Today In History: America’s First Roller Coaster Opens

June 16, 2017 | Matt

Today in 1884, America’s first roller coaster opened to the public. The roller coaster was called a “switchback railway” at the time, invented by LaMarcus Thompson. It opened on Coney Island in New York and cost a nickel to ride, reaching blistering speeds of up to six miles per hour.

It was a hit. In the coming decades, switchback railways would proliferate across the country. They are now an institution.

Coney Island is famous as a recreation spot for New York residents, who would travel to the small tract of land along the Atlantic ocean on sunny days to enjoy carnival attractions. Coney Island’s first hotel opened in 1829. It saw its heyday in the early 20th century, boasting three different amusement parks – Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase. Coney Island was connected to the city by subway in the 1920’s, making it boom in popularity.

Coney Island boast not only the country’s first roller coaster, but also the esteem of allegedly being the birthplace of the hot dog. Hot dogs may have been first made by a man named Charles Feltman in 1867, but it wasn’t until 1916 that Coney Island had its first hot dog stand, Nathan’s. The Nathan’s stand was operated by one of Feltman’s previous employees. Nathan’s is now most famous for staging hot dog eating contests.

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While Coney Island boomed in the 1920’s, it fell somewhat into disuse during the Great Depression and ensuing World War. The old-style amusement park would prove to be largely a thing of the past. When Disneyland opened in 1955, it signaled the end of amusement parks and the rise of larger, more sophisticated theme parks. Disneyland also revitalized American interest in roller coasters.

A kind of arms race ensued, with many theme parks attempting to one-up each other in terms of how high, fast and loopy they could make their coasters.

Coney Island couldn’t keep up. All of its parks had shuttered by the middle of the 1960s. It’s still an attraction, though, and you can still ride a coaster if you go. The Cyclone, a wooden roller coaster built in 1927, is still in operation.

The Island may enjoy a resurgence in popularity in the coming years. A real estate developer has announced that they are constructing a lavish resort on the Island, as well as a 4,000-foot-long roller coaster, among other attractions. Even so, the Coaster isn’t planning on shutting down any time soon.

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