DEEP DIVE / Leisure in America


From Coal to Coney

Chapter 2: A Coaster Is Built

CHAPTERS:     1     2     3     4

Wood's invention was noticed and imitated by several other Toledo inventors and businessmen.

Philo M. Stevens traveled to Chicago to build a circular railway with a slightly modified design. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on September 30,1883 that his 22-foot-high, 140 foot diameter circular railway was under construction at a cost of $800 on a large vacant lot at the corner of State and 22nd Street. The reporter misspelled his name as  Stevenson, and gave his hometown as Toledo.

The design, according to the patent he applied for on October 16, 1883, was nearly identical to Wood's, but had a constant slope down, and a constant slope up. The car, which stopped at the end of the uphill grade, was held in place by an anti-rollback pawl. The two-car trains could accommodate 6-9 passengers seated sideways in each car, and Stevens offered three short 15-18 second rides for a nickel. The newspaper article claimed that Stevens had already built two coasters in Toledo, and would built one shortly in New Orleans. His patent #298,710 Roller Coasting Device was granted on May 18, 1884, and assigned to the Roller Coaster of America Company; thus where the generic name roller coaster originated.

Toledo inventor Joseph P. Yearick patented a parallel-track linear coaster because he was concerned that the circular railways took up to much space and needed large lots. Besides they weren't likely to derail due to the centrifugal force that circular railways produced. Since he claimed in his patent application that all previous roller coasters were circular and his patent was filed on June 6, 1884, it is unlikely that he saw LaMarcus Thompson's switchback railway, which opened at Coney Island a week earlier. Yearick's design, which had its loading station in the middle rather than at one end, and had two parallel tracks that merged into two short single tracks at each end, was suitable for narrow lots.

Passengers boarded the cars at the highest elevation on track A, then coasted downhill towards the front of the lot, then upward until its momentum was exhausted. It then reversed direction and was switched onto track B, where it coasted downhill to ground level, then uphill to arrest its momentum. The cars were then raised by windless back to the starting level. He was awarded patent US #316,512 for his Gravity Railroad on April 28, 1885.

There is evidence that he built his gravity railways in several locations including Toledo, Ohio where he lived. The Wheeling Register reported on August 21, 1885 that his gravity railroad was being built at the Wheeling, West Virginia State Fairgrounds. They mentioned that his patented design was also in operation in Memphis, New Orleans, Toledo, and other cities.

Nearly all of the circular railways built in 1883 to 1885 were successful business ventures with some exceptions that will be covered later. Since they were cheap to build, recovered their investment quickly, and could be sold to a local businessman to operate, it enabled Cahoon and Stevens to begin construction in a new city at least once a month. The public in the 1880's, with increased leisure time and spendable income, looked for novel amusements. Roller skating had just become a popular fad after the invention of steel ball bearings on skate wheels in 1884 enabled skaters to obtain greater speeds. Rinks were being built in every city and small town. It was no surprise that young people embraced the latest thrill ride.