Magazine | June 2, 2014, Issue

Long Live Roller Coasters!

They exemplify American ingenuity -- and American life

It’s that time of year again, when amusement parks open their doors and the crowds pour in. I will be among them, as I have been since I was a child. What better way to spend a day than among the breathy organ music, the smell of funnel cake and roasting peanuts, the ethereal laughter and desultory screams, the impresarios entreating you to guess the number of jelly beans in the jar or to strike the stage with an oversized mallet, the click-click-click of the roller coaster’s lift and the industrial clank of the Zipper, and the crowds — the endless crowds, with their cotton candy and strollers in tow?

It’s a peculiarly American thing, the boardwalk and its offshoots. And, like so many of our free society’s most compelling features, it evolved pretty much by accident. Constructed along the East Coast to afford casual visitors an opportunity to enjoy the sea air, what were intended to be little more than wooden walkways soon began to attract basic amenities, then restaurants, entertainers, and freaks, and — finally — full-scale diversions. Before anybody knew what happened, they had created a scene.

Nowadays amusement parks are a vast business. But for many early sideshow entrepreneurs, life was tough and unpredictable. Coney Island, perhaps the most famous boardwalk in the world, did not start life as an attraction but as a series of them, each vying for visitors’ precious — and limited — dollars. When the biggest, Steeplechase Park, burned to the ground in 1907, owner George Tilyou posted a famous sign outside the ruins: “I have troubles today that I had not yesterday. I had troubles yesterday which I have not today.” He wasn’t kidding. Among the attractions wrecked in the blaze were a rare Ferris Wheel inspired by the original at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition; scale models of the Eiffel Tower and London’s houses of Parliament; and the innovative mechanical horse-race ride that lent the park its name. It took Tilyou two years to rebuild his work. By the time it reopened, many of his competitors had caught up with him.

Those among my friends who know of my passion tend toward censoriousness. In this, they are in agreement with the attitude of Robert Moses, the love-him-or-hate-him “urban mastermind” who griped in the 1930s that the nation’s bustling promenades were anarchic, overcrowded, hyper-exciting, incessantly changing, and conspicuously lacking in central planning and class. They are all of those things, and often mindless, too. But that is precisely why people love them. “The notion that Coney Island generally is a prosperous place which only needs to be left alone by the city government to be prosperous and happy is 18-carat bunk,” Moses claimed. Really now?

The most famous of the boardwalk’s offerings is the roller coaster, a ride that was not invented in the United States but has been better received here than in any other nation. As a child, I would dip into the travel agencies in England, grab a handful of brochures, and cut out the photographs of the roller coasters in America. So much taller! So much faster! Attempts to convince my parents that they wanted to take a holiday in Ohio (Cedar Point) or New Jersey (Great Adventure) proved fruitless. I would have to wait until I grew up.

America was not always the roller-coaster capital of the world. The French term for the rides is montagnes russes, or “Russian mountains” — a reference to the original ice slides of St. Petersburg that grew popular in the 17th century and then spread throughout the capitals of Europe at the request of the wealthy. The first fixed “roller coasters” — made of wood, bolted with steel, and featuring cars that, unlike those on the railways, clung to their tracks — were built not in New York or California but in Russia and Paris. Americans, atypically slow to indulge a fad, did not cotton on to the idea until 1827, when a Pennsylvania-based mining magnate hit accidentally upon the notion of allowing holidaymakers to ride his little downhill railcar when it wasn’t being used for coal deliveries. For the hefty price of a whole dollar, passengers were treated to a slow trip up to the top of the mountain and then a speedy journey back down. Before long, the magnate’s railway was proving more profitable as an attraction than as a business tool, eventually drawing such luminaries as Thomas Edison and President Ulysses S. Grant. Realizing what they had, its owners expanded the line. It operated for five decades after the mine had closed. I wish it were still there.

#page#By the start of the 20th century, the idea had caught on, and, showing that particular genius for invention that has made the country what it is, a host of American experimenters moved to patent their designs and bring them to the beach. The evolution was hit-and-miss. The Flip-Flap, a rather dangerous invention that opened in 1895 at Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park, was a crude version of a vertical loop; the effect on riders was sufficiently dramatic that the ride’s owner, serial showman Paul Boyton, discovered he could charge visitors just to watch volunteers suffer through it. (Passengers were subjected to a g-force of twelve — four times what astronauts experience during a space-shuttle launch, and twice what the Apollo 11 crew felt during reentry.) Another ride, the Crystal Beach Cyclone, the brainchild of engineering genius Harry Traver, proved so intense that the park was forced to keep a full-time nurse on hand to minister with splints and smelling salts in the boarding station.

Elsewhere, though, the boom progressed without a hitch, and popular, safe roller coasters sprang up across the country. By the time the 1929 Wall Street crash brought the Roaring Twenties to an ignominious close, America was home to between 1,500 and 2,000 models — and about the same number of boardwalk parks, too. Today, there are 2,289 roller coasters in the United States. By contrast, there are only 108 in Russia and 162 in France — most of them tiny. My country of birth hasn’t done too badly, offering 457. But they just aren’t the same. Planning restrictions require the British to bury their attractions in pits and behind large trees, and to paint them in earthy tones. In America, they are yellow and red and blue, and you can see them from miles away.

Here, the summer excursion is a custom. When Walt Disney World’s Space Mountain was closed for refurbishment in 2009, the park felt obliged to apologize profusely to the public, explaining sorrowfully that they had little choice but to do their repairs and acknowledging that the ride was a “rite of passage at the Magic Kingdom that’s been enjoyed by generations.” Congress puts the nation’s amusement parks on the same level as great houses or battleships. Recently designated as National Historic Landmarks are Lakemont Park’s Leap-The-Dips (built in 1902), the oldest operating roller coaster in the world; the twin Giant Dippers at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (1924) and San Diego’s Belmont Park (1925); and the Coney Island Cyclone (1927). The classic amusement parks at Kennywood, Pa., and Rye Playland, N.Y., have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places — as have a host of vintage boardwalks. This is heritage.

A decade ago, the writer Dinesh D’Souza observed that “America permits many strange careers.” Back in India, D’Souza suggested, he wouldn’t have been able to go to his father and explain that he was “thinking of becoming a comedian.” Indeed. And if, in the early days of the 20th century, one had suggested to the people assembling on the boardwalk that the little railway they could see being built would one day be part of an industry larger than Coca-Cola, they would probably have laughed and shaken their heads. But America permits many strange ideas, too. Let’s go around again.

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