Today in History: The First Commercial Roller Coaster in America Opens

Today in History: The First Commercial Roller Coaster in America Opens

M.C. Millman

In 1884, visitors to Coney Island were eagerly awaiting the day of June 16 to ride on the nation's first roller coaster for a whopping five cents. 

The term 'roller coaster' was quite different back then compared to what rides have progressed into today. Back then, the roller coaster was powered simply: with gravity. The ride was designed by LaMarcus Adna Thompson in 1881, earning him the title the "Father of Gravity.

The ride consisted of two sets of parallel tracks running in opposite directions, each 600 feet long. Riders had to climb a fifty-foot tower to the ride's entrance before sitting in sideways-facing benches to enjoy the thrill of the six-mile-per-hour ride. When they reached the end, riders had to climb another fifty feet and board another set of cars to return. The roller coaster was appropriately named the Switchback Railway. 

Despite its shortcomings, the ride was very popular and profitable. According to PBS, the ride made $600 daily and paid for itself in three weeks. 

The roller coaster was updated with an oval track designed by Charles Alcoke, which allowed passengers the luxury of a complete-circuit ride. The seats were also adjusted to face forward, similar to roller coasters today. 

Thompson went on to build almost fifty roller coasters in the US and Europe under his company, "The L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway." His innovative idea inspired the development of the roller coasters we have today.

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