2001-03-03 / Columnists

Historical Views by Emil Lucev

The Great Grand Daddy Of The Roller Coaster

During the formative years of the Rockaways as an amusement and beach resort (1857-1887) visitors and vacationers were provided with many forms of entertainment. Bathing, dining, dancing, boating and firework displays were the norm, but included were gambling and vice drinking (although hushed up), bathhouses, fakir stands, fortune tellers, Hindu mystics, palm readers, tea leave readers, horoscope readers, magic shows, freak shows, games of skill and chance, shooting galleries, deep sea fishing, fowl hunting, concert gardens, music halls, photo galleries, wax museums, beer gardens, dance halls, drugstores with patent medicines (outlawed in 1906 by Pure Food and Drug Acts), refreshment stands, cigar stands, pool halls, barber shops, horse and later steam driven carousels, catch penny amusements, narrow board sidewalks over beach sand, minstrel shows, walking contests, aerial acrobats, balloon ascensions, tents for the day/week/season, miniature railroads, steam operated circle swings, a mechanical museum, circus shows, snake charmers, a mechanical riding academy with iron horses, three shell monte, strength tests, and glass eaters – just to name a few. Seafood and shellfish dinners were the most popular.

Of all early amusement riders mentioned, the toboggan slide was about the most popular, next the carousel.

During the mid to late 1880’s, the sport of tobogganing was constructed of laminated pieces of flat wood, held together with crosspieces, to about a width of eighteen inches. The length varied from four to nine feet and the front was curled upward.

For amusement purposes, artificial chutes were developed. They had a width of three feet, were made of wood, and there were often several chutes side by side.

The chutes were steep to give an exciting speed, and a runway was provided at the bottom, which was considerably long. It was reported in old newspaper articles that several toboggan slides were in the seaside section of Rockaway Beach – close to the ocean shore.

Messrs. Barnes, Wainright, Brown, Grant, and Morrison were said to be operating toboggan slides.

On most toboggans, lubrication was provided by wax rug-like material secured to the bottoms, or as in Rockaway Beach – water running down the chute into a runway trough at the bottom or perhaps into the surf or a small narrow artificial pool of sorts.

I have yet to find any drawing or old photograph of a toboggan slide in Rockaway Beach, but, appearing today in Historical Views is a picture postcard of an old toboggan slide, water lubricated, built on a lake. This slide looks similar to the old Seaside Jack and Jill slides of the 1930’s that used the rug-bottomed conveyance down the slide.

In 1884 the first automatic toboggan rise opened in Coney Island. It was about three stories high and had several small cars, attached in train, running on secured rails. With people in the cars, this train of cars was hauled up to the top of the stacked oval shaped wooden frame structure, and let go, to let gravity bring the cars down the slightly inclined ovals, going around and down and back and forth until the bottom level was achieved. The new innovation was also called a switchback.

By 1888 there were two such devices in Seaside, one near the beach and a few blocks away the other half out on the beach.

Over the years the inventor of the switchback improved his device, which developed into the scenic railway (cars went in and out of buildings filled with magnificent scenery of all descriptions), some of which were double tracked.

After WW I the scenery filled structures slowly disappeared, the railways got higher, longer, and faster, and were now called roller coasters.

The inventor became known as Mr. Gravity, and was none other than Lamarcus A. Thompson – who in 1902 built and opened an amusement park and midway in Rockaway Beach, which became known as L.A. Thompson Amusement Park. In 1923 the original scenic railway was rebuilt higher and longer (the scenic buildings removed) and was christened as the Hurricane Coaster – 780 feet long.

Thompson died in 1926 and the family sold the park in 1928. From then on the park was known as Rockaway’s Playland. The coaster was shortened considerably when Shore Front Parkway was built by Robert Moses in 1938.

After WW II it was renamed as the Atom Smasher, and was featured in cinerama and films shown worldwide. In 1987 the wrecker’s ball ended 85 years of coaster history in Rockaway Beach.

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