A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006. Now a Popeyes fast food restaurant on Google Maps.

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Entry from May 19, 2008
Roller Coaster

Coney Island has long been famous for its Cyclone roller coaster, first opened in 1927. America’s first popular “roller coaster” amusement ride has long been thought to have been the LaMarcus Adna Thompson-designed “Switchback Railway,” opened at Coney Island in 1884.

The term “roller coaster” appears in print in the September 20, 1883 Chicago Daily Tribune, announcing that a “roller coaster” was being built in that city at the corner of State and Twenty-second streets.

Wikipedia: Roller coaster
The roller coaster is a popular amusement ride developed for amusement parks and modern theme parks. LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented the first roller coaster on January 20, 1885. In essence a specialized railroad system, a roller coaster consists of a track that rises in designed patterns, sometimes with one or more inversions (such as vertical loops) that turn the rider briefly upside down. The track does not necessarily have to be a complete circuit, as shuttle roller coasters exhibit. Most roller coasters have multiple cars in which passengers sit and are restrained. An entire set of cars hooked together is called a train. Some roller coasters, notably Wild Mouse roller coasters, run with single cars.

In what may be a practical application of the roller coaster, NASA has announced that it will build one to help astronauts escape the Ares I launch pad in an emergency.

There are several explanations of the name roller coaster. It is said to have originated from an early French design where slides or ramps were fitted with rollers over which a sled would coast. This design was abandoned in favor of fitting the wheels to the sled or other vehicles, but the name endured.

Another explanation is that it originated from a ride located in a roller skating rink in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1887. A toboggan-like sled was raised to the top of a track which consisted of hundreds of rollers. This Roller Toboggan then took off down gently rolling hills to the floor. The inventors of this ride, Stephen E. Jackman and Byron B. Floyd, claim that they were the first to use the term “roller coaster.”

The term jet coaster is used for roller coasters in Japan, where such amusement park rides are very popular.

“Russian Mountains”
The oldest roller coasters descended from the so-called “Russian Mountains,” which were specially constructed hills of ice, located especially around Saint Petersburg. Built in the 17th century, the slides were built to a height of between 70 and 80 feet (24 m), consisted of a 50 degree drop, and were reinforced by wooden supports. “Russian mountains” remains the term for roller coasters in many languages.

Some historians say the first real roller coaster was built under the orders of Russia’s Catherine the Great in the Gardens of Oreinbaum in Saint Petersburg in the year 1784. Other historians believe that the first roller coaster was built by the French. The Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville (The Russian Mountains of Belleville) constructed in Paris in 1812 and the Promenades Aeriennes both featured wheeled cars securely locked to the track, guide rails to keep them on course, and higher speeds.

Scenic gravity railroads
In 1827, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania constructed the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad, an 8.7mi (14km) downhill track used to deliver coal to Mauch Chunk (now known as Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania. 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 ft (180 m) 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 Gravity Pleasure Road, which 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 to be found in amusement parks across the county.

Wikipedia: LaMarcus Adna Thompson
LaMarcus Adna Thompson (March 8, 1848 – May 8, 1919 in Ohio, United States) is best known for his early work developing roller coasters, and is sometimes called the “Father of Gravity”. Although over his lifetime, Thompson accumulated nearly thirty patents related to roller coaster technologies and built dozens of coasters in the United States, he did not invent the device; that credit goes to John G. Taylor who patented it under the name “Inclined Railway”.

Wikipedia: Switchback Railway
The original Switchback Railway at Coney Island was the first roller coaster designed as an amusement ride in America. It was designed by LaMarcus Adna Thompson in 1881 and constructed in 1884. It appears that Thompson based his design, at least in part, on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad which was a coal-mining train that had started carrying passengers as a thrill ride in 1827.

For five cents, riders would climb a tower to board the large bench-like car and were pushed off to coast 600 ft down the track to another tower. The car went just over 6 mph. At the top of the other tower the vehicle was switched to a return track or “switched back” (hence the name.)

This track design was soon replaced with an oval complete-circuit ride designed by Charles Alcoke and called the Serpentine Railway. In 1885 Phillip Hinkle developed a lift system which appeared in his ride called Gravity Pleasure. The Gravity Pleasure also featured cars in which the passengers could face forward instead of in the awkward bench-like seats of the first two roller coasters.

Not to be outdone, in 1886 LaMarcus Adna Thompson patented his design of coasters that included dark tunnels with painted scenery. Thompson built many more roller coasters across the country which were called “The L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway.” Some of these operated until 1954.

Wikipedia: Coney Island Cyclone
The Coney Island Cyclone is a well known roller coaster in Coney Island, New York City. 

Early history
After seeing the success of 1925’s Thunderbolt and 1926’s Tornado, Jack and Irving Rosenthal bought land at the intersection of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street. A coaster called the Giant Racer was already on the site, but the Rosenthals had it torn down. With a $100,000 investment, they hired Vernan Keenan1 to design a new coaster. A man named Harry C. Baker supervised the construction, which was done by area companies including National Bridge Company (which supplied the steel) and Cross, Austin, & Ireland (which supplied the lumber); the final cost of the Cyclone has been reported as both $146,000 and $175,000. When the Cyclone opened on June 26, 1927, a single ride cost twenty-five cents (thirty-five on Sundays). Lines were down the street and hours long.

In 1935, the Rosenthals took over management of Palisades Park and the Cyclone was put under the watchful eye of Christopher Feucht, a Coney Island veteran who had built a ride called Drop the Dips in 1907, and then did some minor retracking work on the Cyclone. The ride continued to be extremely popular, and one of its many stories is from 1948, when a coal miner with aphonia visited Coney Island. According to legend, he had not spoken in years but screamed while going down the Cyclone’s first drop and said “I feel sick” as his train returned to the station—then promptly fainted after realizing he had just spoken.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Main Entry: roll·er coast·er
Pronunciation: \ˈrō-lər-ˌkō-stər, ˈrō-lē-ˌkō-\
Function: noun
Date: 1884
1: an elevated railway (as in an amusement park) constructed with sharp curves and steep inclines on which cars roll
2: something resembling a roller coaster; especially : behavior, events, or experiences characterized by sudden and extreme changes <(an emotional roller coaster)

(Oxford English Dictionary)
roller coaster, a kind of switchback railway at an amusement park; also transf., fig., and attrib.; hence as v. intr.
1888 Pall Mall G. 11 Sept. 4/2 The rage for rapid transit through the air,..by tobogganing, switchbacks, or *roller-coasters.
1903 Boston Transcript 7 Oct. 16 The cable cars run over routes that would shame a Coney Island roller coaster.

30 September 1883, Chicago (IL) Daily Tribune, “Roller Coasting. A New South Side Amusement,” pg. 16:
A curious structure is now in course of construction on the large vacant let at the southwest corner of State and Twenty-second streets. It will be known as “The Roller Coaster,” and the objects claimed for it are health and amusement. The erection is composed almost entirely of lumber, and is built on trestles rising from the ground to a height of twenty-two feet.

26 May 1884, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 8, col. 3:
Complaints are made that the roller coaster on the beach at the foot of Tremont street has frightened two or three horses attached to vehicles in which were ladies and children.

29 July 1884, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 6, col. 5:
WE WILL SELL AT OUR SALESROOM, Strand, on Thursday, July 31, at 11 o’clock:
The Roller Coaster, or Elevated Gravity Railway located at the foot of Tremont street and Beach. Said railway contains about 6000 feet of lumber, 1 ton railroad iron, 200 pounds 6 and 7 inch bolts. The above sale will be peremptory and for cash.
LYNCH & PENLAND, Auctioneers.

19 September 1884, Kansas City (MO) Evening Star, pg. 2:
A somewhat peculiar but very serious accident occurred at the roller coaster rink, Eighth and Delaware sts., last night, resulting in the injury of six persons. The coaster rink is so constructed that a car started from a certain point runs in a circle and down grade for a long distance when it strikes a rise and gradually slackens speed until it stops near the starting point.

28 February 1885, Mercury News (San Jose, CA), pg. 3:
Five Hundred Feet in Twelve
Seconds—The New and
Latest Amusement.

The peculiar looking structure in the vacant lot on Santa Clara street between Sixth and Seventh, which has attracted so much attention, is completed and commenced business at 2 o’clock this afternoon. It is a centrifugal railway five-hundred feet in circumference, built of Oregon pine in a most substantial manner, and it is known as a roller coaster. It is designed exclusively for healthful pleasure. A car starts from the highest point, about 30 feet above the ground and runs around the circuit, touching a point near the ground and rising again to within a few feet of the starting point. In a word it is coasting without ice, and the sensation is said to be particularly delightful. it is the latest craze in the way of popular amusement, and Coasters may be found in all of the principal Eastern and European cities.

17 August 1885, New York (NY) Times, “Pleasure for the many...at Coney Island and Rockaway,” pg. 5:
The flags on the roller coaster were run from half to full mast, and the little cars were set a-going;...

24 January 1886, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, pg. 8:
A Coney Island roller coaster!

Google Books
London and its Environs:
Handbook for Travellers

by Karl Baedeker
London: Dulau and Co.
Pg. 299:
At the end of the N. terrace are a bear-pit, monkey-house, and aviaries; and the gardens also contain open-air gymnasia, a “roller coaster”, an archery-ground, swings, etc.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CitySports/Games • (0) Comments • Monday, May 19, 2008 • Permalink