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10 Roller Coasters That Changed America

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joyrides.com

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

Joyrides.com

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.

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Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD
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History
Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star
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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

As a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Dr. Dori Ann Bischmann loved exploring her parents' attic. One day in the early 1970s, she discovered a mysterious trunk that piqued her curiosity.

Inside, there was some children's china, an antique baby doll, a beaded hat and bag from the 1920s, and an old scrapbook. The book had a picture of two puppies on the cover.

But the images between the covers weren't as cuddly as advertised.

Dori had found the scrapbook of her great aunt, Agnes Schwarzenbacher, also known as Agnes Higginbotham and Agnes Schmidt—but more famously as Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady. On the inside cover of the book a title marked in pen read, "Scrapbook of Show Life."

The newspaper clippings, photos, and signed pitch cards (promotional postcards featuring individual performers) that filled nearly 90 pages gave Dori a glimpse into the life of one of the sideshow's biggest stars of the 1930s. It also unlocked a family secret.

Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori had never met her aunt, who passed away in 1962. Nor had she ever heard about how Agnes drew crowds to watch her exhibit the excessive, elastic skin that covered her legs. Agnes could stretch the rubbery flesh anywhere from 15 to 30 inches, although from the waist up she looked completely normal. There are no reports of a diagnosis, but she may have had a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Agnes, who was born in 1902 in Germany and came to America three years later, had shared her unusual skin on stages across the continent. In Toronto, she even performed before royalty. In one of the scrapbook's clippings, she spoke of the event as being one of the greatest thrills of her life on the road: "The audience was a very distinguished one and most famous of all was the Crown Prince of England, now the Duke of Windsor. I was most thrilled when he applauded vigorously."

With each turn of the book's pages, Dori encountered many of the extraordinary people Agnes performed with, particularly at the Ripley's Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the time, Robert Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon was extremely popular, and the Odditorium was the first public exhibition of unique performers and curiosities Ripley had gathered during his travels around the world. More than 2 million people visited his collection at the World's Fair and witnessed live acts like Agnes.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Top: Crowd gathered at an oddity show capitalizing off Ripley’s success at the World’s Fair. Bottom: Agnes is featured in a newspaper clipping, between two photos of unknown performers.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori was enthralled with her discovery. "I have always been fascinated with people who are unique," she tells Mental Floss. Today, she works as a psychologist and often counsels people who have genetic disorders.

"I see a lot of amazing people overcoming many hurdles," she says. "At the same time I see people who are depressed. I wonder how all of the circus freaks felt on the inside. Were they hurting and depressed and putting on a show outwardly? Or did they find contentment in giving something of themselves to help others?"

While it's hard to know exactly how Agnes felt, there are glimpses in some of the scrapbook's clippings.

"I would like very much to be normal in every respect," Agnes says in one newspaper article. "Don't misunderstand me. I said I would like to, but simply because my skin is rubber doesn't mean that I have become morbid. Far from it. I am, perhaps, one of the most pleasant persons you ever met. And why shouldn't I be? I don't consider myself seriously handicapped. I realize that my skin when stretched isn't exactly normal, but I don't allow the presence of such skin on my body to make me self-conscious."

A page of promotional images from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
A collection of performers from the 1933 World’s Fair, and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Indeed, Agnes's skin ailment proved to be quite profitable—several articles in the scrapbook claimed that "The salary paid her is the highest ever paid a freak." No numbers are given, and like many sideshow claims, this may have been an exaggeration. But many sideshow performers were paid well, especially for the Great Depression.

"She used a circumstance she was born into to become an independent woman with a high-paying career (for the day)," Dori says. "She traveled and experienced many things other women might not have been able to experience."

Photos of Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her family
Top: A photo featuring Agnes Schwarzenbacher with her father and siblings: Mary, John, Rose, and Carl. Below: A portrait of Agnes dated 1926.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

The Schwarzenbachers, however, weren't as self-confident as Agnes. Her family would have preferred that she covered her legs with long dresses and kept her anomaly to herself. They wanted nothing to do with her performances.

"The family was embarrassed that she was in the circus," Dori says. "I was also told that Agnes went to doctors to see if the tissue could be cut off. Apparently they couldn't in those days because it was too vascularized." (In other words, the tissue was too filled with blood vessels.)

The family's shame lasted well after Agnes's death. The scrapbook had originally been stored in Dori's grandparents' attic. When her grandmother passed away, no one in the family wanted the book except for Dori's mother, who had married Agnes's nephew.

"My mother was a person who was accepting of all people," Dori said. "She wasn't embarrassed about Agnes. She thought it was a shame that Agnes's flesh and blood did not want her scrapbook. The scrapbook is the story of Agnes's circus years, but also of her family."

Of course, it wasn't unusual for people born with anomalies to be treated in such ways. The sideshow, which had its heyday from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, offered them a rare chance to escape a life of seclusion, earn a living, see the world, and—perhaps most importantly—to enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

In a 1959 article from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, longtime showman Dick Best expanded on this thought more colorfully: "For the past thirty years I have been able to give employment to scores of [sideshow performers], give them financial independence, and companionship. You realize this when you see a mule-faced girl, a guy with three legs, and a girl weighing 500 pounds playing poker with a guy who shuffles and deals with his toes. In a crowd like that nobody sits around feeling sorry for himself or anybody else. You could be accepted there if you had nine arms and ten heads."

The "mule-faced girl" that Best referred to was Grace McDaniels, who Agnes worked with and featured in her album. McDaniels was afflicted with a condition that caused tumors to grow on her lips and mouth. In addition to being called "mule-faced," she was also billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World. Agnes's photos show her with McDaniel's teenage son, Elmer, who traveled with her.

The "guy with three legs," as Best called him, also appears in the scrapbook. His name was Francesco Lentini, billed as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had four feet, and two sets of genitalia.

Agnes's friend Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder, is featured more prominently. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Pushnik had only small stumps at her shoulders and thighs, with which she learned to sew, crochet, write, and type. At the age of 10 she joined the Rubber Skin Lady at the Chicago Odditorium during the World's Fair. In addition to having collected several of Frieda's pitch cards, Agnes also had personal photos. One of these captures another companion, a dwarf named Lillie McGregor, holding little Frieda. Without legs, Frieda is about half the size of Lillie.

Lillie appears in other photographs with her husband, Harry. They are each seen pulling a person in a wagon with their eyelids. Agnes even saved the Ripley's cartoon that illustrated the stunt.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Spread of newspaper clippings, including articles about Agnes and a Believe It Or Not cartoon starring her friends Lillie and Harry McGregor, who could pull each other in a wagon with their eyelids.
Dori Ann Bischmann PhD

Lillie McGregor pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Lillie McGregor, a friend of Agnes, pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

While Agnes's adventures in show life surrounded her with many kinds of unique people, one photo is of a man who shared a similar ailment. Arthur Loos, the Rubber-Skinned Man, had skin that hung loose beneath his chin, much like a basset hound's. He could stretch the flesh 8 inches. If they bonded over their sagging skin, Agnes made no mention of it in the scrapbook.

The man she did bond with was not a performer in the sideshow at all. He was a foreman who operated rides at a fair, a man named Jack Higginbotham. Their marriage is mentioned in one of the book's clippings, which states they were wed in Rockford, Illinois. However, the Rubber Skin Lady's love story was a mere subhead to another sideshow romance that earned the paper's headline: "Bearded Lady and ‘Elephant Man' on Midway are Newlyweds."

Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her husband
Agnes with her husband, Jack Higginbotham.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Although her family may have stayed far away from the sideshow stage, Agnes kept them all close. Photos of her with her father, brothers, sisters, and other family members populate numerous pages of the scrapbook.

Had Dori only seen these particular family photos, with her aunt's dresses covering her legs, she would have never known Agnes was different in any way—or what an amazing story she had to tell.

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Michael Fountaine
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12 Amazing Items From the World’s Largest McDonald’s Memorabilia Collection
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Michael Fountaine

Since 1969, Michael Fountaine has been obsessively collecting every piece of McDonald’s memorabilia he can get his hands on. His collection, which he says is valued “in the millions of dollars,” features 75,000 pieces in total.

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