What is recognized as America's first roller coaster type ride is the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad located in Pennsylvania. It was originally built to carry coal out of the mountain mines down a nine mile stretch of rail line. Over time it morphed into America's first "thrill" ride when it began taking on passengers in 1874. A young talented inventor rode the ride and his life path changed. That young man's name was LaMarcus Adna Thompson. He was born in Licking County, Ohio, on March 1,1848, and is often referred to as "the Father of the Modern American Roller Coaster". Throughout his lifetime, he held over thirty patents relating to roller coaster technology. The original Switchback Railway built at Coney Island in 1894 was designed by him several years earlier working off of another inventors patent that was filed in 1878, shown here on the left. Richard Knudson called his version of a gravity roller coaster the "Inclined Plane Railway" and it is strikingly similar to Thompson's design.
The Switchback Railway that debuted at Coney Island on June 13, 1884 holds the distinction of being the first roller coaster type ride designed and built for the purpose of amusement rather than an existing rail line converted for that purpose. The Switchback Railway looked very much like Knudsen's design. The ride consisted of two sets of parallel tracks descending in opposite directions from elevated towers. To complete their round trip riders had to get out of their cars to head back. The novelty of the new ride far surpassed any problems riders had with exiting their cars and re-boarding or the step climbing the top of the tower to return. Initially riders were not seated directly in front of one another as they are on modern roller coasters, but were seated in benches parallel with the track facing outward. Even with all of its shortcomings, the ride was immensely popular and reportedly paid for itself during its first month of operation.
The original cost for the heart pounding six mile per hour ride that lasted one minute was five cents. Thompson's later rides were often referred to as Scenic Railways since they gave riders a panoramic view of the
landscape as they traversed the tracks from one end to the other. His later designs had elaborate backgrounds of exotic foreign locales painted along the length of the tracks. The immense popularity of the new ride led to the formation of the L. A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company that oversaw the construction of rides across the country. It should come as no surprise that when rides were first added to Euclid Beach Park in 1896 a LaMarcus Thompson gravity roller coaster was built. The Switchback Railway at Euclid Beach Park had a little over one thousand feet of track. Riders climbed stairs to the top of the tower where they boarded a car that was manually pushed out of the loading platform and hopefully gravity took them to the opposite end of the tracks where the other tower was located. There they would disembark and the ride operators would push the car up to the loading platform in that tower. Once they were again seated, they would be pushed out onto the track for the return trip to the first tower . . . a truly exhausting amount of labor for a six mile per hour trip. The ride was dismantled and removed from Euclid Beach Park when the Figure Eight was installed in 1904.
Euclid Beach Park's Switchback Railway, Photo Courtesy of The Euclid Beach Boys
Note: At the top level just under the railing the number of feet of the ride is shown, under it "SWITCH-BACK RAILWAY".
Can you ride a Switchback Railway today? The answer, sort of . . . a modern version of the ride with a lift hill opened at a small amusement park located between San Antonio and Austin, Texas in the small town of Seguin in 2015. The Famous Switchback Railway was designed by the Ohio based Gravity Group for ZDT's Amusement Park and is the first new wooden "shuttle coaster" built anywhere in the world in more than a century. Like the old Switchback at Euclid Beach Park it reverses course mid-way. Unlike the ride at the Beach it retraces its way back to the loading station backwards rather than forward. The "new" Switchback begins with a sixty three foot tall lift hill rather than a friendly push by park employees, reaches speeds up to forty five miles per hour, and ascends a sixty four foot tower before rocketing back to the station along 1,980 feet of track (actually only about 1,000 feet of track but you travel it twice. A brake run at the bottom of the lift hill along with a section of switch track allows the coaster to safely operate two trains.
Train ascending sixty four foot tower, then returning backwards to the station.
Train out on the track, not sure if it is going "forward" or "backward".
Note, back in 1898 they did not "Wait Until the Train Stops", there were no restraints (lap bars) and no seat belts.