Introducing a new weekly post series, Flashback Friday, where we’ll take a look at six legendary coasters that made their mark in the amusement industry. Although many of the rides we’ll cover are no longer in operation, they’re still held in high regard as the innovative designs that brought us to where we are today.
In today’s edition of Flashback Friday, we’ll be taking a look at the roller coaster that started it all: Switchback Railway.
On June 13, 1884, the first American roller coaster opened at Coney Island. Switchback Railway, as the ride was aptly named, took riders down a sloping series of bunny hills to a tower where the car would be “switched back” to a similar track that returned them to the station. Essentially, the ride featured the earliest form of an out-and-back layout. Standing 50 feet tall and reaching unheard-of speeds of 6 miles per hour, the coaster drew in thrill-seeking guests from miles around who were willing to shell out five cents and wait in a three-hour line for a coveted ride on Switchback.
Designed by LaMarcus A. Thompson, the ride was largely inspired by the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, a Pennsylvania mine train that began transporting adventurous tourists up and down its mountainous track in 1847. After catching a ride on the Mauch Chunk, Thompson was led to design his own, smaller version. The result was Switchback Railway, a one-minute ride that became an instant hit with Coney Island guests.
After the ride paid for itself in just three weeks, Thompson went on to design countless other Railway models for other early amusement parks, adding themed tunnels and extensive scenery to the rides to make them more interesting. In his lifetime, Thompson patented nearly 30 roller coaster technologies. Because of his extensive contributions to the early roller coaster, he has become known as the Father of the Gravity Ride.
With a top speed of only six miles per hour, Switchback Railway might sound like an unimpressive ride, but its novel experience and immense success brought on the creation of bigger and more innovative rides in the following Golden Age of roller coasters.
Check back next week, when we’ll explore the history of the coaster that introduced tubular steel track, enabling wilder maneuvers than traditional wooden track.