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

Schenley Park Pleasure Railway | 1894 – 1897

On April 24, 1894, the Schenley Park Pleasure Railway Company announced that a roller coaster was being built near the entrance of Schenley Park, on Forbes Street, opposite the Carnegie library.

The roller coaster was constructed inside a two story building that included a restaurant and a dessert bar, as well as a barber and a bicycle shop. The building was called the Musatorium, and the roller coaster inside it was called Schenley Park Pleasure Railway (it was later called Musatorium Roller Coaster). It had an oval layout, was 400 feet long, with the roller coaster train having a capacity of sixteen people. Riders would go around the circuit twice before exiting.

The highest point of the roller coaster was approximately 40 feet tall. When the train reached the end of the track, it required steam power to get pulled back up to the coaster’s station. The tracks were laid in a type of softer surface referred as “gum,” to reduce noise.

1894-06-30 The Pittsburgh Post (p8) [large]

From The Pittsburgh Post, June 30, 1894, page 8.

Construction of the ride was contracted to Albert F. Schwerd, who manufactured the Musatorium Roller Coaster through his company, A.F. Schwerd Manufacturing Company. The roller coaster cost approximately $11,000 dollars ($303,000 in 2017 US dollars).

The Musatorium was originally planned to be opened on May 2. There was a delay – as a result, it did not open until May 24. The roller coaster was delayed after that point – and was test run for the first time on June 24. The ride was formally opened on June 30, 1894. The roller coaster cost five cents to ride ($1.38 in 2017 US dollars).

1894-07-25 The Pittsburgh Press (p7)

Advert in The Pittsburgh Press for the Schenley Park roller coaster, Musatorium. From The Pittsburgh Press, July 25, 1894, on page 7.

In February 1895, the Schenley Park Pleasure Railways Company was forced to sell the property to Schwerd because the roller coaster was not profitable. Schwerd placed his son, A.H. Schwerd in charge of the roller coaster, and it was reported that the property became profitable.

On February 27, 1897, at approximately 3:45am, the Musatorium caught fire and burned to the ground. Everything in the building, including the roller coaster, was totally destroyed. The fire began due to an overheated stove in the restaurant. To make matters worse, when the fire spread to the soda fountain, the gas that was in the machine exploded, destroying most of the interior of the entire building.

The Musatorium was not rebuilt after the fire.

1897-02-27 The Pittsburgh Press (p1) [inset]

Illustration of the Musatorium ruins, from February 27, 1897, on the front page of The Pittsburgh Press.

Pittsburgh Exposition roller coasters

The Greater Pittsburgh Exposition was an annual event which occurred in the fall of each year between 1889 and 1916. The exposition was located where Point State Park and PNC Park are in Pittsburgh today. The grounds were spread between downtown Pittsburgh and the city of Allegheny (today the North Shore).

The first roller coaster at the Expo was a Switchback Railway. The exposition was aware of the demand of having a roller coaster of some type; to meet this demand, the exposition installed not only one Switchback Railway, but a second one right next to it.

1895 Switchback Railway

This is a drawing of the Switchback Railway from an 1895 Greater Pittsburgh Exposition souvenir book.

This may be the first instance of a twin roller coaster operation.

1895 Souvenir Booklet Switchback Railway

A description of the Switchback Railway, in an 1895 Greater Pittsburgh Exposition souvenir book.

The twin coasters opened on September 4, 1895. They were each five hundred feet long, for a round trip of one thousand feet, cost $10,000 to construct, and cost a nickel to ride. It was manufactured by James A. Griffiths, of Connecticut, who made several other switchbacks in the Pittsburgh area. In 1896, the coasters were renamed Gravity Railway.

1895-09-02 Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette (p5)

Advert for The Greater Pittsburgh Exposition, printed in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, on September 2, 1895, on page 2. The pleasure railway is the Switchback Railway roller coaster.

T.M. Harton & Company manufactured and operated many of the other rides at the Greater Pittsburgh Exposition. Harton manufactured the second roller coaster the exposition had – a figure-8 roller coaster called Toboggan Slide. Harton purchased the right to build the Toboggan Slide from E. Joy Morris, patentee of the roller coaster.

Built at a cost of $15,000 in 1901, this coaster was built because a large fire destroyed a significant part of the Exposition grounds, including the Switchback Railway. The fire occurred on St. Patrick’s Day 1901, and property loss was reported at a value of $242,000.

1901-09-12 [East Liverpool, OH] Evening News Review (p2) [crop]

The New Pittsburgh Exposition, 1901. Based on an advertisement in an East Liverpool, Ohio, newspaper, the Evening News Review from September 12, 1901.

Toboggan Slide was reconstructed in the 1911 season and continued operating each season until the Pittsburgh Exposition closed after the 1916 season.


The Point is where three rivers meet – the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River combine to form the Ohio River. Eventually, this was all cleared out to make way for Point State Park.


Point State Park today.

Table of inflation adjustments for costs mentioned in this article. 

$10,000 in 1895 US dollars = $274,380.23 in 2017 US dollars
$0.05 in 1895 US dollars = $1.37 in 2017 US dollars
$15,000 in 1901 US dollars = $411,570.35 in 2017 US dollars
$242,000 in 1901 US dollars = $6,640,001.58 in 2017 US dollars

To learn more about the Greater Pittsburgh Exposition, check out Pittsburghhockey.net which discusses the Winter Garden, one of the buildings that was part of the expo, and The Brookline Connection, which also discusses Exposition Hall. This blog post from That’s Church in 2013 also gives some good background on what was around the Point in the late 19th Century / early 20th Century.