Part 3: When Roller Coaster Riding was Blood Sport
Roller Coasters enjoy unprecedented popularity with both the riding public, who enjoy the latest thrills, and theme park management, who enjoy the crowds new coaster technology fetches.
While a modern roller coaster packs a tremendous wallop for the buck, thrills experienced by 19th century coaster enthusiasts who dared venture on the weekends to the coal mines, the timber mills or the end of the trolley lines got a truly death-defying experience without the conveniences of built-in safety features that today furnishes only the illusion of danger. Any new wooden coaster looks similar in appearance to some of those turn-of-the-century deathtraps, but the hidden computer-aided design of today's roller coasters would give those early riders a tremendous thrill without the very real element of danger inherent in those early rides.
While today’s coasters have practically reached the ultimate in safety, those early experiments were the polar opposites, as safety always took a back seat to profit back in the early days of pay-as-you-ride. In fact, from the 1880's to 1920, reports of injuries frequently increased a ride's popularity, and many times incurred a charge just to watch other brave souls take their chances.
A downhill coal delivery train called the Mauch Chunk railway was one of those examples. Originally built in 1827, coal barons got the idea in the late 1880s to fill the cars with children (and sometimes parents) and let them roll down the mountain to make a couple of extra bucks from something that sat idle all weekend anyway. Rolling by gravity with no guide wheels, brakes or lap bars of any kind, the Mauch Chunk traveled at trouser-soiling speeds up to 100 miles per hour, and a single ride in this prehistoric monster lasted almost 30 minutes – an eternity in today’s capacity-conscious park environment.
Around 1900 a "Scenic Railway" operated in Cherrelyn, Colorado. A vehicle resembling a trolley car loaded with paying riders was pulled by a horse to the top of the mountain, where the horse was then actually loaded onto the vehicle, and it roared back down. No word on if the horse enjoyed the ride.
After the debut of the “gravity switchback railway” (the first recognized roller coaster that ran at New York’s Coney Island in the 1880s), coaster designers began thinking of newer and better thrills without the nagging nuisances of safety or liability . A 1902 looping wooden coaster called the Flip-Flap opened for one season and exposed riders to up to 11 G's – as much as experienced by modern day Navy pilots, and almost three times more than allowed today. Riders frequently blacked out either entering or exiting the mechanically unsound, unengineered circular loop, and the sight of workers pulling unconscious riders off the ride made the lines even longer. For those uninterested in risking brain hemorrhage, it was also common for wussy onlookers to pay a quarter just to watch the Flip-Flap operate.
There is a reason why wooden coasters do not have loops. With a running track comprised of 7 to 9 layers of 2x10 pressure-treated boards, a loop places the wood under far too much stress. Wood always wants to return to its original shape, and the energy bottled up within all that stressed wood would make the loop too brittle and subject to breakage. Cincinnati’s Kings Island in 2000 built a looping wooden coaster called “Son of Beast”, but the loop was made of steel, not wood. Still, the transitions from wood to steel in that ride presented too many maintenance issues, and the loop was removed a few seasons later.
By 1919 there were 1,500 amusement parks in operation in the U.S., and almost all of them had a terrifying wooden coaster, including one at Richmond’s Idlewood Park at the end of Boulevard in today’s Byrd Park. This emphasis on thrills spawned a theme park Satan in the form of Harry Travers, a former schoolteacher and designer of not just mild flat rides but of three of possibly the most fearsome coasters ever built, known as the “terrifying triplets”.
The first “Cyclone” at Crystal Beach and the “Lightning” at Revere Beach opened in the spring of 1927. On the second day of operation, a woman either jumped or fell from the Lightning train and was killed. The accident only drew more riders to the coaster, and in fact a line of anxious riders formed as the woman's body was physically removed from the track.
Truly, coaster riding was a blood sport. The death of a man on the Crystal Beach Cyclone that same year prompted the management to keep a nurse in the station to help lower insurance costs and assist anyone who fainted. Of course, in an unintentional marketing move, it only helped the ride’s reputation to have a nurse visible in the station and ridership soared.
Later that same year, Palisades Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey, contacted Traver about building one of his horrifying coasters (also to be named the Cyclone) there in time for the 1928 season (pictured above). An absolute beast of a ride, constant structural and mechanical failures prevented a regular operating schedule and the sheer viciousness of it caused low ridership. By the 1930’s the bankrupt Palisades and Revere Beach rides were torn down.
In 1938 the Crystal Beach Cyclone was re-profiled to reduce the insane stresses on the structure since it was physically shaking itself to pieces, but still it was eventually torn down in 1946. Closer to home, in 1937 a tamer wood coaster called the “Wild Boar” opened in Cincinnati’s Old Coney Amusement Park. Wildly popular, it was torn down in 1971 when the park was closed but today lives on as Kings Dominion’s Grizzly, which used some of the original blueprints in construction.
In 2014 the Grizzly celebrates its 32th anniversary at Kings Dominion. While coaster riders today enjoy high-fiving after enduring a circuit on a steel pretzel that is actually 50 times safer than walking out to their own mailbox, 19th century coaster riders truly had not only something to high-five over upon exiting but ample reason to enjoy still being alive.
What a bunch of pansies we’ve become.