On this day in 1884, America’s first roller coaster opened at Coney Island
On June 16, 1884, the country’s first roller coaster opened at Coney Island, sparking Americans’ obsession with amusement rides. Invented by LaMarcus Thompson, the ride, called the Switchback Railway, spanned 600 feet and traveled just six miles per hour. Unlike today’s coasters, the Switchback did not make a round trip loop, and passengers exited at the end of the track. The one-minute-long ride cost only five cents.
Thompson was inspired by the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway, a nine-mile downhill railway in Pennsylvania that was designed to carry coal out of the mountains. Later, amused onlookers took it for a spin, making it the first roller coaster-type ride. After riding the Mauch Chunk, Thompson was determined to build an actual roller coaster and found a design by inventor Richard Knudsen called the “Inclined Plane Railway.” The Switchback Railway consisted of two parallel wooden tracks that descended in opposite directions. The ride became so popular it brought in an average of $600 per day, paying for itself within three weeks.
Interestingly, the first design of the cars had the seats facing backward, instead of forward. Changes were later made for more practical, forward-facing cars that could fit more passengers. Plus, the track design was later replaced with an oval complete-circuit to make rides more efficient. Thompson went on to design more roller coasters across the country that included dark tunnels and painted scenery.
Following the Great Depression and World War II, the popularity of roller coasters and amusement parks dropped as Americans had less money to spend on entertainment. But after Disneyland in California opened in 1955, roller coasters and their theme parks began to modernize. While a lot of major amusement parks shut down in Coney Island by the mid-1960s, it continues to be a popular tourist attraction. The boardwalk’s Cyclone roller coaster, which made its debut in 1927, is one of the country’s oldest coasters still in operation.
Watch the Switchback Railway in full force here: