One of the things that differentiated the burgeoning amusement park business of the late 19th century from predecessors like fairs and pleasure gardens were mechanical rides. Mechanics, engineers, bridge builders and architects began to think about the science of amusement. Some of the designs they created would become iconic, the basis for decades and decades of amusement park attractions. Others were things we will never see the likes of again.
When the renowned architect Daniel H. Burnham put together the group of engineers who would be responsible for building out the grounds and attractions for the great World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he told the group “make no little plans.” In fact he went further and urged them to trump the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of the Paris World Exposition in 1889.
George Ferris, a bridge builder from Pittsburgh, thought he had the answer. And his structure would soon bear his name, the Ferris Wheel. There were 36 cars which each held 60 passengers. For 50 cents you could hop on board and go for a ride that included two complete revolutions and lasted about 20 minutes.
While the Chicago Ferris Wheel is widely acclaimed as the first of its kind, it wasn’t actually the first of this type of attraction. Back in 1867, Isaac Newton Forrester received the first patent for a ferris wheel type of ride. He produced the Epicycloidal Diversion which he built near the beach at Mississippi Avenue in Atlantic City. Forrester’s wheel was actually four wheels, 30 feet high, and mounted on a revolving platform that stood 10 feet off the ground. From the descriptions it was like riding a small ferris wheel mounted onto a merry-go-round. Each of the wheels had two cars that held eight passengers each.
Another patent for a similar type contraption was issued in 1893 to William “Pop” Somers based on the Roundabout that he had installed in Atlantic City two years earlier. One of his early customers was George Ferris. Did the Roundabout inspire the Ferris Wheel? Somers thought so and he in fact sued Ferris for patent infringement. The suit was eventually tossed out because Ferris used different material (metal instead of wood) and the Ferris Wheel was significantly larger. But that didn’t stop Somers from building a Roundabout right next door to the Chicago fairgrounds. He later added another one in Asbury Park.
Coney Island has always been known for roller coasters so it is not surprising that Brooklyn claims the first. The Switchback Railway was built in 1894 by LeMarcus Adna Thompson. Its design was based on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, a working coal train in eastern Pennsylvania. The operators of the Mauch Chunk converted the old coal train into a passenger tourist attraction in 1870. In the Coney Island version, passengers paying five cents would get on a bench like seat and hurtle from one tower to another. At the second tower they would switch to a parallel track (hence the name ‘Switchback’) for the return ride.
Another of the standards of the modern day amusement park, the Log Flume, had its origins in the 19th century as well. J.P. Newburg built the first Shoot the Chutes ride in 1884 in Watchtower Park in Rock Island, Ill. Newburg’s ride featured flat bottomed boats that slid down a 500-foot-long greased wooden track and into a lake. A decade later a Shoot the Chutes ride was the centerpiece of Paul Boynton’s Water Chutes which opened in Chicago. Boynton’s park was noteworthy as the first amusement park that was based solely on mechanical attractions. Boynton built another Shoot the Chutes ride two years later at Sea Lion Park in Coney Island. There is a Shoot the Chutes ride that was built in 1927 and is still in operation at Lake Winnepesaukah Amusement Park near Chattanooga, Tenn.
By the turn of the century, Coney Island had clearly established itself as the center of amusement park innovation. It was also the place to push the boundaries of 19th century behavioral standards. Nowhere was this more evident than in Steeplechase Park which lasted from 1897 to 1964. The signature ride was of course the Steeplechase. It consisted a set of four rows of horses that would race around the park on steel tracks. Propulsion was by gravity so the bigger riders generated the most speed. Often the riders were couples with the woman in front. Upon exiting the Steeplechase, riders were routed through a stage area called the Blowhole Theater? Why blowhole you might ask? Because it was through those holes that gusts of air shot up to lift the female riders dresses and skirts. Not far from the Blowhole Theater was another attraction called the Human Pool Table, the main purpose of which was apparently to generate a little physical contact between riders. Steeplechase Park was obviously the place to bring a date.
At neighboring Sea Lion Park, the marquee attraction was the Trip to the Moon. Sixty passengers could fit on the cylinder-shaped space vehicle. As it got cranked up it would start to vibrate and its wings would flap. Looking out the windows the painted scenery would get smaller and smaller until there was only lights and a globe. But the real action started upon the moon landing. Passengers got to see midgets singing “My Sweetheart the Man in the Moon,” passed through stalactite caverns and into the throne room where sat the man in the moon himself.
Modern amusement park goers are accustomed to being dropped off into the gift shop. If you took the Trip to the Moon you were exited into the green cheese room where moon maidens were offering samples. Among those who enjoyed this attraction were Thomas Edison and President William McKinley.