DEEP DIVE / Leisure in America

 

From Coal to Coney

Chapter 4: Coney Competition

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Coney Island, New York, America's largest and most popular amusement resort, attracted inventors with the latest mechanical rides and shows during the 1880's. Owning a carousel at the resort was lucrative. Andrew Culver was relieved when Wood and Cahoon arrived in late June to build their circular railway on property west of the new Iron Pier leased from the Prospect Park and Coney Island railroad. They weren't the only new arrival at the resort with plans. C.A. Smith and his associates David Emmerick and Samuel Fiske, also from Toledo, Ohio, had arrived weeks earlier and built a similar ride on the Vanderveer property. LaMarcus Thompson chose a narrow lot on W. 10th Street to build his switchback railway. While it looked like Thompson would have had a monopoly on scenic railways that summer, there were initially two rival competitors for the tourist's nickels.

"The Father of The Roller Coaster"

LaMarcus Adna Thompson arrived at Coney Island in May 1884 and began building his pioneer Switchback Railroad at a cost of $1600 on a leased lot at W. 10th Street and Surf Avenue. The local businessmen thought he was crazy. They were certain it wouldn't work and that people wouldn't risk their lives on it. The ride consisted of a pair of metal undulating tracks 450 feet long laid upon a timber frame. A train started at its highest point and ran downgrade at about six miles per hour over a series of gentle bumps until it lost momentum at the seaward end. Eight to ten passengers, depending on size and girth, who were seated sideways, got out and climbed a second staircase while attendants pushed the train over a switch, then to a somewhat higher point on the second track. The passengers again boarded the train and departed downhill over the other undulating track back to the starting point.

Thompson's ride opened on June 15, 1884, two weeks after several other roller coasters debuted at the resort. While LaMarcus claimed that he opened on a Sunday at 2 P.M., after his death in 1919, his company celebrated the anniversary on June 14th.

While it was little more than a scenic tour of the beach, it was an immediate hit with visitors who were looking for something more thrilling than a merry-go-round. Lines formed early in the morning, and sometimes the wait was over three hours. At five cents per ride, Thompson likely recovered his investment in less than three weeks.

Profits & Publicity

Although it was reported that he grossed $600 / day, it would take 12,000 patrons / day at 5 cents per ride. Assuming 30 people were on a train, it would require 400 trips / day, or 40 trips / hour during a ten hour day; one trip every 90 seconds. Since the trains were switched by hand, and the trains were pushed up a hill before passengers again boarded for the return trip, it is unlikely that trains ran any faster than every ten minutes. Thompson couldn't gross $600 / day even with two trains.

Thompson boasted to eager Brooklyn and Manhattan newspaper reporters that he conceived his ride while watching happy riders screaming in delight on his friend's circular ride in Louisiana. He envisioned a ride where, instead of being confined to a small circle where its passengers went round and round, they would sit on benches that traveled on undulating rails for a scenic tour of the beach or countryside. He actually built his prototype switchback railroad at the resort according to a 1919 obituary in the New York Sun, but took Andrew Culver's advice and choose the most popular beach in the East Coast, Coney Island to build a better ride.

The newspaper publicity promoted his ride beyond his wildest expectations. Entrepreneurs from all over the world recognized its money-making potential, and began inquiring about purchasing one for their park or resort. The Humphrey Company, owners of the Euclid Beach resort near Cleveland, Ohio became the first to purchase his ride.