10 Roller Coasters That Changed America

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

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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

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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

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

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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.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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