The thrill of a roller coaster ride often excites old and young alike at amusement parks and fairs around the world. Some people travel to different areas just to ride the latest, tallest or fastest roller coaster.
The creation of the first roller coaster in the United States occurred in the 19th century. Learn when the roller coaster first opened in the United States, becoming one of the most popular amusement rides ever invented.
Thompson’s Roller Coaster
The original idea that led to the development of the roller coaster in the U.S. came from the creative mind of La Marcus Thompson, the father of the American roller coaster.
It all started with the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway in the Pennsylvania Mountains. In 1872, after completion of the Haut Tunnel, railroad owners could easily transport coal down the mountain and in 1873, started carrying people instead of coal. Riding at six miles per hour, the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway delighted riders taking in the breathtaking sights.
Meanwhile, Thompson created a version of the roller coaster as an amusement ride. “His invention rolled down a track six hundred feet long and fifty feet high.”
The First Opening
On June 16, 1884, Thompson’s roller coaster, still called a “Switchback Railway,” opened at Coney Island, much to the delight of visitors to Coney Island. The ride cost five cents to ride the six miles an hour which and was classified as “an instant success.”
Riders walked up to a platform and then rode down the 600-foot track. Riders had to exit the ride and after the car switched tracks, riders made the return trip back to the original platform. The ride was said to provide riders with breathtaking views as it traveled along West Tenth Street from Surf Avenue to the ocean.
Thompson obtained the first patent for a roller coaster in the United States. However, almost as soon as Thompson obtained his patent, changes were in the works to improve the ride. Thompson “Developed a scenic coaster that traveled at a slow pace through tunnels illuminated only by headlights on the lead car,” explains the Coney Island History Project.
For his efforts, La Marcus Thompson was referred to as “The Father of Gravity.”
Evolution Of The Ride
It did not take long for other inventors to create improved versions of the roller coaster, with Thompson training some of the designers. Charles Alcoke designed a roller coaster that traveled in a complete circuit, while Phillip Hinkle added the “lift hill” to roller coaster rides in 1885.
Between 1897 and 1904, three parks opened at Coney Island, resulting in the addition of more amusement rides, including additional roller coasters. Thompson actually obtained more than 30 patents related to his roller coaster rides by 1887.
When Did The Name Change?
No one really knows when the name of Thompson’s Switchback Railway Ride suddenly became known as the roller coaster. However, the thrill of creating improved coasters soon took on a whole new life, as amusement park visitors sought out the thrill of the roller coaster ride.
In March 2015, USA Today invited readers to “See what it’s like to Fury 325 at Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina.” The coaster takes riders to the top of the 325-foot hill, drops at an 81-degree drop, at speeds reaching 95 miles per hour.
Today’s roller coasters are much different from those of Thompson’s day. ABC News reports on the “The Skyscraper,” dubbed the “World’s tallest roller coaster.” Opening in Orlando in 2017, Skyscraper will climb 570 feet. Enjoy a video simulation of The Skyscraper on ABC, where you will likely conclude that the twists, turns, and exhilarating speeds are much different from Thompson’s first American roller coaster that traveled at six miles per hour.