Early thrill rides dared our adventurous ancestors to step to the front of the line for a hair-raising, white-knuckling scream-fest. If you’re picturing your grandmother’s great-grandmother gripping a bottle of smelling salts while she’s dragged onto a ride, think again. Early thrill rides took off in the mid-1800s at ten miles per hour or less. By 1873 the rides in Coney Island were attracting a reported 25,000 to 30,000 visitors on weekends. Thanks to our ancestors who showed up in throngs, by 1900, there were hundreds of roller coasters and other thrill rides in amusement parks across America.
Judging from these photos and news articles, it’s safe to say our ancestors were up for the thrill of it all, with or without seatbelts and shoulder harnesses.
A High-Speed Mini-History Of Roller Coasters
It’s not hard to imagine that early thrill rides go back to the earliest humans. But most experts date the official “first” roller coaster to the “Russian Mountains” near St. Petersburg in the 17th century. According to the Roller Coaster Museum, these early ice slides were between 70 and 80-feet tall with bloodcurdling 50-degree drops. Inspired by the Russian Mountains and considered by most historians to be the first official roller coaster, the Promenades Aériennes opened in Paris in July of 1817.
The real game changer in roller coaster design occurred in Pennsylvania in 1827 when a downhill gravity railroad that delivered coal tin open cars to Mauch Chunk was repurposed for human thrills.
In “Why Let Coal Have All the Fun” written for Pennsylvania State University Libraries, author William Brandt quotes an account from Walter Quevedo’s late nineteenth-century diary after he rode the Great Switchback Railroad.
“The scene from Mount Pisgah is excelled by none in the country…After we feasted our eyes on this scene, the young man who officiated the brake (of the coal cart) got tired and let go. Then we scooted down the offside of the mountain at a rate of about a million miles an instant. We thought of all the sins we had ever committed, held on to our seat with one hand, our hat with the other, and wished that we’d minded our own business and stayed home”
American ingenuity paired with a wave of patents and the insatiable American appetite for excitement created a bonanza for early thrill ride designers and investors.
On June 16, 1884, LaMarcus A. Thompson’s Switchback Gravity Pleasure Railway opened at Coney Island, New York. That’s right, your ancestors paid a nickel to travel at a break-neck speed of six miles per hour.
Keep in mind, the fastest car of the 1890s, the Steamer by Stanley, barely cracked 35 miles per hour. But few people had ever ridden in a car at such toe-curling speed. Even the local trains that carried crowds of adventure-seeking people on their one day off to amusement parks averaged around 25 mph.
According to the Ultimate History Project, the Switchback Railway was a primitive ride by today’s standards.
“Passengers had to climb a fifty-foot high loading platform to board a train, which was propelled along a wooden track by gravity at the break-neck speed of six miles an hour. It came to a stop at the crest of a hill at the other end of the track, where passengers than re-boarded the train (after it has been switched to the opposing track) for the return ride.
The popularity of the early thrill rides at Coney Island spawned the construction of other amusement parks with a growing selection of wild rides. rides, Among them were hundreds of carousels, toboggan rides, aerial slides and the gigantic Ferris Wheel constructed for the Columbian World Fair in Chicago, 1893 and even a Sea Swing in Cedar Point.
Perrysburg Journal, August 14, 1908
If you still have trouble picturing your great ancestors running to the nearest early thrill ride, check out: Curling America’s Spine With Death-Defying Thrillers.
Wo-ow, whee-ee-e, oo-oo-o, gee-e whi-iz, but that was a bump!”
Reporter Willard W. Garrison wrote about thrill rides from the sand dunes of Indians, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and any other state trying out a thriller at Coney Island.
“No matter how stolid he may be iSn life’s ordinary pursuits or how emotionless in an inter-urban wreck, his spine curls, his sympathetic nerve system tickles and he is compelled to give himself up to thrills. You can find him in every resort where there are scenic railways, roller-coasters, velvet-coasters, figure-eights, shoot-the-chutes, dip the-dips, leap-the gaps, ticklers and scores of other modes for
shooting the electric currents up and down the spinal cord of the laughing, howling public.
He is a source of amusement for his tutored city brother who tickles the day ledger with a pen during daylight and cavorts about on amusement devices throughout the summer evenings.
The city pleasure-seeker has much of this sport and the thrills fail to rise up in his anatomy the way they do in that of the man, woman and child who are taking their first turn at the game.”
According to Garrison America was amusement-crazy. The populace and the elite alike could not get enough of early thrill rides. “
America’s thrillers are terrific and getting more so each year.,,”
By 1908 every ride was required to undergo a rigid test by the building commissioners before it was opened to the public.
“Persons with bad hearts are forbidden the thrills and few accept the chance to test that organ when in bad condition. There are also straps, chains, guards, etc., to hold the patron in the car and if he or she falls out it is little short of a miracle and only once or twice a season are accidents reported…
Never mind the famed Flip Flap Railway at Coney Island that cracked more than a few bones, not to mention tweaking a few necks.
About the popular scenic railway, Garrison wrote:
“The average scenic railway runs up a 45-degree incline or rather is hauled up by a chain and you are ready for the first dip. The brakemen release their levers and down the cars go faster than the New York-Chicago 18-hour limited.”
What Will Your Grand Children’s Great Grand Children Say?
Whatever death-defying rides bolster you with bragging rights today, consider that your grand children’s great grand children will most likely be getting their thrills in outer space while laughing at pictures snapped in a nanosecond of us screaming down today’s thrill rides.
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