2005-08-05 / Columnists

Historical Views of the Rockaways

The Culmination of a Brilliant Dream
From The Rockaway Museum by Emil Lucev, Curator Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

From The Rockaway Museum
by Emil Lucev, Curator
Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

As the historian for Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway and The Wave newspaper, yours truly has found nothing, to date, on what Robert Moses, New York City Commissioner of everything, did for fun! Just like gangsters did in the old days, he buried much of New York City, and the Rockaways, in cement shoes, if you will! His brilliant (to him) dream was to demolish all that he thought was cheap, ugly, unwashed and unnecessary... and not built by him.

In contrast, the Historical View published today is a picture that did aid in the culmination of another man’s dream, to bring thrills, shouts, screams, sensations, enjoyment, tensions and laughter, but most of all, fun... to the masses... the world over!

Very few people remember who Robert Moses was and those who do sneer at the mention of his name; those who find out what his great accomplishments were say “what?” No one is interested in concrete stuff!

The name Lamarcus A. Thompson doesn’t ring a bell either, but when most or should I say all, find out that he invented the rollercoaster back in 1884, they want to know who, what, when, where and how? Every rollercoaster you ride upon today was evolved from the Thompson switchback railway built at Coney Island, just a short distance west of where the Cyclone coaster still runs as “king of the coasters!” Although Thompson did not build the Cyclone (an educated competitor did) he did build the Tornado nearby in the same year, 1926. And two years before, Thompson built his whirlwind model coaster (dubbed locally as the Hurricane) in his amusement park at Rockaway Beach-to thrill millions of riders! Thompson died in 1926, and I wonder if he had ‘superdooper’ ideas for a coaster from Rockaway Beach to Coney Island over Rockaway Inlet? He was that kind of guy!

Anyway, his first switchback railway had end towers about four stories high and 450 feet to 600 feet apart. Between these towers, a set of undulating railroad tracks was traversed by small cars with riders, that used the old physics of gravity, weight and motion up and down to provide a safe and thrilling ride to paying customers. In the towers the cars were switched to the return track, and the great speed of six to ten miles per hour, was tolerated by riders seated on benches facing sideways. Many Coney Island businessmen thought Thompson was crazy, but the coaster paid for itself in a few weeks time. Long lines of riders awaited their turn and it wasn’t long before Thompson was building switchbacks all over the states and the world, and collecting his due from improvement patent royalties, franchise arrangements and the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company, headquartered in Manhattan.

Two switchbacks were built in the seaside section of Rockaway Beach and both were lost in the seaside fire of 1892. The ride cost a big nickel, and re-rides were frequent.

Before the switchback was built in Coney Island in 1884, L.A. Thompson had traveled extensively viewing many railroad operations, logging flumes, canal shipping operations, etc. At the shore he viewed water lubricated toboggan slides, and in winter the skiers and toboggan riders on frozen mountain slopes. The main problem was that some form of power was used to start or commence the operations, natural or mechanical, up or down, in the form of steam engines, pumps, cable winches, etc., and gravity, a natural power, helped to the grand finale!

In the area of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, Thompson viewed a gravity- operated coal mine railroad that delivered cars full of mined coal to a point eighteen miles away. The mine was over one thousand feet up on a mountain, and the up and down mountain sides helped control the speed with the aid of a brakeman on each car. At the final coal distribution point, the cars were dragged back to the mine by mules, after being switched to the return track. Later, stationary steam engines operated a cable system that mechanically bought the empties back to the mine. This mechanical operation employed a safety ratchet to stop backward or downhill accidents.

As mining operations changed, the coalmine switchback railroad was converted into a tourist attraction (shown on card view) and was abandoned in 1937. Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania is now known as Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania and used mules as early as 1827, before using steam cables in 1845. L.A. Thompson was born in Ohio three years later.

So the next time you are stuck in traffic on a sweltering day, thank Robert Moses, while you wish you were on a fast and cool Thompson rollercoaster, and sweat, because you had to turn off the ac or overheat the engine!

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