Thrills of the century

Ann Finlayson August 6 1984

Thrills of the century

Ann Finlayson August 6 1984

Thrills of the century

Ann Finlayson


Even real enthusiasts say that the sensation defies adequate description. First there is spine-tingling anticipation as the roller coaster makes its agonizingly slow climb to the top of its scaffolding. Then there is a rush of panic as the cars make their initial plunge, followed by sheer exhilaration as the little train, full of shrieking passengers, careens bumpily through curves, climbs and drops that seem designed to throw the whole machine off the tracks. And for some inexplicable reason, when the trip finally ends a couple of minutes later the shaken riders are often ready to do it again. The king of the amusement park—the elegant, if rickety, wooden roller coaster—celebrates its 100th birthday this year, still thrilling all comers. Confided Dallas-based structural engineer William Cobb, who created many of the best modern new coasters: “The idea is to get people to the point where they think

they just cannot stay in the car. But of course they can—and they do.”

Once unchallenged in its ability to satisfy holiday adventure seekers, the old-style wooden roller coaster must now compete with technologically dazzling rides that transport terrified but willing victims to dizzying heights, then swoop them through elegant loops and mathematically precise spirals. But the shaky old-style coasters have a unique mystique, and coaster fans are striving to preserve the remaining “woodies,” as they are known. At the centre of the movement is the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), an organization that has attracted about 1,000 members, including roughly a dozen Canadians, since a Chicago couple, Liucija and Allen Ambrosini, established it in 1978. But even Liucija Ambrosini does not profess to understand her addiction completely. “I cannot really define it,” she said, “but the ride gives you a real grand feeling. It j ust grabs up all of your senses.”

A rash of amusement park accidents in the United States this summer, including one in which a 45-year-old woman died after falling from the rear car of a coaster near St. Louis, Mo., focused attention on safety concerns. But in fact the rides, particularly in the bigger parks, generally have a good safety record, and insurance companies insist that their operators inspect them regularly. Their basic design is safe, said Michael Deibert, a standards administrator with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). But long-term safety depends on good maintenance. Added Deibert: “The problem is not with the big operators but with some of the little midway operations that move around from shopping centre to local fair on a tight time schedule. It is hard for them to maintain standards, and they in turn are difficult to police.” Albany, N.Y., professor Robert Cartmell, 43, one of the world’s most knowledgeable coaster experts, said that accidents “almost always” happen because someone is showing off. But major accidents have been rare since American inventor John Miller developed the locked-wheel device in 1916, making it virtually impossibile for a car to leave the tracks.

Still, the CSA responded to public concerns last year by updating its safety

code for amusement rides. The code’s new provisions, laid out with the full cooperation of the amusements industry, detail inspection procedures and specifications for locking devices, clearances, stopping equipment and restraints. Seven provinces—British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland—intend to adopt the stiffer code, and the government of Ontario, the province that has most of Canada’s roller coasters, is considering legislating the code next year.

But for most coaster fans, the safety aspect is taken for granted. Enthusiast Michael Kehoe, 21, of Richmond Hill, Ont., has worked on the rides at Canada’s Wonderland amusement park in Maple, Ont., near Toronto, for the past four summers. Now he plans to use his skill as an industrial mechanic to develop a career in amusement park maintenance. Kehoe contended that most of the old wooden coasters that he has seen in various parks are absolutely safe, if only because of insurance inspections. But he acknowledged: “I have seen one or two old ones with rotten wood and track that has become misaligned. They require a lot of maintenance.”

Some devoted coaster enthusiasts arrange their lives to accommodate their hobby. They travel the continent, seek-

ing the pleasures of the biggest, the fastest and the wildest rides—frequently disappointed because of the almost 2,000 elegant coasters that dotted the continent’s midways in the 1920s, only 150 still stand. Inevitably there are favorites among the great coasters of the past, the crowning glories of a coaster craze that began in 1884 when American entrepreneur LaMarcus Thompson, who had amassed a fortune from inventing seamless hosiery, opened his Switchback Railway on West 10th Street on New York’s Coney Island.

According to a widely accepted legend, Thompson was concerned about the idle lives of the Sunday school pupils he

taught and he wanted to provide them with a harmless diversion. His coaster, inspired by coal miners’ carts, was a primitive affair that ran on gravity alone. Passengers sat sideways in cars that coasted down a 600-foot-long, undulating track. Imitators quickly saw the advantages of a circular track, and and by the turn of the century roller coasters had become big business.

By the 1920s nearly 2,000 variations of Thompson’s original idea had risen majestically over amusement parks across North America, some designed by Thompson himself. Others included a ride called Flying Turns, designed by Canadian inventor Norman Bartlett. A Royal Air Force pilot during the First World War, Bartlett capitalized on widespread public interest in aviation by creating a bobsled-like coaster ride

that he claimed simulated the experience of flying. It did not hurt business when the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh declared that the ride was more exciting than flying over the Atlantic.

Bartlett’s ride shared the midway at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair with one of American Harry Traver’s notorious Cyclones, machines that most fans still consider to have been the most fearsome roller coasters of all. One surviving Cyclone, at Montreal’s Parc Belmont, was taken down early this year. Another terrorized riders at Ontario’s Crystal Beach Park near Fort Erie for two decades before it was eventually torn down in 1946. Traver had exhibited the origi-

nal Cyclone at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial in 1926. Crystal Beach owner George Hall was impressed by the coaster’s elaborate banks, steep drops and terrific speed. But, said Hall’s son, Ed, now co-owner of the park, George Hall wanted more. His son remembers him saying to Traver, “Harry, I want you to build me that coaster twice as bad and twice as mean.” And veterans of the ride testify that Traver did. About 75,000 people turned up to watch the Crystal Beach Cyclone roar down its track on opening day in 1927. It thrilled riders and spectators alike as it negotiated figure eights at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h., with no possibility of braking because there was no section of track that ran straight for long enough for brakes to be effective. Recalled Ed Hall: “It was a great ride, but you had to know how to

ride it. You needed to get the biggest, heaviest person you knew to squeeze in next to you and keep you well anchored —and you had to remind him to keep his arms in tight. Otherwise, an elbow would jam into your ribs on the turns.” Cyclone’s passengers disembarked in front of a nursing station, where treatment was available for anyone who suffered bruised ribs or simply passed out from fright. There was one fatal accident on the Cyclone—“the result of a passenger’s carelessness,” said Hall

—but when the park finally tore the attraction down it was because more people were watching it than riding it. The following year parts of the Cyclone’s frame were incorporated into its successor, the Comet, which is still operating and regularly appears on enthusiasts’ Top 10 lists. With a track length of 4,800 feet, the Comet was for many years one of the longest rides in North America, a record which is currently held by the 7,400-foot Beast at Kings Island, near Cincinnati.

The original mania for building the biggest and the most frightening rides subsided in the Depression-ridden 1930s, but recently there has been a

boom in the construction of sleek new steel models. Marineland, in Niagara Falls, Ont., claims to have the world’s largest in its Dragon Mountain, a 5,500foot ride with four loops and an unusually long 3.2-minute trip. Equally challenging rides have sprung up at amusement parks across the continent. The Fire Dragon at Lagoon park near Salt Lake City plunges into an 87-foot drop, followed by two upside-down loops. The Mind Bender at Six Flags Over Georgia park in Atlanta has three

full-circle loops, one of them inside a gully. And besides The Beast, Kings Island, Ohio, has the seven-year-old steel Demon and King Cobra, North America’s first stand-up coaster, which propels riders down a 95-foot initial drop —right side up, sideways and upside down. At Calgary’s Calaway Park, the Turn of the Century is famous for its stomach-scrambling, corkscrew loops.

ACE members’ particular passions are as varied as their backgrounds, but the woodies still claim the loyalties of most serious enthusiasts. Said Cartmell, whose The Roller Coaster Book, a history of the rides in North America, will be published in September: “The wooden

roller coasters are, to put it simply, architectural works of art.” Cartmell, who teaches printmaking at the State University of New York at Albany, considers the bumpy old models to be “immeasurably more exciting than the steel rides, which tend to be too short and too smooth.” Liucija Ambrosini dates the resurgence of interest in woodies to 1972, when Kings Island introduced a new wooden coaster, The Racer. Since then the Ohio park has added its legendary Beast.

Fans of the woodies are encouraged that Montreal’s La Ronde, on the Expo 67 grounds, will begin construction of a double-track wooden racer, designed by Dallas’s William Cobb, this fall. Said Cobb: “Each one is different, you know, and there ain’t nothing we can’t work out if they give us enough room.” Most of ACE’S Canadian members are in Ontario, as are most of Canada’s old woodies. More than 400 members attended ACE’s July convention at Crystal Beach Park, where for five days they reminisced about the great coasters and rode the old-style rides in the area—the Comet and the Giant (built in 1916) at Crystal Beach, the Jack Rabbit (1920)

and the Bobsled (1968) at Seabreeze Park in Rochester, N.Y., and The Flyer (1953) at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

Woodie fans also give high marks to Canada’s Wonderland near Toronto because three of its four coasters are wood, including the 3,828-foot Mighty Canadian Minebuster which drops from an initial height of 103 feet and attains a maximum speed of 62 m.p.h., finishing with a banked 360-degree turn. One 70year-old Torontonian, Elfriede Metzler, said her first ride last week on Dragon Fyre, the park’s 2,160-foot looping corkscrew steel coaster, was “very interesting.” But to her, the Minebuster was still

g more exciting. Said Metzler: “It is the g noise and the sense of danger, even g though you know that it is not really z dangerous.”

Canada’s Wonderland has had no serious accidents on its rides and, like other big parks, prides itself on the thoroughness of its safety procedures. Routine precautions include yearly Xrays of cars and tracks, elaborate daily mechanical and electronic inspections, and even a team of trained checkers who walk the entire length of each woodie’s tracks every morning searching for debris or signs of trouble. Still, devotees know that a sense of danger is an essential part of the experience. As enthusiast Kehoe put it: “If I had to say what makes it so exciting, I would say it is the moment you wonder, like, ‘Am I really going to survive this?’”