This article is about Hersheypark’s first roller coaster, The Wild Cat, which opened 95 years ago. If you are looking for information on Wildcat, a roller coaster Hersheypark installed in 1996, click here.
The Wild Cat was the first roller coaster in Hersheypark. It opened on June 16, 1923, and was closed on September 9, 1945. Here is a look at the history of Hersheypark’s first roller coaster, which had three names, many riders, and was the beginning of the career of a classic roller coaster designer.
“A Ride Over The Tree Tops”
After the end of World War I in November 1918, the 1919 season was one everyone was excited about. The year went well for Hersheypark, and plans were in the works to add a number of new rides to Hersheypark in the early 1920s, including a roller coaster.
However, the Hershey Chocolate Company experienced significant financial instability which forced the company into receivership in early 1920. While the company was in receivership, Hersheypark management was unable to enact their plans to add new rides (planned rides included a Whip, which wasn’t installed until 1937). Due to the financial instability that the Hershey Chocolate Company experienced in 1920, no new attractions were able to be added to Hersheypark. The Company didn’t get out of these financial issues until 1922, and that gave park management the freedom to consider and buy new rides.
Because 1923 was the 20th Anniversary of the town of Hershey, there was no question Hersheypark would be at the center of this celebration. (Oddly, management also decided that the 1923 season would be Hersheypark’s 20th anniversary, even though nothing was built on the park’s property until late summer 1905 and the park didn’t formally open until 1906.) Park management was interested in installing a roller coaster as part of these celebrations, especially after the financial difficulties the town experienced in the previous two years.
On January 18, 1923, the new roller coaster was announced. The roller coaster was to be an “out and back” roller coaster, manufactured by Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and hopefully opened on the first day of the 1923 season, May 30 – Memorial Day. An article in The Hershey Press, titled “Hershey Park To Have a Coaster” said:
We have good news to impart to the red-blooded amusement seeking young man and woman. Hershey Park is going to have a thriller in operation this coming season – “A Ride Over the Tree Tops.”
The Figure 8, or Switchback, or “A Ride Over the Tree Tops,” whichever you choose to call it will be in operation on Decoration Day [another name for Memorial Day].
–The Hershey Press, January 18, 1923, page 1
Figure Eight was a common name for a roller coaster at the time, although it really referred to a different kind of coaster from the one that was actually installed. An example of a Figure Eight roller coaster can be seen in this article about the Figure Eight roller coasters at West View Park.
This article indicates the original name for the roller coaster was “A Ride Over the Tree Tops.” There were a few other roller coasters with a similar names, though they were in reference to flying through clouds rather than above the trees. A few examples of this style of name which existed at the time are:
- Chase Through The Clouds – Willow Grove Park, in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, originally called Giant Racing Coaster, renamed to Chase Through The Clouds in 1920. This coaster operated from 1911 – 1923.
- Race Through The Clouds – Idora Park, in Oakland, California, opened in 1913 – c1923.
- Trip Through The Clouds – Electric Park, in Detroit, Michigan, operated 1915 – 1924.
Rocky Point Park in Warwick, Rhode Island, had a roller coaster called Round the Treetops which operated from 1912 until circa 1938 (it was more than likely destroyed in the 1938 New England hurricane which critically damaged Rocky Point Park).
Philadelphia Toboggan Company
Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) was a well established manufacturer of roller coasters, carousels, and other rides, established in 1904. Prior to this point, Hersheypark never had a relationship with PTC, as they had only installed four rides – two carousels, a miniature railroad, and a toboggan slide. This was the beginning of a long relationship between the two companies.
Park management was not interested in owning a roller coaster due to risk and liability associated with roller coasters; however, they were interested in bringing a coaster to the park. In late 1922, Hersheypark agreed to a contract with PTC. Hersheypark rented the land the coaster occupied to PTC, who in turn, owned and operated the roller coaster.
Notably, Hersheypark’s first coaster was also the first roller coaster designed by famous designer and future PTC president Herbert P. Schmeck. In April 1923, PTC was searching for laborers and carpenters to construct the roller coaster at Hersheypark.
The roller coaster was constructed at a cost of $50,000.
The station of the roller coaster was to be built on the hill by the bowling alley building and the main pavilion. As of 2017, this is the location of the Hershey Triple Towers. The coaster would then go through a tunnel and then up the lift. The track would turn and go through several hills before it would turn around in a large curve and go back toward the station.
The roller coaster crossed Spring Creek twice. Today, this area of the park is colloquially known as Trailblazer Hollow.
The roller coaster was given a name – The Joy Ride. The name was placed on the front of the roller coaster station. This name rarely appeared in any advertisements for the park or in articles in newspapers. The name most often attributed to The Joy Ride was “Giant Roller Coaster,” even in the local newspaper, The Hershey Press.
Hersheypark opened for the new season on May 30, 1923 – Memorial Day. However, construction delays pushed The Joy Ride’s opening into June. The roller coaster was scheduled to debut the weekend of the 20th Anniversary celebration for the town of Hershey.
The Joy Ride opens
For this weekend, Hersheypark was decorated with Japanese lanterns all along the banks of Spring Creek, from the dance hall and Carrousel at the west end, to The Joy Ride at the east end, while colored lights were strung throughout the rest of the park. On both days of the event, The Bach Choir – with the Moravian Trombone Choir and Philadelphia Orchestra – performed in Hershey Park Convention Hall, while Creatore’s Band played in Hershey Park Band Shell.
The Joy Ride opened on the first day of the Celebration, June 16, 1923. Rides on the roller coaster were offered for free, though women were not permitted to ride until the afternoon. Marion Murrie, the daughter of the president of the Hershey Chocolate Company, was the first woman to ride The Joy Ride that afternoon.
The opening day was quite successful, but there was discussion on whether or not to operate the roller coaster the next day due to it being a Sunday. Management decided to operate the roller coaster on June 17, though other rides, such as the Carrousel, remained closed. Over 50,000 people were in the Hersheypark on June 17, because it was the main day for the 20th Anniversary celebration (an estimated amount of automobiles was figured at around 10,000).
Renovation into The Wild Cat
The roller coaster would be renovated by PTC in 1935 and renamed The Wild Cat. The ride was reprofiled to go faster.
One of the operators of The Wild Cat was Ralph William Marquet, who also operated the Mill Chute, and later, Comet. In an interview with the Hershey News in 1956, he spoke of his time operating the park’s first roller coaster.
Every day, just before putting the [Wild Cat] into operation, [Marquet] sends one of the trains around the track for a test run. On this particular day, [Marquet] was amazed to find a passenger seated in the back seat of the supposedly empty train.
“The guy told me he climbed up the superstructure and boarded the car as it slowed down going around a turn,” [Marquet] recalled with a chuckle.
— Hershey News, April 5, 1956, page 2
World War II
When the United States entered World War II, the United States government began rationing materials such as rubber, various metals, and gasoline, while other materials such as wood were mainly directed to the war effort. Because The Wild Cat was removed at the end of the 1945 season, there is a myth that the roller coaster was removed because the roller coaster was not regularly maintenanced due to World War II.
This is not the case. While they were not able to do complete maintenance on the ride, they were able to keep the ride in working condition. By 1945, all rationing had ended in Pennsylvania, and the war ended in September. Toward the middle of the 1945 season, PTC began expressing interest in building a new roller coaster to replace The Wild Cat. Hersheypark management was interested in the concept. Both PTC and Hersheypark wanted to construct a more impressive roller coaster – and that became Comet, which is still in Hersheypark today.
To present day
After The Wild Cat was removed in 1945, the former station area was unoccupied for one season. In 1947, the space was filled by a new PTC ride, Cuddle Up. In 1978, the Cuddle Up was replaced by a newer version of the Cuddle Up – Hersheypark themed this ride after the Minetown theme, so the ride was named Coal Shaker, with coal shaped cars.
Coal Shaker was replaced with three kiddie rides (Convoy, Dinosaurs-Go-Round until 2005, Frog Hopper after 2005, and Red Baron). The kiddie rides were relocated in 2016 to make way for Hershey Triple Tower which opened in 2017.
The original Turnpike, installed in 1960 (removed after 1973), Dry Gulch Railroad, installed in 1961, Monorail, installed in 1969, Trailblazer, installed in 1974, and Storm Runner, installed in 2004, also occupies some of the space where The Wild Cat stood.
The Cat is Back!
In 1995, Hersheypark announced “The Cat is Back!” when they announced a new wooden roller coaster. The park named the roller coaster Wildcat, after The Wild Cat.
This was the history of The Wild Cat, Hersheypark’s first roller coaster. To read some Throwback Thursday posts, click here.