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Roller Coasters–The Golden Age and Beyond

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March 27, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

This week, I continue my exploration of roller coasters as we move from early coaster history through the golden age of coasters and beyond.

Once early designers worked out the kinks, roller coasters became more and more popular in the U.S. Coney Island was home to the first continuous circuit roller coaster. The Serpentine Railway cars returned to their starting point with no need for a “switchback.” The benches faced sideways. This “out and back” coaster was created by Charles Alcocke. Philip Hinkle then built a coaster in San Francisco that was higher and scarier. He also added the steam powered chain lift.

From there, roller coaster rides sprang up quickly at the Coney Island parks during the early years of the twentieth century. Each time new innovations were made, one of the parks added a new coaster. Each brought more thrills than the last. Parks across the U.S. followed suit as Americans sought out more and more thrill rides.

Increased safety was a major reason for coaster popularity. John Miller was a roller coaster designer responsible for many safety advances during the 1920s. Miller created the up-stop wheel system, preventing coaster cars from leaving the track, and anti-rollback devices. His coasters included the Screechin’ Eagle, KW Jack Rabbit, and KW Racer.

From there, wooden roller coasters sprang up across the U.S. during the early twentieth century. There were an estimated 2000 coasters during the 1920s, a time period considered to be the peak of the golden age of coasters. Inventors tried racing coasters, coasters with gaps to be leapt (no one ever rode this one), rotating tubs, and pinball like designs. The old standbys remained most popular.

Philadelphia Toboggan Company was a major leader in roller coaster design and sales. The first coaster and the first carousel at Elitch Gardens were made by this company. During the 1920s and 1930s, Herb Schmeck worked for the company and created over 210 coasters as well as other rides. The company successfully survived the decline of coasters during the Great Depression and was part of the second golden age of coaster that started in the 1950s.

In 1955, Walt Disney opened Disneyland and the face of amusement parks changed. Theme parks became the norm; Disney’s Matterhorn Mountain (1959) was the first tubular steel roller coaster with larger theme parks following suit. In the 1960s, wooden coasters were becommng scarce, though John Allen continuted to build them for smaller amusement parks. His 1972 Racer, at Kings Island, helped usher a new age for wooden coasters by making the wooden coaster part of the theme park experience.

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Next week, my focus will shift to early autos. 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.

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