June 16, 1884: The first roller coaster in America opens at Coney Island
Roller coasters: love ’em or hate ’em. Some folks reminisce on the fun they had growing up. Others will get completely nauseous at the sight of these titanic structures. The first roller coaster in the United States wasn’t as chaotic as their successors.
Finding some inspiration
Ohio native LaMarcus Adna Thompson always thought big. One of his first successes was managing a manufacturing factory for women’s stockings. Unfortunately, he had to step down from his position due to some health issues. On a trip to Pennsylvania, Thompson quickly discovered Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway. Developed in 1827, the former coal mining railroad was turned into an amusement ride. Dubbed the Gravity Road, its ridership grew in popularity in the 1850s. While seeing people engaging with the ride, Thompson came up with a brilliant idea.
A new way to ride
Following his trip, Thompson wanted to expand on Gravity Road with his own ride called Switchback Railway. Starting in 1881, he began working on this new project. After a few years, the Switchback Railway was ready to launch in Coney Island. On June 16, 1884, it was finally opened to the public. Entirely made of wood, this ride wasn’t as advanced as today’s roller coasters. The whole track was only 600 feet long. If the short ride wasn’t enough, this thing could only go six miles per hour. Back in those days, this was a dream come true. Today’s children would’ve dropped a slew of curse words for such a tiny journey.
Expanding on the product
Fortunately, Thompson was able to make a fortune with his brand new ride. With each trip costing five cents, he was able to pocket $600 daily. The term “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” didn’t apply in this situation. The track’s design quickly changed to an oval setting under the new name The Serpentine Railway. Knowing how much money he’d make, Thompson installed roller coasters across the country. On May 8, 1919, Thompson died before roller coasters started to really gain attention worldwide. While rides like Kingda Ka and El Toro exist today, Thompson delivered big experiences with a small package.