Roller Coasters in the U.S.

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

In 1884 a preacher LaMarcus A. Thompson decided to build a new ride at New York's Coney Island to divert attention away from the local beer gardens. He built two parallel tracks, with individual cars that climbed 15 feet and zoomed by at 4 miles per hour. The plan worked despite the ride's relatively meager design. People swarmed to Coney Island to both ride and watch Thompson's "inclined-plane railway." Charging a nickel a ride, Thompson paid for the entire project in just three weeks. And by 1888 he built nearly 50 roller coasters in the United States and Europe.

"Thompson recognized and exploited all the ingredients of a successful amusement ride," writes Judith A. Adams in her book The American Amusement Park Industry. "His coasters combined an appearance of danger with actual safety, thrilled riders with exhilarating speed, and allowed the public to intimately experience the Industrial Revolution's new technologies of gears, steel, and dazzling electric lights."

Thompson's ride also caught the attention of other entrepreneurs. To draw crowds they advertised improvements like larger hills, chain lifts and oval tracks. By 1900 there were hundreds of roller coasters across the country.

The roller coaster continued to flourish through the 1920s. As speeds increased so did the need for safety features like under track wheels, lap bars and no standing signs. But the Great Depression and World War II diverted the public's attention away from amusement parks. Money for entertainment was scarce, and the war placed strict rationing on wood and rubber.

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