Roller coasters have delighted thrill seekers for centuries, and the history of this amusement park ride is full of interesting twists and turns. The idea for modern roller coasters actually stretches back to fifteenth-century Russia, when people used to slide down the Russian Mountains on tracks made of ice. The seats of the sled were also made of ice, although riders usually stuffed straw in the chiseled hollows to make the rides a bit more comfortable
The French are usually credited with creating the term “roller coaster.” The oldest roller coaster rides used tracks made of rollers and sleds with runners, thus the art of roller coasting. The name stuck even after the runners were replaced with wheels, an innovation that probably originated in France when the first wheeled coaster attraction opened in Paris in 1804. Since that time, there have been numerous technological innovations and inventions that have made roller coasters faster, bigger, safer, and more exciting than the roller coasters that came before.
Many of the world’s oldest roller coaster rides are still standing. Unfortunately, most fell into disuse and disrepair and had to be torn down. The honor of being the oldest roller coaster still in operation goes to the Leap-the-Dips ride at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Constructed to replace the Gravity Railroad roller coaster that burned down in 1901, the Leap-the-Dips was designed and built in 1902 by Edward Joy Morris.
Although the world’s oldest roller coaster may seem tame by today’s standards, the Leap-the-Dips was built in an age where side-friction was considered cutting edge technology, a lift hill standing 48 feet (14.6 meters) was thrilling, and a nine-foot (3 meter) drop was exhilarating. Leap-the-Dips still runs on an oak track that is 1,452 feet (4426 meters) long and offers a top speed of about ten miles an hour (16 km/hr).
Riding this coaster is like stepping back in time. The cars are two rows deep and hold two passengers each. Some say this is the quietest and most comfortable roller coaster ride to be found anywhere, perhaps because the only metal “rails” are found in the station.
The world’s oldest roller coaster also has the distinction of being the only figure-eight, “side friction” roller coaster still being used in North America. A side-friction coaster isn’t bolted to its tracks with underwheels, but instead uses side-mounted wheels on each car to guide it. This is what makes these rides smooth and quiet.
Leap-the-Dips came very close to being torn down, however. The growing repair and maintenance cost forced Lakemont Park to shut it down in 1985. The old roller coaster needed a major overhaul and the amusement park just didn’t have the money. A nonprofit group called the “Leap-the-Dips Preservation Foundation” was formed.
In 1996, the oldest roller coaster in the United States was designated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). This honor drew attention to the fundraising cause, and the nonprofit organization gathered one million US dollars (USD). Renovation and restoration began in 1997, and the Leap-the-Dips reopened on Memorial Day, 1999. It is also an American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) Coaster Classic and Coaster Landmark.