Today in History: The Switchback Railway

Today in History: The Switchback Railway

By BoroPark24 Staff

Exactly 140 years ago, on this day, June 16, 1884, the first roller coaster in America opened its doors, not far from Boro Park.

Coney Island, New York, has long been synonymous with amusement and innovation, and one of its most pioneering contributions to the world of entertainment is the Switchback Railway, America's first roller coaster. 

The Switchback Railway was the brainchild of LaMarcus Adna Thompson, a visionary inventor often hailed as the "Father of the American Roller Coaster." Thompson, inspired by the gravity railroads used in the coal mining industry, saw the potential for a new kind of entertainment ride. In 1884, he turned his vision into reality, opening the Switchback Railway on June 16 at Coney Island, a burgeoning hub for leisure and recreation.

The ride featured a pair of parallel tracks, each 600 feet long. The structure was built using wood, and the tracks were laid out in a gentle incline. Riders would board a train at the top of one incline, which was manually pushed to the peak of the ride. Gravity then took over, and the train would descend down the slope, reaching a speed of about six miles per hour. At the end of the track, the train was switched to the return track and the process repeated in the opposite direction, hence the name "Switchback Railway."

This rudimentary ride offered a new and exhilarating experience for the public, providing a scenic view of Coney Island’s beaches and attractions along the way. Despite its modest speed and height compared to modern roller coasters, the Switchback Railway was a thrilling innovation for its time.

The success of the Switchback Railway was immediate and profound. It cost five cents per ride and quickly became a major attraction at Coney Island, drawing crowds eager to experience the novel sensation of riding a coaster.

While the original Switchback Railway no longer exists, its fingerprints are all over the world, evident in the thousands of roller coasters that followed its groundbreaking design.

photo credit: National Amusement Park Historical Association

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