In 1884, La Marcus A. Thompson debuted his famous roller coaster at Coney Island – the Gravity Pleasure Switch Back Railway – commonly believed to be the first roller coaster. This common belief is just a myth. While Thompson’s Switchback brought roller coasters into the cultural zeitgeist, there were roller coasters which existed in prior years.
Let’s take a look at the roller coasters which existed in 1883.
Tri-State Fair Roller Coaster at Toledo, Ohio
The earliest roller coaster of 1883 found to date, was a circular gravity coaster which operated at the Tri-State Fair. This roller coaster was designed by Alanson Wood, of Toledo, Ohio. Wood filed for a patent for his design on August 8, 1883, which was approved and patented on January 1, 1884.
An article in The Minnesota Tribune, August 5, 1884, said of Alanson Wood:
In the winter of 1882 and 1883, Alanson Wood of Toledo, Ohio, conceived the idea, from seeing the boys consisting on double runners, of an invention by which the same sort of sport might be indulged in the summer as well as winter. With this in mind, he began the erection of the first roller coaster, a machine 400 feet in circumference, and 20 feet high at the highest point.
“The Gravity Railway.” The Minnesota Tribune. August 5, 1884, page 5.
Alanson Wood sold half of his patent, while it was still pending, to Joseph A. Cahoon, who also lived in Toledo. Cahoon began advertising these roller coasters – Philo M. Stevens, also of Toledo, ended up becoming involved with Cahoon. Stevens built several of these roller coasters, including this one at the Tri-State Fair, which operated in September 1883. Stevens and Cahoon would go on to build several more of these coasters (which are discussed below).
This roller coaster at the Tri-State Fair was 600 feet long, could accommodate between 15 and 20 people per ride, and was reported to approach speeds of a mile a minute (60 miles per hour).
The Roller Coaster, Chicago
On September 30, 1883, a roller coaster for the South Side of Chicago was announced in The Chicago Tribune.
This roller coaster was built by Philo M. Stevens. It was 22 feet high, with the coaster having a diameter of 140 feet and a circumference of 430 feet. There were two trains of six cars, and each car could fit six to nine people. The cars ran on iron rails and the sides of the track were closed in, to prevent derailing. The train was able to complete the circuit in 18 seconds.
This roller coaster was called The Roller Coaster, and cost $800 to construct ($18,500 in 2017 US dollars). There was a five cent charge to ride. It was located at the intersection of State Street and Twenty-Second Street. (Twenty-Second Street was later renamed Cermak Road, after Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who was killed during an assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1933.)
Stevens then filed for a patent of this device, which was an improvement of Alanson Wood’s Circular Gravity Railway (the Circular Gravity Railway was still patent pending at the time Stevens filed his patent). Stevens called this amusement a “Roller Coasting Device,” and filed for his patent on October 16, 1883.
The patent was granted on May 13, 1884, to him and his company, the Roller Coaster Company of America. The Roller Coaster Company of America had been incorporated on November 6, 1883, in Chicago.
In May 1884, Alderman Shorey presented a petition to the Chicago City Council requesting The Roller Coaster be removed. The petition stated that the roller coaster was “a source of danger and was a nuisance” because it “gave opportunity for the congregating of boys and girls until late hours at night.” It was reported, “The Council referred to the Chief of Police and the Commissioner of Public Works, with power to act.”
There is no further record of the existence of The Roller Coaster, and it is unclear if the city forced The Roller Coaster to close or if The Roller Coaster Company of America decided to close it.
The Roller Coaster, New Orleans
This was another roller coaster designed by Philo M. Stevens. It was reported in The Chicago Tribune article from September 30, 1883, that Stevens was going to be building another one of his roller coasters in New Orleans.
This ride was also named The Roller Coaster, just as Stevens’ ride in Chicago had been named. Another name seen for this roller coaster was Roller Coasting Rink. It was located on the southwest corner of St. Charles and Josephine Streets in New Orleans.
On the morning of November 26, 1883, strong winds from a cyclone destroyed The Roller Coaster.
A new roller coaster was built in New Orleans in 1884.
Roller Coaster, St. Louis
On September 29, 1883, advertisements began appearing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a roller coaster at the intersection of Lucas Place and Twentieth Street. It was reported in the Toledo Weekly Blade on October 4, 1883, that one of Alanson Wood’s roller coasters had been sold to “a ward in St. Louis.”
This roller coaster operated in September and October of 1883.
Roller coaster in San Antonio
There is a report of a roller coaster being in San Antonio, Texas in December 1883. It was reported that people enjoyed “roller coasting” on Christmas. Also, there are reports in March 1884, of a roller coaster which was being renovated and relocated, implying it operated in 1883.
No other information is currently known about this roller coaster. Should any new information become available about this San Antonio roller coaster, this section will be updated.
These are the currently known roller coasters which existed in 1883. It is possible that one other roller coaster was built, although it may have been experimental and never operated for the public. If more roller coasters from 1883 are discovered, I’ll update this article at that time.
I have a wide variety of interests, from sports to politics, music to Star Trek. I write about the history of amusement parks on my website, The Amusement Parkives, which I founded in 2016.