Did you know that Santa’s Village has our very own roller coaster? In honour of this popular theme park classic ride, we’re going to take a look the history of where this amazing concept started!
Though many people think the rollercoaster was an American invention, historians trace the rollercoaster’s history back to giant ice slides created in Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as “Russian mountains” by those in the West, these ice slides were built 70 to 80 feet tall, and were supported by wooden beams. They were difficult and expensive to build, so they were mainly used by Russian nobles and royalty who would slide down on wooden sleds or blocks of ice. Because of this, the word for rollercoaster in French, Spanish, and Italian still translates to “Russian mountains.”
The First Rolling Coasters
It wasn’t for another 100 or 150 years before people started using wheeled carts instead of sleds. Some historians believe the first wheeled rollercoaster was built in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1784. However, there is very little concrete evidence that this rollercoaster was actually built, so other historians point to the French rollercoasters that were built in 1817. These were likely the first rollercoasters that were built with wheeled carts that locked onto the track. These rollercoasters became tremendously popular in Paris and other cities in Western Europe. In 1846, the first looped rollercoaster was built in Paris, but after a fatal accident, it was taken down.
Rollercoasters in America
Historians point to the emergence of rollercoasters in America as a pivotal moment in the history of rollercoasters. The first American ride that’s considered a rollercoaster was the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad in Summit Hill, PA. A mining company in the area had a railway that went down a sloping hill at high speeds. They started charging locals a fare to ride up and down the railroad for thrills, and this soon inspired other railways to do the same.
In 1884, Lamarcus Adna Thompson used this idea to create one of the first American rollercoasters in an amusement park. The Gravity Switchback Railway opened in Coney Island, New York and immediately became one of the most popular rides in the country. It was called a switchback railway because riders would ride down one hill and then up another one. Once reaching the top, the staff would switch the cart onto another track and the riders would ride back the other way.
The initial popularity of the Switchback Railway created a huge interest in rollercoasters, and new designs and innovations were continuously being made in Coney Island and other American amusement parks for several years. In just a few years, it was common to find rollercoasters that ran on complete circuits and had lifts to raise the coasters to the top of the first hill.
Experimentation and innovation continued for the next few decades. The first American rollercoaster with a loop track was built in 1895, but was soon dismantled after several accidents. In 1912, a rollercoaster was built with an underfriction system. This type of cart has wheels that run over and under the track, ensuring that the cart will never lift off the track. This allowed rollercoasters to move at higher speeds much more safely and is a common feature found in almost all rollercoasters today. The time between the 1880s to the 1920s is known as the Golden Age of Rollercoasters because they played such a large role in the American imagination, were constantly evolving and improving, and were world famous attractions.
The Great Depression and the Decline of Roller Coasters
Once the Great Depression started, attendance at amusement parks, and thus interest in rollercoasters, plummeted. Most parks across the United States closed down, and there was little money to be made in designing new tracks or inventing new mechanisms for rollercoasters. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that rollercoasters would regain their popularity nationwide.
The Return of Rollercoasters
Historians disagree when rollercoasters once again became a major part of American pop culture and a big attraction at amusement parks. Some people point to the rollercoasters being built in Disneyland in the late 50s and 60s, but it is clear that the earliest nationally popular rollercoaster was “the Racer,” which was built in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1972. This rollercoaster was actually featured in both “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch” TV shows. From then on, rollercoasters have once again been an extremely popular attraction in America. From young children to adults, many Americans love to ride them.
One of the biggest innovations that occurred right before the popularity of “the Racer” was the use of steel tubular tracks. Unlike wooden tracks that had to be built mostly straight, steel tracks could be bent and curved in many different ways. This opened up huge new possibilities for rollercoasters, allowing rollercoaster designers to create tracks that spun, turned, and corkscrewed in ways that were not possible before. In 1976, the use of steel tracks inspired rollercoaster makers to re-attempt a looped rollercoaster. The Great American Revolution opened in Magic Mountain, and loop track rollercoasters have been popular ever since. Today, most rollercoasters are made using steel tracks, though wooden rollercoasters are still available.
In the last 40 years, rollercoasters have continued to evolve and become more sophisticated. The first flying rollercoaster was created in the United Kingdom in 1997. In these rollercoasters, passengers are under track and they are held perpendicular to the track. This creates a sensation of flying and has resulted in many themed rollercoasters such as the “Superman Ultimate Flight” coasters in Six Flags theme parks. Rollercoasters have recently been created that hydraulic or pneumatic pressure to launch the rollercoasters. As opposed to traditional rides that rely on gravity, these rollercoasters are much faster, reaching speeds as high as 80 to 100 miles per hour.
Today, rollercoasters are once again one of the most popular attractions and rides in North America and also throughout the rest of the world. They can be found on virtually every continent and continue to thrill and excite millions of children and adults. Because of the endless potential to customize and improve rollercoasters, they will likely continue to be popular and evolve in ways that we still can’t imagine.