The first primitive version of a roller coaster called the "Flying Mountain" emerged in Russia in the 1400's. Americans encountered their first taste of a roller coaster-like thrill ride in 1827 when Josiah White constructed the Mauch Chunk Railway, better known as the Gravity Road. The Gravity Road came to be a thrill ride by accident since its original purpose was to transport coal 9 miles downhill to the town of Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania. Soon the run became a public attraction with crowds paying 50 cents for a ride (the coaster still delivered coal in the morning). The first modern roller coasters were developed at Coney Island in 1884 by Le Marcus Thompson, who had drawn inspiration from a ride on the Mauch Chunk railway. The coaster was called a switch back and provided more of a scenic tour than a thrilling ride, going only 6 mph. Thompson's $1,600 coaster, however, paid for itself in only 3 weeks! Within months, Thompson had many competitors in the coaster business. Amusement parks and roller coasters flourished throughout the beginning of the 20th century but the Depression caused a rapid decline in the number of parks and coasters. Coaster interest was revitalized thanks to the imaginative mind of Walt Disney. In 1955 Disney commissioned Arrow Development Center to create the very first steel coaster. Not only was Disney responsible for the first steel coaster, but he also developed the very first theme park. Disney pioneered the way for the theme park entrepreneurs who created parks like Six Flags and Busch Gardens. Today theme parks remain the center for roller coaster action where coaster speeds can reach over 80 miles per hour and inversions have become practically necessary.
The Coasters of Glen Echo.
Beginning in the late 19th century trolley companies began constructing trolley parks at the end of lines to attract evening and weekend travelers. Glen Echo opened as an amusement park in 1898 and closed in 1968. During that 70 year period the park was home to 7 different coasters: the Scenic Railway, the Hydraulic Dive, the Dip, the Gravity Railway, the Derby Racer, Coaster Dips and the Comet Jr. Undoubtedly the best known and most frequently remembered ride is Coaster Dips. The ride opened in May of 1921 and was designed by Frank Moore. In an article from the January, 1981 issue of Coaster World the ride is described enticingly, "As the daytime passengers ascend the 72 feet, they were afforded a beautiful view of the Potomac River and its Virginia shore while evening riders were treated to a sight nearly impossible to describe: the mists rising from the river and mingling with the Sycamore trees on the shore." The coaster drew thousands of visitors to the park and it is even said the ride was frequented by later president Richard Nixon and his two daughters. Unfortunately Glen Echo Park closed in 1968 and the following year Coaster Dips was torn down and burned to the dismay of many park enthusiasts.