First US Roller Coaster Celebrates 130th Anniversary

Holiday bathers cram Coney Island Beach in 1957 on the Fourth of July.
Holiday bathers cram Coney Island Beach in 1957 on the Fourth of July.
UNITED PRESS TELEPHOTO

According to The History Channel, on June 16, 1884 the first commercial roller coaster in the United States opened on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.

Costing a nickle and traveling at six miles per hour, this “switchback” coaster was invented by La Marcus Thompson and was an “instant success.”

According to PBS, prospects of a roller coaster were laid in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1820s when miners used trains to deliver coal and mules up a hill. When this system lost its necessity in the 1870s, “in a bout of Yankee shrewdness, the railway was converted from a miner’s helper to a tourist attraction.”

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Though there had been patents passed and designs drawn for roller coasters before, Thompson was the first one to go through and build it, according to PBS. This “gravity pleasure ride” brought in 600 dollars a day, “paying for itself in a mere three weeks.”

By the turn of the century, according to The History Channel, there would be hundreds of roller coasters throughout the country and Thompson’s “switchback” coaster would continue to be successful.

In 1920, The Boston Daily Globe published a letter that an Englishman, Henry W. Nevinson, visiting Coney Island wrote to home:

“And all the scene re-echos with anguished shrieks of delicious apprehension as the Giant Switchback (largest in the world) plunges its loads of victims to their doom.”

But, Nevinson did offer some advice to avoid this horror:

“One escape there is. You may board the remote and peaceful barks that glide down the dark and mysterious ‘Tunnels of Love,’ where you are promised ‘a level ride, no ups or downs,’ contrary to the reputation of true love’s course.”

Nevinson ends his letter suggesting that visitors may find “support” in these experiences with the food Coney Island had to offer.

For at least this tourist, Thompson’s roller coaster and other Coney Island rides seemed to evoke a wide range of emotions.