How Coney Island Gave Us the First Roller Coasters

It’s not nearly enough well known that Coney Island was the birthplace of the roller coaster, forgotten mostly because Coney Island amusement parks started being eclipsed by larger, newer ones around the country in the 1950s and 60s. But facts are facts, so I do my part in getting the word out. Here are some of the notable, pathbreaking roller coasters at Coney Island.

The Switchback Railway (1884) at Coney Island was the first roller coaster in the world. There was much that was different about it. Passengers sat sideways. It only went one way. And it was powered strictly by gravity: you were toted to the top of the first hill (by people!), and you coasted until you stopped. Other early ones included the Serpentine Railway (1885), which was the first one to take you on a complete loop to your starting place, and the Oval Coaster (1885), the first one that used a mechanism to take you to the top of the first hill. Both of these coasters worked on the gravity principal as well.

Elephant Scenic Railway (Circa 1886-1896)

A coaster that wrapped around the notorious Elephant Hotel three times. Try getting a night’s rest with screaming passengers outside your window. Burned down with the hotel in 1896.

Loop the Loop (Sea Lion Park) 1901-1910

This was the first SAFE roller coaster with a loop (it had been preceded by the Flip Flap Railway, 1895-1902, at the same park, but it sounds like that one gave ya whiplash). The Loop the Loop sounds pretty dangerous too — only centrifugal force kept your car on the tracks as you went around. Another dangerous sounding one was the Cannon Coaster (1902-1907), on which the car literally jumped over a gap like Evel Knievel. It sounds like they never worked out the kinks in that one. Yipes.

Giant Roller Coaster 

This one was billed at the time as the longest coaster ever built (6,150 feet). It was originally at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, then installed at Brighton Beach circa 1907.

Chase Through the Clouds (1910-1919) a.k.a Mile Sky Chaser (1923-1944)

This one had originally been known s “Chase Through the Clouds” and was located in Brighton Beach until moved to Luna Park following a fire, and given a new name.

Scenic Spiral Wheel, a.k.a The Top (1917-1920)

You often see this impressive looking experiment in old film footage. While your car went around the tracks the entire structure was moving too, in the manner of a child’s top.

Big Dipper a.k.a. the Wild Cat a.k.a the Comet (1921-1945)

We now enter the era of classic roller coasters, when several were built that we would today recognize as modern, fast, high, electrically operated roller coasters. This one went up on the site of the old Switchback Railway, roughly where the NY Aquarium parking lot now is. Its name changed several times over the years.

The Thunderbolt (1925-82)

This one is famous for being depicted in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (it’s the one with the house underneath). After it burned and closed in 1982, its rusted out hulk was a beloved landmark in Coney Island for 20 years until torn down to make way for the baseball stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones now play.

The Limit (1925-1934) later incorporated into the Bobsled (1941-1974)

The Tornado a.k.a The Bobs (1926-1977)

The Cyclone (1927-present)

The only one of the classic coasters still standing. Take a ride on it today!

The Jumbo Jet (1973-2003)

The was one of the few new rides to go up at Coney in the late 20th century. It was still running until 2003. I didn’t remember it (since I never rode it) until I saw this photo!

The history continues. Several new roller coaster rides have opened in the new Luna Park since 2010. Learn about them here.

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