History of Roller Coasters: The Switchback Railway, America’s First Roller Coaster

Posted by Staff on Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Switchback Railway Coney Island 1884

The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway of Pennsylvania was America’s first roller coaster-type ride, but it was not intentionally designed for that purpose. The nine-mile stretch of downhill railway was designed to carry coal out of the mountains, and did so until curious onlookers decided that the coal was having all the fun. While the Mauch Chunk Railway grew in popularity as an exciting new ride, America’s first roller coaster appeared at Coney Island in 1884. It was this roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, that sparked the first wave of roller coaster mania in the United States, also known as the Golden Age of roller coasters.

The man that brought the Switchback Railway to Coney Island was the inventor LaMarcus Adna Thompson. As a mechanically gifted young man, he had pursued a number of business ventures, but after a ride on the Mauch Chunk Railway, his imagination was swept in the direction of roller coasters. Much of the design work had already been completed in 1878 by another inventor, Richard Knudsen. Knudsen had taken out a patent for his version of the gravity roller coaster, called the “Inclined Plane Railway” but never actually built the thing; so Thompson just picked up right where he left off.

Richard Knudsen Patent for Incline Plane Railway

The Switchback Railway that debuted at Coney Island on June 13, 1884 looked very much like Knudsen’s design. It consisted of two parallel descending wooden tracks, each descending in the opposite direction. The ride functioned in a very similar manner to the Russian ice slides, where one slide delivered riders to the bottom of a tower which they would climb up and then slide back to where they started. Similarly, riders of the Switchback Railway had to get off their car once the ride’s momentum petered out and walk up to the top of the second 50-foot tower. This step of the ride was no hindrance to the Switchback Railway’s instant success. The ride became tremendously popular, bringing in an average of $600 per day, at a nickel a ride. Within three weeks, the ride had paid for itself.

Switchback Railway Coney Island 1884

Switchback Railway with older bench seat in background

Though immediately successful, the initial car design was slightly awkward. Rather than designing seats that faced forward, as we are accustomed to, benches were mounted on the cars inline with the track. These were soon changed to the more practical forward facing cars, which also gave Thompson’s profits a little bump, as he could now fit more passengers on one car.

It’s hard to image now that such a simple and short ride could have once been so popular. This early roller coaster only had a top speed of 6 mph and lasted just one minute. Yet, it was the first of its kind and audiences were thrilled not only by the novelty of coasting, but the whole atmosphere of roller coaster one-upmanship that was launched by this one ride. Until the Great Depression, roller coasters around the country challenged the limits of speed, height, turns, and drops. Even today, roller coasters that send riders through corkscrews or down frightening vertical drops can trace their origin back to a clunky wooden car coasting at 6 mph down a mild slope.


PBS: American Experience

Britannica Online: Roller Coaster Biographies

Coney Island Roller Coasters

2 responses to “History of Roller Coasters: The Switchback Railway, America’s First Roller Coaster”

  1. I wrote an illustrated article about the history of roller coasters from 1870 – 1886 where I found 50 roller coasters. Taylor build the first coasetr in the Baltimore area in 1870. His others could be found at Savin Rock and Rocky Point. La Marcus Thompson built one in New Orleans in 1883 before coming to Coney Island. Five were build that summer, several opening before his. Wood’s circualr railway was there and Wood had built several even earlier. I’ve been trying to get roller coaster historians to update their articles since I’m tried hearing that La Marcus Thompson built the first one in America in 1884.

  2. […] LaMarcus Adna Thompson who got the “gravity pleasure ride” business out of the blocks: his Switchback Railway, constructed at Coney Island in 1884, paid for itself in just three weeks, charging a nickel a […]

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