Switchback Railway at Coney Island. Image via Wikipedia Commons.
On June 16, 1884, America’s first roller coaster opened on Coney Island. Called the Switchback Railway, the 600-foot wooden coaster’s designer was Illinois native and Sunday School teacher LaMarcus A. Thompson. The inspiration for coaster came after Thompson took a ride on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad, a coal mining train in Carbon County, PA that started carrying recreational thrill seekers in the mid-1800s.
It was also rumored that Thompson may have copied his designs from Brooklyn native Richard Knudson who took out the patent in 1878 to design his Inclined Plane Railway but never got around to building it. But the plot thickens because Knudson may have taken his ideas from another gentleman named J.G. Taylor who took out a coaster patent in 1872.
Image via Entertainment Designer
The Switchback Railway operated on gravity with speeds topping off at six mph. The minute-long ride had two parallel tracks with 40 to 50 foot drops in opposite directions. When a car reached the top of the opposite tower it switched over to the return track sending its riders back to where they started. There was one catch: When the car lost momentum the riders had to get out and walk to the tower platform on foot. Even with that inconvenience the ride was insanely popular and, at a nickel a ride, it was also insanely profitable bringing in $600 a day. According to PBS within three weeks the ride had paid for itself.
The Switchback’s end is unknown, although some believe it only lasted a season or two. Today Coney Island’s famed Cyclone roller coaster occupies roughly the same site. Thompson would go on to design larger, more elaborate roller coasters in America and Europe.
It’s fitting that the New York Times ran a piece this week on the country’s newest roller coasters complete with virtual reality goggles and speeds topping off at 75 mph.
You can see the site of the Switchback Railway coaster along with other historic amusements on our Secrets of Coney Island: Past, Present and Future Tour led by Untapped Cities: