History of Roller Coasters.

Russian Ice Slides

Rollercoasters can trace their origins back to the russian ice slides. Russian Ice slides, which first appeared in the 1700's were amusement devices found at fairs all over Russia. A slide consisted of a steep drop made entirely of ice, occasionally a few creative people added a small series of bumps at the end. The rider rode in a sled that was made either of wood or ice, with ice being common. Sand was placed at the end to slow the sleds down. The person sat on a straw patch and held on to a rope tied through a hole drilled in the ice block. These early rides were quite popular, and soon flourished. At this time sliding down the slides was a risky business and required skill on behalf of the rider, so skilled guides made their services available to novice riders for a fee.

While these slides grew in popularity in Russia, a French businessman, decided to build an Ice Slide in France, unfortunately the French climate was not suited to this and the ice soon melted, leaving what some have dubbed a "slurpee slide". Not discouraged, he decided to build an all weather version of the ride, using a waxed wooden slope and hills, and a wood sled with rollers on the bottom. This perfectly simulated the Russian version and allowed for wide-spread exposure, as well as some private and indoor models to be built. Just as with the Russian version however, skill was needed to drive the sleds, so accidents were common. Strangely, however, the more accidents these early French rides had, the more people were drawn to them.

The next step was to create a crude track structure to insure each rider goes down in a straight line, as planned, and improving the safety by avoiding collisions. During this time a racing model was made with two people sledding from the same high point, taking opposing curving drops down to the ground level, and then through a 'helix'. This ride proved immensely popular and wagering was even made on who would finish first.

During this early point in coaster history, the first attempt at a loop-the-loop was made in France, in the 1850's. This ride called the Centrifuge Railway, featured a early coaster car (a seat attached to a chassis) that would travel through a loop with nothing but sheer centrifugal force holding both the car to the track, and the rider to the car. This idea was quickly put to death by wary government officials who stopped it's introduction after one accident.

Mauch Chunk Railway

The Mauch Chunk Railway, is the American beginnings of the roller coaster. The Mauch Chunk Railway was devised not as a pleasure ride, but as a transportation system for the coal mine industry. The coal mines in the area had a basic problem. 'How to cheaply and effectively transport the coal from the mines on top of the mountain to the port in Mach Chunk, some 18 miles downhill. To solve this problem, a railway was devised that would run the 18-mile course in such a way that all the workers had to do was load the mine cars, push them off the top of the mountain, and they would follow the 18-mile course purely by gravity. This was possible since 17 of the 18 miles were downhill. Mules were employed to haul the empty cars back to the top. Shortly thereafter, a car for the mules was built so that they could 'ride' back down with the coal. Although it is not recorded, someone got the bright idea of loading the mine cars with people and pushing them down the hill. The 'ride' became an instant success. The track was used for coal mining during the day, and as a pleasure ride at night. To make life easier, the mules were replaced by a steam engine that would haul the empty cars up a longer but more gradual incline to the top of the mountain. This helped efficiency by having a motorized means to keep empty cars coming up, on a separate track, while coal was being transported down the main track. Soon both tracks became part of the Mauch Chunk Scenic Railway. People paid $1 to ride up on the incline (motorized track), then the engines were removed, and they were sent back down the main track, with just gravity to push them along. Think of this in terms of roller coaster stats:

Track length: 40 miles

Max. Speed: >100MPH

If anybody builds a coaster of that length, with that speed, tell me.

Anyway, in 1870 the coal miners found a shorter railway, using tunnels and steam engines. This left the Much Chuck Railway to be used exclusively for pleasure rides. A hotel and restaurant were even built on top of the mountain, and people would eat lunch before starting back down. (Not wise, IMHO). This 'ride' continued to operate until the 1930's with an exemplary safety record.

Haverhill Downs:

Haverhill was the american incarnations of the French slides. These were built inside buildings (often associated with roller-rinks) and consisted of getting into a toboggan sled with other riders, being pushed into an elevator that was hoisted to the top of the building, you then pushed yourself out of the elevator and onto a series of rollers. These rollers made a figure 8 path that sent you rolling quickly back and forth across the rink, until you landed on the ground floor, next to the elevators. Ride cost: 5 cents per ride 6/25 cents. These operated in late 19th century early 20th.

La Marcus Thompson Switchback railway:

Built is 1890,the switchback railway was the early true "roller coaster". It was built of wood, on a wooden structure. The ride consisted of riders climbing up a flight of stairs to board the coaster car, which was then pushed out of the station, so it went down a hill and over a few bumps until it ran out of momentum at the other end. Then the riders would exit, and walk up a second flight of stairs, while workers hoisted the car back up to the top of a second station, where a switch track put it in line with an identical course in the opposite direction, the riders got back in and rode back to the first station. On the early rides, the focus was more on sightseeing, than thrills. Thusly, the coaster cars, were a long bench, facing out sideways, and the ride traveled at 6 MPH. It wasn't too long before someone made a U-shape version of this that did not involve the mid-course switchback, lastly a hoisting mechanism was added. At first these were cable ropes, and then the familiar chain lifts. The ride we know as the roller coaster was born.

Scenic Railways:

Keeping with the original purpose of the ride, sightseeing, and the low speeds soon people got tired of just seeing people, so the rides were built with dioramas on the sides, to make people think they were traveling through exotic lands. Some even used crude automata. For these rides, the seats were turned to face forward. A noticeable feature on this ride is that the brake is built into the train and not the track, and a skilled brakeman rides with the riders, and controls speed as well as stops the train. This line of rides, grew to be the Dark Rides.

Out and backs/ Figure 8's

Soon, track mounted brakes were developed, and the riders were sent in a train, without a staff member controlling the speed, all brakes were then controlled by an attendant in the station. The out-and-back was, and is still the most common type of wooden roller coaster. This is because they involve a simple layout, and are relatively cheap to make. These were soon followed by Figure 8's which followed an 8 shaped pattern to allow for more turns in the ride. An early example of a figure 8 exists at Lakemont Park, in Altoona, PA. This ride is currently undergoing restoration, and we may be able to ride it in a few years. Twisters soon followed, including the savage Traver rides. A Traver coaster was known for it's steep, curving drops and banked track, little or no track , except brake run and lift on a Traver ride was straight. Sadly, no example of a Traver coaster has survived/

Loop-the-Loop: Take Two

In 1898, another person tried the loop-the-loop design. Named the Flip-Flap Railway. This ride used a true circle loop, rather than the clothoid loops used today. The ride had one problem, however, the forced in the loop were so strong, they snapped riders necks. Not discouraged, the built the Loop-the-loop, this time with an oval loop. Although the ride was allright from a safety standpoint, it was bad from a profit standpoint. A low capacity ride, 4 people per 5 minutes, and bad memories of the Flip Flap Coaster kept this one out of the hall of fame, as it were. It soon dropped out of existence.

John Miller and "safety"

John Miller was a famous coaster designer from th 1920's. He also made great strides in roller coaster safety, including the up-stop wheel system that insures that coaster cars can't leave the track, anti-rollback devices, and other safety devices. He is also known for his great coasters, such as the Screechin' Eagle, KW Jack Rabbit, KW Racer and others.

Wood Coaster Mania:

Inventors try to do anything possible with wood. some worked out better than others. For example the Racing coaster, leap-the-gap coasters (never saw a rider until the missing section was filled in), Virginia Reels (coasters with small round tubs that could rotate as well), Ticklers (or pinball, coasters, place the round car at the top of an inclined ' pinball' layout and let it fall, never the same ride twice) The more steady earners however were the out-and-backs, figure 8's and Twisters.

Coaster building flourished from the turn of the century through the Roaring 20's, with an estimated 2,000 coasters in the USA alone. Every park of some size had a coaster. While these were not as intense as todays rides, imagine having one in every major city. Sadly, this trend did not last too long, and the Great Depression, as well as World War II, made it seem like the roller coaster fad had ended, with coasters being demolished at an alarming rate. We came to the brink of roller-coasters being a novelty item, found in obscure parks, or only a memory or legend to most of us.

Steel Coasters / Disney

In 1955 Disneyland opened, and the theme park era was on. While theme parks are often cited as the main reason traditional parks are failing, Disney helped bring a new form of the roller coaster to the national spotlight. Matterhorn Mountain, built in 1959, it is the first tubular steel coaster, made by Arrow. The ride did not do any loops or anything fancy, just a gradual series of dips through a mountain. This also made an unofficial line of demarcation, immediately steel coasters were for theme parks, and wood coasters were for traditional parks.

John Allen's Racer

The 1960's were a real bad time for wood coasters. Most parks were either dismissing the coaster as a fad, or clamoring to buy a steel one, often along the lines of Zyklons or Galaxi's.

But amidst all this John Allen kept coaster building alive by building small to medium size coasters for small parks.

This changed in 1972 when John Allen's Racer opened at Kings Island. This was a bold move on Kings Island's part, by showing that the wooden roller coaster was a part of the theme park experience. This coaster is often cited for the rebirth of the wooden coaster.

Today, wood coasters have grown taller (160'), longer (7,000'+), and faster than their turn of the century counterparts, and with interesting designs by CCI, will be around for quite sometime.


In 1975 Arrow designed the first successful inverting roller-coaster, the Corkscrew. This ride features 2 inversions and little else, as the emphasis on the ride was more for the novelty value of going upside down. Some parks have added a vertical loop or two to the ride.

Shuttle loops (Loop-the-loop take 3)

This time they finally got it right. With steel track construction, upstop wheels, and high capacity trains, Arrow, and Intamin were able to produce shuttle loop coasters that worked. These coasters, which were purely designed for the novelty of going upside down became quite popular


The first looping continuous circuit looping rollercoaster. This single loop coaster was the basis for several other coaster designs. We next had double loops, triple loops, and multi-elements (combinations of corkscrews, loops, and other elements that have since been invented)

Suspended Coasters:

First tried in 1982 at Kings Island, this Arrow proto-type ride had it's trains hanging down from the track to give the effect of flying. This Kings Island prototype did not work well, but Arrow proceeded to produce several working models. The features of a suspended coaster are cars that are free to sing to the side, as well as no loops.

Stand-Up Coasters:

Coasters designed to be ridden standing up. Originally meant as a novelty ride, making fun of the "do not stand up" signs posted on several coasters. The first successful example is the King Cobra at Kings Island.

Inverted Coasters:

Our newest roller coaster playtoy. This design also uses cars that hang down from the track, but these cars are rigidly attached, and cannot swing to the side, this allows for inversion elements.

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