The History of Roller Coasters: The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway

Posted by Staff on Saturday, October 8th, 2011

Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway

While the first European roller coasters were inspired by the Russian ice slides, American roller coasters gathered inspiration from the first railroads. One railway in particular, the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway of Pennsylvania, became America’s first roller coaster-like ride. Built for the purpose of transporting coal from Summit Hill mine to coal chutes on the Lehigh River, the Mauch Chunk Railway (MCR) proved to be an exciting and scenic ride for passengers as well. It was the exciting downhill ride of this railway that would inspire the first roller coasters at Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

The MCR, the second railway built in the US, first started running coal down the mountain in 1827 using only gravity to move the cars. The 9-mile trip took only half an hour, while the trip back up the mountain, which relied on mules for power, took four hours. Railways were a novelty in the US at this point in time, so the MCR attracted quite a few tourists to the area. At first, they came to see the cars in action, but before long, cars were carrying passengers down the scenic mountain route. In the morning, the cars were reserved for coal, but the afternoon was dedicated to pleasure rides for the public; though only a couple of trips could be made per day considering the 4.5 hours it took to make the round trip. With the introduction in 1846 of a second ‘up track’ that employed a steam powered cable system to haul trains up the mountain, the roundtrip time was reduced to just 80 minutes and allowed a much greater number of passengers to ride the railway. At this time, the railway became known as the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill, and Switchback Railroad.

Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway

In 1872, the Mauch Chunk Railway discontinued its coal runs, which were now accomplished by the more efficient Panther Creek Railroad through the Hauto Tunnel. The railway now ran entirely as a passenger ride and carried over 35,000 riders annually under ownership of the Central Railway of New Jersey (CNJ). During this period of the railway’s history, it became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the US. The thrill of coasting down a mountain, plus the striking views of the Lehigh River and Blue Ridge Mountains, brought crowds in from across New England, including the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Edison. In 1929, CNJ sold the railway to the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway Company, who, due to declining tourism and the Depression, only managed to keep it in operation for a few more years before the property fell into foreclosure and the railway was sold as scrap metal.

Not only did the railway serve as inspiration for the amusement park roller coasters that would become popular in the late 1800s, but directly contributed to roller coaster safety. The upward section of the railway was equipped with an early anti-rollback device on the bottom of the car that later evolved into a crucial safety feature on all roller coasters. This ratcheting device became the “safety dog” system which we all recognize as the “clink clink” sound as the cars head up a lift hill. Although the MCR was dismantled in the 1930s, the land has been maintained by Pennsylvania’s Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and hikers can walk along the same 18-mile loop that the railway once covered.

Sources:

The Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation

The Mauch Chunk Historical Society

Ultimate Roller Coaster: Early Years in America

One response to “The History of Roller Coasters: The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railway”

  1. maddy says:

    i have one question is the mauch back railway the same as the first switch back railway…………….. please tell me email me at mfchetek@gmail.com

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