The oldest roller coasters are believed to have been Russian ice slides known as "Russian Mountains". These large wooden structures, up to 70-feet tall, were popular throughout Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Riders would use a wooden sled or block of ice and slide down the ice-covered hill at up to 50 mph (80 km/h) crash-land into a sand pile at the bottom. The term "Russian mountain" is still used to refer to roller coasters in most of the Romance languages. Interestingly, in Russia, roller coasters are called "American mountains".
An unknown amount of time later, the French developed an all-season version of the ice slides by waxing the sled runners. Eventually, someone swapped wheels for runners, and more ambitious and thrilling tracks were created. In 1817 someone attached the carts to the tracks and dubbed the ride "Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville" (The Russian Mountains of Belleville). It had two tracks that ran next to each other, so riders could race and onlookers could bet on the outcome.
Scenic Gravity Railroads
In 1827, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania constructed Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad, an 8.7 mile (14 kilometer) downhill track used to deliver coal to Mauch Chunk (now known as Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania, USA. By the 1850s, the "Gravity Road" (as it became known) was providing rides to thrill-seekers for 50 cents a ride. Railway companies used similar tracks to provide amusement on days when ridership was low.
Using this idea as a basis, LaMarcus Adna Thompson began work on a Gravity Switchback Railway that opened at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York in 1884. Passengers climbed to the top of a platform and rode a bench-like car down the 600 foot (180 meter) track up to the top of another tower where the vehicle was switched to a return track and the passengers took the return trip. This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete circuit. In 1885, Phillip Hinkle introduced the first full-circuit coaster with a lift hill, the ride was called Gravity Pleasure Road, and was soon the most popular attraction at Coney Island. Not to be outdone, in 1886 LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented his design of roller coaster that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. "Scenic Railways" were soon found in amusement parks across the county, with Frederick Ingersoll's construction company building many of them in the first two decades of the 20th century.
The early part of the 20th century saw a new style of the amusement park: the trolley park. These were amusement parks created by, or in with, trolley companies. Streetcars and trolleys were the main mode of transportation during that time period, but the trolly companies earned very little profit on the weekends because most people did not have any reason to travel farther than the city park at the street's end. So, the trolley companies created new amusement parks. It gave city folks and their families a reason to get on the trolley and head to the countryside for a day of fun. Whalom Park is a great example of a park created specifically by a company for extra revenue that still exists today, tucked away in the rolling hills of Massachusetts.
During the 1920's in America, the roller coaster industry boomed. Parks started to pop up all over the map. People actually had money and time to visit these landmarks of fun. During the 20's, wooden coasters were being built on a regular basis. Coasters such as the the Racer located at Kennywood and Big Dipper at Geauga Lake & Wildwater Kingdom. A new type of coaster hit the scene during the 20's that John A. Miller designed. The Flying Turns. During the time of the 20's, the boom would keep growing. However, something happened that cut the coaster industry back to size. The depression. The roller coaster industry would not see another boom until the 60's.
During the depression, the coaster's would be at an all time low, have only 250 parks remaining, and having 1800-2000 at the start of the depression. No one could afford wasting their money on taking a trip to an amusement park. Parks all over the country were scrapped. One notable coaster that survived this period was Leap-The-Dips at Lakemont Park, which, is currently the oldest operating coaster in the world. However, when World War II ended, and people could start to afford trips to parks, the boom in the roller coaster industry began.
During the latter half of the 1940s, the first steel kiddie roller coasters opened. The highly successful Little Dipper was introducde by Bradley & Kaye. These roller coasters had a simple oval layout and flat track. Near the end of 1948, the manufacturing rights for the Little Dipper were sold to Allan Herschell Company who continued building them until the late 1960s.
In 1959, Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at Disneyland Park in California, USA. It is the first roller coaster built by Arrow Dynamics and the first with a tubular steel track. Unlike older wooden and steel coasters, tubular rails allow a much greater flexibility of track layouts. This technology would see rise to many new elements and most notably, inversions.
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