LEGACY DEPT. / Leisure in America


"The Father of The Roller Coaster": A Look Into The Life of LaMarcus Thompson

La Marcus Adna Thompson was born on March 8, 1848, near the small town of Jersey, Ohio.

A few years later his family moved further west and settled in Hillsdale County in Michigan. His passion in his spare time on the farm was inventing, building, and operating mechanical toys, such as carts, crossbows, wagons, and an ingenious miniature saw-mill complete with log carriers and buzz-saw. By the age of twelve he had invented an ox-cart for his father and a butter churn for his mother. He completed his schooling in 1866 after attending Hillsdale College in Michigan for just a short time.

He began a moderately successful career as a wagon and carriage builder in his home-town and then, after becoming restless, moved to Elkart, Indiana, in 1873. There his inventive genius blossomed, and in 1875 he devised a new product that he called seamless hosiery. After he showed several handmade samples to wholesale jobbers, one company in Chicago placed a $10,000 order. He and a partner founded the Eagle Knitting Company and opened their first factory in a small loft in Elkart. Business expanded, and by 1882 they owned their own mill that employed 300. Unfortunately, running a business was a strain for Thompson, and his health deteriorated until he was near a nervous breakdown. Doctors ordered a complete rest and warned him about resuming an indoor occupation. After selling his interest in the mill, he recuperated in Arizona for six months.

Frank Darling, president of the L.A. Thompson Company in 1919 explained in a Billboard Magazine tribute, how LaMarcus Thompson was inspired to invent his first switchback railway. While returning home via New Orleans, he encountered one of his Michigan childhood friends who was operating a crude hand-made amusement ride on a Louisiana beach. It was a circular contraption using a 70-foot-diameter wheel set on its vertical axis but tilted so that it rose twenty feet on its high side. Patrons, paying a nickel, took seats on two park benches located opposite each other along the rim, then the balanced load was slowly spun about its axis with just a little force by the operator. But it was the primitive circular railway operating nearby that intrigued Thompson the most. As an inventor, he saw the potential and dreamed of ways to improve the ride.