We've got another great excerpt from our latest effort In the Beginning for you. There are just 12 more days before it hits stands. Anyone salivating yet?
Every story's got its ups and downs. This one just has more than most.
You Must Be This Tall to Read
Although purely a pleasure today, the roller coasters of American roots are actually steeped in practicality. In 1827, a mining entrepreneur named Josiah White started looking for a way to bring tons of valuable coal off the high mountainsides of western Pennsylvania. Rather than wasting time while individual miners carted the stuff down by hand, White opted to build a rail line that connected the top of the mountain to the river landing in the valley below. Each day, mules hauled empty cars uphill where they were loaded with upward of 50,000 pounds of coal. Then, White let gravity take control, releasing the cars, in groups of seven, down the railway with only a hardy (and, perhaps, insane) "runner" to control the brake lever. This solution, ludicrous as it sounds, apparently worked well for nearly 50 years. Better yet, besides helping White's company load and ship more coal, it also provided a steady secondary income as a tourist attraction.
Before long, coal was being hauled on the railway in the morning, while thrill-seeking passengers occupied the afternoon runs—at the equivalent of $8.15 a head. When a tunnel through the mountain made the railway obsolete for coal-hauling in 1872, White gave it over completely to the joy riders, charging more than $15 in modern currency for one person to take an 80-minute ride up and down the mountain. In 1873, 35,000 people were reported to have ridden. While White introduced the illicit thrill of the roller coaster to the United States and invented the safety catch that prevents cars from rolling backward while going uphill, it was the amusement parks at Coney Island that eventually made the roller coaster famous.
The truth is, many of the great amusement parks began life as money-making schemes concocted by trolley companies tired of seeing profits droop on weekends and holidays. Located at the end of the line, the parks gave people a reason to travel even on the laziest of days. Coney Island, on the Brooklyn seashore, featured competing theme parks owned by several different trolley companies. It was here, in 1884, that a former Sunday school teacher named La Marcus Thompson opened the ride that would get him christened "Father of the Gravity Ride." Unfortunately, Thompson's ride wasn't very exciting by modern standards, being little more than a leisurely ride down a 600-foot-long stretch of beach at a less-than-heart-stopping 6 mph. Lucky for him, the Victorians were easily amused. In just three weeks, Thompson made enough to cover his initial investment of $1,600,more than $31,000 today.
Russian Ice Coasters
While we can certainly credit Josiah White with the American roller coaster phenomenon, the act had already been playing in Europe for several decades— all thanks to fun-loving Russians. In the 17th century, Russians began taking advantage of their long, cold winters by building five-story toboggan tracks out of wood, coating them with ice, and charging adventurous souls to ride down the track on a sled, also made of ice. At an angle of 50 degrees, one imagines that these rides were fairly dangerous. They were also immensely popular. Catherine the Great supposedly had private ice slides built near her palace and, in 1804, the concept (sans ice, plus wheels) was imported to France under the name The Russian Mountains.
In the Beginning goes on sale November 1st, and will be available at (respectable) bookstores everywhere!