, we’ll continue to explore roller coasters, looking into their Golden Age. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.