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10 Roller Coasters That Changed America

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Although a European invention, roller coasters have been an all-American obsession ever since the first one appeared on these shores 130 years ago. Today, there are more than 650 working coasters in the United States. America, it seems, is the land of the free and the home of the adrenaline junkie.

“People love the thrill of feeling on the edge or even out of control, yet they also need the security of remaining safe,” says Robert Niles, founder and editor of the website Theme Park Insider. “Roller coasters offer a rare chance to enjoy both at the same time.”

But American coasters weren’t always scream machines. They evolved over time, with specific coasters paving the way for those that followed. Ten rides in particular show how coasters in the United States went from humble beginnings to the towering speed demons of today, changing the way thrill-seeking Americans get their kicks.

1. Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway

Wikimedia Commons

Location: Mauch Chunk, Pa.
Year it opened: 1827

The founding father of roller coasters was actually a working railway built to transport anthracite in Pennsylvania’s coal country. A “gravity railway,” it was powered only by pack mules that pulled it up the steep inclines. Downhill momentum took care of the rest. Word of the exhilarating ride spread, and soon the railway was accepting paying passengers who rode just for the thrill of it. It eventually became one of the biggest tourist attractions in America, spending its last five decades in service solely as a source of amusement.

2. Switchback Railway

Wikimedia Commons

Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1884
In 1884, inventor and businessman LaMarcus Adna Thompson constructed his own version of Mauch Chunk’s Switchback Railway at Coney Island. Riders climbed to the top of a wooden tower and boarded a cart affixed to a length of track. With a mighty push, they were sent down a hill and over a series of bumps to the other end of the track. It was the first gravity railway in the country built expressly for the purpose of entertainment, thus becoming America’s first roller coaster.

3. Gravity Pleasure (also known as the Oval Coaster)

Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1885

Ever get goose bumps when ascending a coaster’s first big hill? Ever thrill to the sound of the clanking lift chain as it pulled you higher? If so, you have Phillip Hinkle to thank. A year after the Switchback Railway’s debut, Hinkle got the bright idea to use a powered chain to carry cars to the top of the hill, rather than have riders climb there themselves. This development boosted speed, efficiency and, best of all, profits. Roller coaster designers never looked back.

4. The Flip Flap Railway

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Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1895
The Flip Flap Railway went where no American roller coaster had gone before — upside down. Two-person cars were sent careening down a hill and through a circular loop. The shape of the loop, though, was rough on passengers, causing discomfort, whiplash and other neck injuries. And although the Flip Flap spawned many imitators, owners soon discovered that people preferred to watch others go topsy-turvy rather than suffer through the experience themselves. With unprofitability, the fad soon faded, although not without first proving that coasters could draw riders and spectators in equal measure.

5. Drop the Dip

Location: Coney Island, N.Y.
Year it opened: 1907

Coney Island History Project

For more than two decades, roller coaster riders were kept in their seats with either thin chains, leather straps or, startlingly, nothing at all. That all changed when Drop the Dip made its debut. Featuring steep drops and sharp turns, it was a far cry from the relatively genteel coasters of the late 1800s. All those hills and angles required a better way of keeping passengers from flying out of the cars. Lo and behold, the lap bar was born. This new safety restraint allowed future roller coasters to go faster and higher.

6. The Cyclone

Revere Society for Cultural and Historical Preservation, Inc.

Location: Revere Beach, Revere, Mass.
Year it opened: 1925

When faced with the words “The Cyclone,” most people rightfully think of the one in Coney Island, which opened in 1927 and still thrills riders today. Yet, for historical purposes, it’s trumped by a Cyclone built two years earlier and more than 200 miles to the north. This other Cyclone is notable for being the first roller coaster to reach 100 feet in height, pointing the way for future skyscraping amusements. It held the title of world’s tallest coaster until 1964. Not bad for a ride eclipsed in history by its Coney Island cousin.

7. Matterhorn Bobsleds

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Location: Disneyland, Anaheim, Calif.
Year it opened: 1959

Walt Disney’s namesake park set the standard by which all others are judged. And when Disney got the idea to send riders careening through an ersatz Matterhorn mountain, it prompted another breakthrough — tubular steel tracks. At the time, coaster cars traveled on flat tracks, which limited the degree of turns and sacrificed smoothness. Seeking to replicate the feel of a toboggan ride, Disney had his Imagineers devise a new kind of track using tubes of steel. The result was a smoother trip, tighter twists and a design that changed the industry.

8. The Corkscrew

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Location: Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, Calif.
Year it opened: 1975

After the Flip Flap Railway and its ilk vanished, Americans had to wait 80 years before a roller coaster could safely flip them head over heels. The coaster to claim that territory was the Corkscrew, which had the audacity to go upside down not once, but twice. Imitators quickly followed, and soon roller coasters across the country were giving riders a head rush.

9. The Beast

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Location: King’s Island, Mason, Ohio
Year it opened: 1979

When it debuted, the aptly named Beast was the tallest, longest and fastest wooden coaster in the world. It was also the first roller coaster marketed to a mass audience. An unprecedented publicity blitz heralded its arrival, featuring magazine pieces, reports on news programs and, unheard of at the time, TV commercials. The Beast became an overnight celebrity. Everyone knew about it, and everyone wanted to take it for a ride. After that, the commercialization of giant coasters became the norm.

10. Top Thrill Dragster

Wikimedia Commons

Location: Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
Year it opened: 2003

Ever since the Cyclone topped the 100-foot mark, American roller coasters have only crept higher, spawning names for every new elevation reached. Hyper coaster. Giga coaster. And, with the record-shattering Top Thrill Dragster, strata coaster. Blasting riders up and over a 420-foot hill at a top speed of 120 mph, it was a new kind of ride for a new millennium. Bigger, faster, more extreme. Although it’s no longer the tallest or the fastest, Dragster pointed roller coasters in a new direction — straight up.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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