We think of roller coasters as being all-American. And in many ways they are. They are such a beloved part of our culture, amusement parks and ride fans will be celebrating National Roller Coaster Day on August 16 (don’t forget to send your favorite enthusiast a greeting card and a couple of park passes).
However, as with many things in our melting-pot country, the origins of the thrill machines can actually be tracked back to Europe. The record is a bit murky, but some historians contend that this is the 200th anniversary of the rides. There are accounts of two circa-1817 attractions in Paris that we would recognize today as roller coasters. The gravity- and people-powered rides sent passengers in wheeled carts soaring down wooden tracks.
It’s significant to note that the attractions were known as “Russian mountains.” There may have been similar coaster-like rides in France or elsewhere in Europe as early as 1799. Regardless, they were inspired by events that took place many years earlier.
“The DNA of roller coasters traces back to the mid-1600s when the Russians developed ice slides, a very simple form of gravity-powered thrills,” says Robert Coker, author of Roller Coasters: A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines and senior show writer for Super 78 Studios, an attraction design company. Riders would board sleds made out of hollowed-out ice blocks and descend timber chutes that were packed with snow and ice. The Russian ice slides were popular among the aristocracy, including Catherine the Great who commissioned one of her own.
To this day, roller coasters are known generically in many countries as “Russian mountains.” Interestingly, the Russians refer to coasters as “American mountains.” Go figure.
The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad, generally regarded as the first coaster in the USA, wasn’t really a coaster. In 1873, enterprising folks repurposed a coal mining train in Pennsylvania and used it to send passengers hurtling down a mountain for the sheer thrills. According to some records, mules would take the journey aboard the runaway train and then haul it back up the mountain.
The country’s first…