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(Roller) Coasting Through History

(Roller)Coasting Through History

By Drew Bigelow, FCPL Library Aide, Kingstowne Library

Often the centerpiece of a theme park, roller coasters hold a special place in thrill seekers’ hearts. Slowly ascending uphill, the cars’ clattering over the track mixes with the excited thrum of the passengers ready for a ride. Slowly, the passengers reach the top and then – off they go! It is a rush that only a roller coaster can deliver and they have been doing so for quite some time.

It is generally agreed upon that the origins of roller coasters date back to 15th century Russia. Here, the Russians developed what Encyclopedia Britannica refers to as “flying mountains” – man-made mountains covered in sheets of ice. People would hop into sleds made from “hollowed-out blocks of ice,” according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and go sliding downhill. These slides turned out to be quite popular with the wealthy, with roller coaster historian Adam Sandy noting how even Catherine the Great got in on the craze.

From here, we jump over to France for the next set of developments such as ice being replaced by wooden tracks. In 1804, "Les Montagnes Russes" (“Russian Mountains”) opened to the public, introducing what could be the first wheeled coaster, according to the Britannica article. This was followed with the "Les Montagnes Russes a Belleville" (“The Russian Mountains of Belleville”), the first coaster with cars that locked onto the tracks, per the Ripley’s article. In the following decade, cable systems were added, allowing the cars to be mechanically hauled to the start of the ride.

Coasters would truly begin to flourish in the United States, where the first American “roller coaster” was not one at all – it was a coal mining train. According to the article “14 Fun Facts about Roller Coasters,” the Mauch Chunk Railway was originally built in 1827 “to haul coal about nine miles between coal mines.” The carts would be pulled up by mules then sent back down the mountain using gravity. The first “modern” roller coaster popped up on Coney Island in 1884. It was built by LaMarcus Thompson and, according to the American Experience article “A Century of Screams,” was an instant hit, “paying for itself in a mere three weeks” with people lining up to take a ride at a nickel a pop. This would lead to more roller coasters being created, such as Charles Alcoke’s Serpentine Railway, also built at Coney Island in 1884, and Phillip Hinckle's coaster located in San Francisco in 1885.

From here, roller coaster fever would explode. From the 1900s through the 1920s, roller coasters continued to spring up all around the country, contributing to the "Golden Age of Coasters," as it was called. Throughout this time, more developments continued in coaster technology including underfriction wheels, patented in 1919, which prevented cars from flying off the rails. Like with many things, however, the bubble burst in 1929 with the Great Depression and, later, World War II. People were unable to justify the cost of going versus the cost of living, according to Alexander Westerman’s piece on roller coaster history. Sandy points to elements such as racist policies – keeping minorities out of the parks – and a sheer lack of building materials during this time as not helping matters.

As with a coaster, though, things started going back up again with the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and the creation of the Matterhorn in 1959. This also led to more amusement parks popping up around the country, such as Six Flags and Busch Gardens. It was also during this time that steel become the material of choice for building those rides.

Which leads us to today, where roller coasters continue to push the limit and thrill riders. From higher heights to virtual reality, today’s coasters are a far cry from the original ice slides of Russia. One thing has not changed over the centuries, though – people are always looking for their next adrenaline rush and roller coasters have always been more than happy to provide it!

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