Park visitors can enjoy an amazing variety of unusual roller coasters these days, but it wasn’t always this way. I was reminded of how far roller coaster technology has progressed during a recent tour of Pennsylvania parks, especially during a stop at Lakemont Park in Altoona, where I got to sit in a car of Leap-the-Dips, shown here. I say “sit in” because the coaster is currently standing but not operating. Lakemont manager Jeremy Courtney says he hopes to have it running again in 2020.
Leap-the-Dips the kind of coaster my grandfather might have ridden early in the twentieth century. Leap-the-Dips was built at Lakemont Park in 1902 by E. Joy Morris of Philadelphia. It was among some 250 side-friction coasters in North America. It became the last known ride of this type and the world’s oldest known operating roller coaster. If it operates, that is. It offered a mild ride over a double figure-eight layout. The ride vehicles held up to four guests and hit a top speed of six mph (10 kph). Among today’s wild rides it is an anachronism.
While it may be the oldest remaining roller coaster, it is certainly not the first. A little history here. What I think of as that all-American thrill ride, the roller coaster, really had its beginnings more than 400 years ago in Russia, when an enterprising St. Petersburg showman discovered people would actually pay money to be terrified. He built a wooden slide, covered it with ice, and would charge people to slide down on small sleds. Catherine the Great, the empress of Russia, so enjoyed the past-time that she ordered tiny wheels added to the sleds so she could ride in the summer. The French soon adopted what they called “Russian Mountains” (Montagnes russe) and began operating them in and around Paris.
In North America, the first modern roller coaster, one with undulating hills, appeared in 1884. It was built by LaMarcus A. Thompson, “father of the modern roller coaster,” who built the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway, at Coney Island, New York. It consisted of two towers 45 feet (14 m) high and 450 feet (137 m) apart. Riders climbed to the top of the tower, boarded a single 10-passenger car, and rolled down and up and down to the base of the second tower. There they would climb the second tower as workmen raised the car to the top, switched it to the return track, which is why it was called a switchback, riders reboarded and rolled back to the starting point. Charging five cents per riders, Thompson recovered his investment within three weeks and ignited a roller coaster building boom that continues to this day.
In 1887, an imitation coaster course appeared, the Sliding Hill and Toboggan in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It consisted of a series of closely-spaced roller arranged in conveyor-belt fashion along the inside walls of a building. It quickly disappeared, but the name “roller coaster,” from the use of the rollers, has remained with us ever since. But of all the thousands of early roller coasters that were built, only Leap-the-Dips remains to remind us of a long-gone era.