First Roller Coaster Opens In America – 6/16/1884

US History |

Coney Island, in Brooklyn, New York, is a tract of land along the Atlantic Ocean that is believed to have been named after the Dutch Konijn Eilandt, or Rabbit Island. The Island was discovered in 1609 by explorer Henry Hudson. In 1829, the first hotel opened on the Island and the area already had an established resort with restaurants, theaters, and a racetrack by the Post-Civil War. 

On June 16, 1884, the first roller coaster in America opened at Coney Island. The 600-feet-long coaster - known as a switchback railway – was the brainchild of LaMarcus Thompson. It traveled at approximately six miles per hour (at 50-feet above the ground), and it cost a nickel. The new entertainment received positively by the masses, and Thompson reportedly grossed an average of $600 a day. It is alleged that. Thompson later formed the L.A Thompsons Scenic Railway Company.

It is reported that the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway in Pennsylvania (which was initially a mine train that turned into a tourist attraction) inspired Thompson to create the coaster. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, built in the mountains of Pennsylvania, was more of a runaway train than a modern coaster. It is acknowledged as the ancestor of today’s roller coaster.

Three amusement parks were established at Coney Island between 1897 and 1904: Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase. Coney Island became accessible using subway, and millions of people would throng the island during summer to entertain themselves on the sideshows, rides, games, beach, and the boardwalk (completed in 1923).

Thompson’s creation became a success as it made him hundreds of dollars per day. In fact, history has dubbed him the “Father of Gravity.” However, he did not hold the monopoly on coasters for a long time. Charles Alcoke created another coaster that was a complete circuit, in late 1884. Later, in the spring of 1885, Philip Hinkle developed the “lift hill” concept. The lift hill was the “hill” where the coaster began its “journey.” The mechanism paved the way for higher structure and inventors became freer with their layouts. By the turn of the century, several roller coasters had emerged around America.

Thompson was well aware that the ride needed to be adventurous; therefore, he incorporated darkness and beautiful dioramas in the course of the trip. It is reported that between 1884 and1887, Thompson received more than thirty coaster-related patents. Most of these patents had a relation with the scenic railways he was working on. 

Roller coasters and amusement parks performed poorly during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Around these two periods, Americans had less money to spend on entertainment. The advent of the modern theme park and a rebirth of the roller coaster became evident after the Disneyland opened in 1955. Disneyland was a smashing success and triggered a wave of coasters and amusement parks.

The major amusement parks at Coney Island had shut down by mid-1960s. Regardless, Coney Island remains a tourist attraction because it is still home to a wooden coaster- the Cyclone - that debuted in 1927. The coaster is one of America’s oldest coaster that is still in operation.

Around the 1970s, parks were competing to provide the best entertainment. One historical park is Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. It was opened in 2005, and it introduced the world’s tallest and fastest coaster, the Kingda Ka roller coaster. 

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