Pittsburgh’s first roller coaster

The City of Pittsburgh got its first roller coaster in 1885, at the Penn Incline Resort. This was not only Pittsburgh’s first roller coaster, it was one of the first three roller coasters constructed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The first roller coaster constructed in Pennsylvania, The Roller Coaster, appears to have operated in Philadelphia in 1884. 

The other roller coaster, called Circular Gravity Railway, operated in Oakland Beach Resort in Conneaut Lake, PA, in 1885. It’s unclear when Circular Gravity Railway opened in 1885; it probably opened in May of that year. 

In 1884, a new incline had been built connecting the Strip District with the Hill District. The Strip District station was at 17th Street, while the Hill District station was at Ledlie Street. To increase interest in riding the Incline, a hotel and resort was built next to the top of the Incline. This opened in 1884 and was called Penn Incline Resort.

1884-05-24 Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette (p3)
Advert for the Penn Incline Resort, in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, May 24, 1884, on page 3.

The following year, the Resort added a roller coaster. This roller coaster was designed by Alcoke & Geffs, of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Alcoke & Geffs also served as the proprietors of the Incline Resort roller coaster. Charles H. Alcoke, a professor, was the senior agent for the firm.

Alcoke had invented his own version of a Circular Gravity Railway. Unlike the Alanson Wood and Philo M. Stevens versions, this version was slightly more more oval than it was circular.

US 317273 - Gravity Railway [Alcoke, C.H.] (Fig. 1-5)
Figure 1 through Figure 5 of C.H. Alcoke’s Gravity Railway.
Alcoke filed for his patent on January 8, 1885. The patent was granted on May 5, 1885. It was often referred as “the safety roller coaster,” because of the safety-related improvements made to the gravity railway over previous iterations.

Alcoke & Geffs also built two other roller coasters around the same time in 1885. One was at Salt Wells Park in Evansville, Indiana, and the other was at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds north of Cincinnati, Ohio.

1885-05-19 Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette (p5)
Advertisement for the new roller coaster at Penn Incline Resort. From the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, May 19, 1885, on page 5.

The roller coaster at Penn Incline Resort opened on May 21, 1885. The coaster was advertised as reaching a speed of “a mile in 45 seconds,” which is 80 miles per hour. The grand opening was on a Thursday and featured the Great Western Band as the musical performers.

It’s unclear how long the roller coaster operated for – references to this roller coaster at the Resort only appear in 1885.

The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, located near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, (then called Mauch Chunk) was roller coaster-like. It served as the inspiration for the roller coasters that would follow in the 1880s and beyond. 

To read more about other early Pittsburgh roller coasters, click here

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