DEEP DIVE / Leisure in America

From Coal to Coney: An Early History of Roller Coasting in America

CHAPTERS:    1     2     3     4

Chapter 1: It Starts With A Patent

While there are a number of early roller coaster patents, both in the early switchback and more recognizable circular track designs, between 1872 and 1886, the mystery is if any were actually built by their inventors and where. The first of the patents U.S. #128,674 for an Improvement of Inclined Railways, was awarded to John G. Taylor of Baltimore in 1872. His was a primitive 'out and back' coaster with two parallel tracks where a car with flanged wheels descended by gravity-induced momentum along an undulating track to the far end where passengers unloaded.

The car, which had two longitudinal benches facing each other across the center, was then pushed up a short incline and transferred via a short length of track beneath the car that slid horizontally when pushed to line up with the return downhill track less than 10 feet away. Since the patent didn't describe the car's braking system nor passenger platforms for loading and unloading, the drawing was thought to just match the required patent model. 

While researchers were convinced that Taylor's switchback railway was never built, a photograph of it was published in Bennett W. Dorman's "Savin Rock, An Illustrated History" (1998). A sign identified the ride as Taylor's patented Incline Railway, July 2, 1872, the date Taylor's patent was issued. This doesn't necessarily mean that the photo was from 1872. But thanks to companies digitizing various newspapers on the Internet, Victor Canfield discovered a newspaper article from the Middletown, Connecticut Daily Constitution dated August 15, 1874. It mentions several rides and attractions at West Haven's Savin Rock including Taylor's patented elevated railway cars. It reported that "the elevated railway carried over it last year 250,000 persons without the least accident to any one. It is absolutely safe." This means that Taylor's scenic railway definitely operated in 1873. Since it was obviously a popular ride, it must have operated for several additional years.

Richard Knudson of Brooklyn, New York was the next to apply for a patent for an Improvement in Inclined-Plane Railways. He was awarded U.S. #198,888 patent on January 1, 1878. His patent was quite similar to Taylor's design, but with a few exceptions. At both ends of the track were vertical elevators, possibly just a winch and pulley system, to lift the coaster cars to the starting level, then slid over to the parallel return track. Passengers used a staircase in order to reboard for their return trip. It is possible that he saw the Savin Rock ride since it wasn't far from Brooklyn, and intended to build his version at nearby Coney Island just a few miles from his residence, but there is no evidence. There are enough surviving tourist brochures and photo booklets describing the resort's important attractions, and the ride isn't mentioned. Of course, a photo or drawing of LaMarcus Thompson's Switchback Railway isn't in any of them either, but no one pointed out in 1884 that there had been a previous switchback railway.

While it seems that these early inventors would have found a more elegant method of returning the cars to their starting point, Alason Wood was the first to be granted a patent for a circular railway with series of undulating drops after the lift hill. This was a radical departure from the lineage of switchback railway design, but considering that Wood was unfamiliar with those convoluted designs, his approach was novel in that it returned its passengers to near its starting point without the need of a separate return track. He filed with the Patent Office on August 8, 1883 and was awarded US # 291,261 on January 1, 1884.

Wood's Innovation

Little is known about this obscure inventor, who shortly after the Civil War moved from New York state where he was born in 1829, to Toledo, Ohio. He was a poor carpenter, but a born tinkerer, who after watching children slide down hills on their slide boards, was inspired to design a railroad whose cars could travel both up and down hills. He envisioned a ride that would thrill its passengers with speed, rather than take them for a slow scenic ride. His innovation was to bend the rails into a circle, allow the passenger car to roll down the incline from a height, and use the ride's final uphill incline as a brake on the car's momentum, thus eliminating the need for friction brakes to bring it to a final stop. By logically tying the two ends of his tracks together into a continuous elliptical loop, he returned passengers to their starting point without the inconvenience of awaiting a return train or the interruption of a mildly exciting ride.

His wood-framed ride had a height of 23 feet, diameter of 150 feet, and a circumference of 475 feet. A platform 13 feet above ground, where passengers debarked, had a seating capacity of 200 for those awaiting their turn. Passengers walked up the stairs to the loading platform, while pairs of cars each seating six sideways on a long bench were winched up a nine foot incline. It was a short exhilarating downhill ride over a series of undulating hills, only ten to twelve seconds from start to finish, but passengers could ride it three times for their nickel.

Wood sold half his pending patent to Joseph A. Cahoon, a businessman in Toledo for $17,000 plus royalties. Cahoon saw its potential as an amusement ride, and since he could recover the ride's construction cost of $600 within a several weeks at most, he and several associates began construction, first in Toledo and possibly Cleveland in 1883. They then built in Ponce de Leon Springs in Georgia as reported by the Augusta Chronicle, and Coney Island, NY in June 1884, and at Philadelphia's Fairmont Park in July 1884. The patent office awarded the partners a patent on their circular railway on January 1, 1884.