The Early Rides: Lots of Thrills and Surely Some Spills

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.

The first ferris wheel

The Ferris Wheel at the Columbian Exposition

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.

Dreamland ride

Shoot the Chutes

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.

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21 Responses to The Early Rides: Lots of Thrills and Surely Some Spills

  1. When I was a child I remember going to Coney Island! I couldn’t help but think – I wonder if this SteepleChase in this climate today would be considered somehow “wrong.” THOSE were the days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Phoenicia says:

    The thought that must have gone into designing and building the Ferris Wheel. Often we take it for granted that theme parks exist without thinking about the work that goes on behind the scenes. Someone had to think about every little detail and test it before opening the ride to the public.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah Osio says:

    How thrilling~! Too bad I missed Coney Island when I went to NYC.


  4. lenie5860 says:

    I have read so many books that referred to Coney Island that it’s nice to read more about this tourist “you must visit” spot. Can you imagine women going on those rides wearing dresses but that was what we all did. Reading about the ‘Blowhole’ brought to mind Marilyn Monroe’s famous ‘blow-up?’
    Love this series Ken.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. resultize says:

    It has been always one of my dreams to go to Coney Island. Hopfully, one day it will come true 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I knew about George only because my husband is an encyclopedia of Pittsburgh tidbits. Not sure I’d have been too fond of the “blowhole.” As Lenie said–really I can’t imagine anyone going to a park dressed up!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I never been to Coney Island but I have heard that it has been around for a while. The amusement parks have definitely improved in the last 20 years we have been going for sure. It’s so interesting to see that it has evolved so much over the years. Thanks for sharing, Ken.


  8. heraldmarty says:

    Fascinating stuff. The Steeplechase park looks like fun! I have a thing about heights, and one of my earliest memories is my parents forcing me to go on a Ferris wheel ride with them and would you believe we got stuck at the top for over an hour. 😦 I still avoid rides like that and especially roller coasters.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ramonamckean says:

    Hi Ken,

    Your fascinating blog reminds me of my childhood when every summer our family went to the PNE–Pacific National Exhibition–in Vancouver. It wasn’t an amusement park but it did have a midway, which we of course visited.

    I know lots of people like the adrenaline rush that many rides have. (One person I know who’s 50 still calls himself a rides junkie.) I was never one of those. I couldn’t even manage the Ferris wheel without getting nauseous! As a teenager a guy cousin of mine and his friends forced me onto a roller coaster. As they laughed the whole ride, I closed my eyes in terror. I honestly thought I would die! I imagine I am in the minority, but then I don’t know. Just curious: Are you yourself a lover of wild rides?

    🙂 Ramona

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That steeplechase ride is just crazy 😉 It’ definitely interesting to think about how rides and various forms of amusement park entertainment have changed with the times. Though I doubt they will be able to do anything about long lines… Oh wait, people can now pay more for passes that allow them to jump the line. Go figure.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Have never visited any amusement park in the US. Correction, I did actually go to Disneyland in California when I was a teenager. As I child I loved going to amusement parks but the only time I have been anywhere near one as a grown up was when I was flying Air France from London to Victoria Falls and the plan from London was heavily delayed. So all passengers with a connecting flight was put up for the night in a hotel at Disneyland, Paris.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I still don’t understand how they could build a Ferris wheel with 36 cars which each held 60 passengers. That’s monstrous. When I was a child I visited my grandparents who lived not more than a mile from Coney Island. We’d walk there and sit on the boardwalk. Coney Island became rather decrepit over time but in recent years there has been an effort to return it to its former glory, including a new rollercoaster that’s even more hair-raising than the ones that came before.


  13. This is a wonderful post. I had seen old black and white movies about the rides you mentioned. As I mentioned on a previous one of your posts, it is a shame to see that these parks vanished. Perhaps it is the change of attitude or just the passage of time. Someday, in the future someone will make the same comment about what a shame that there is no longer a Disney World?


  14. You sure have taken us on some amazing rides in your posts, Ken. Thx for that, and thx for sharing the story of the Ferris wheel. I rode many in my youth. Not interested in doing so much any more.


  15. klagowski says:

    Wow, I’m getting vertigo just reading about those Ferris wheels! D’uh, I didn’t realize there was an actual person named Ferris for whom they were named. We have the Canadian National Exhibition here in Toronto at the end of August, which features a midway with some crazy rides. I’m scared silly of all of them! Much nicer to read about it on your blog : ))

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Andy says:

    Video commentary
    (1) The Steeplechase ride looks dangerous to me, as though you would be seriously injured (or even killed) if you fell off your horse – did that ever happen?
    (2) Two thumbs down for the Blowhole Theater: in my book, you should only embarrass people who genuinely deserve to be embarrassed, which I’m sure wasn’t the case for most of those folks. I’m just a killjoy, I guess.


    • Ken Dowell says:

      I’m assuming that most of the people who stepped into the Blowhole Theater had some idea what they were getting into. Sort of like the folks that go on daytime TV talk shows and embarrass themselves.


    • Joseph Nebus says:

      There is a Steeplechase — well, a modern version of one — at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. And while you could fall off, in principle, in practice being rather high up on a horse like that gives you pretty good motivation to hold on.

      The ride isn’t extremely fast or prone to shaking or the other things that might make you drop off. It’s about as challenging as staying on a carousel horse. So, accidents are possible, but it’s not so dangerous as you might fear.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Erica says:

    The Steeplechase Mechanical Horse ride sounds so scandalous! How funny. It is interesting to hear how these rides all originated. I’m sure that many of the ride creators would be happy to know that a version of their rides are alive and available today.

    Liked by 1 person

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