Steel tracks, hundred-foot drops and hanging upside down during a loop-the-loop are many of the qualities expected from the vast majority of roller coasters found around the United States and the world. However, this has not always been the case. Before steel tracks existed, wooden roller coasters were a popular monument at amusement parks. At a time when thrill-seeking wasn’t quite what it is now, these wooden coasters were actually very mild. One specific roller coaster of this variety is the Leap-the-Dips roller coaster at Lakemont Park in Altoona. This roller coaster was built around the turn of the 20th century and is still standing and operational today, gaining the title of the world’s oldest roller coaster. It may not be as fast or exciting as the roller coasters of today, but it has a special place in amusement park history.
What this coaster lacks in speed and thrill is made up for in history and charm. It is beloved by all who have ridden it and certainly offers something to all those who have yet to grace its four-seater cars with their presence. It is, after all, a Pennsylvania Historical Landmark that can be ridden. It has stood the test of time and will continue to offer thrill seekers, as well as other park goers, a blast from the past for years to come.
Originally constructed in 1902, the Leap-the-Dips coaster was built as a part of a major expansion of Lakemont Park in which three new rides were added, after the park had been subject to two fires in the previous years. A roller coaster, called the Gravity Railroad, had previously stood where the Leap-the-Dips coaster stands currently. The Gravity Railroad burned down in 1901. Headed by E. Joy Morris of Philadelphia, one of the state’s first large-scale amusement ride builder, the expansion added a new carousel as well as the Leap-the-Dips coaster. The coaster was the latest in roller coaster technology at the time of construction. It was 41 feet tall and contained 1,170 feet of wooden track. There were seven cars, each with four seats and no safety restraints, which traveled at a top speed of 10 miles per hour through an interlocking figure eight track. The track contained a series of nine-foot dips, hence the name Leap-the-Dips. The entire ride only lasted one minute, but people enjoyed it none-the-less.
The roller coaster, along with the entire park, suffered some hardships over the years. The Great Depression struck the nation and, because very few people had any money for frivolous things like amusement parks, attendance dropped. The next disasters to strike the park were a flood on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936 and following that, an ice storm in 1950. Luckily, neither of these did significant damage to the roller coaster. The park made it through these rough patches, remaining open and eventually thriving again.
In 1982, a man from the Smithsonian Institution named Richard Flint toured the park and declared the entire park “a shrine.” He believed that because of the park’s preservation of its pre-World War I atmosphere that the entire park would be eligible for a National Historic Register listing. He stated that the park was not only “surrounded by trees, but it had a rare rustic and nostalgic quality.” He was especially interested in the Leap-the-Dips coaster, saying, “It is a marvelous survivor.”
This changed in 1985 when a local company, Boyer Bros. Candy Company, proposed buying the park and turning it into a theme park modeled after the very successful Hersheypark. Lakemont Park was not doing very well at the time and was barely turning a profit, and the owners agreed to sell the park to Boyer Bros. The entire park was redone and turned into “Boyertown,” which ended up being less successful than Lakemont at its worst. The new park was expensive and not the Lakemont Park that people had come to know and love. Boyer Bros. also decided that the Leap-the-Dips coaster was not worth the cost of maintenance and upkeep, so they decommissioned it in 1985, although, thankfully, it was not torn down. After the failure of Boyertown in 1988, Ralph Albarano bought the park back from Boyer Bros. and vowed to “retraditionalize” the park and turn it back into the affordable Lakemont Park.
With the rebirth of Lakemont Park, there still wasn’t enough money or interest to recommission the Leap-the-Dips, and it remained standing but non-operational until 1993 when there was a glimmer of hope that the roller coaster might once again become operational. The roller coaster had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. By 1994, the Lakemont Park Historical Society opened a museum to honor its past and the Leap-the-Dips Preservation Society was formed in order to help raise the $1 million it would cost to restore the roller coaster to its full glory.
To aid in the restoration cause, the American Coaster Enthusiasts attempted to designate the neglected ride a National Historic Landmark (a much more rare designation) and eventually succeeded in 1996. This helped raise awareness and funding from private citizens, from the Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Committee, and from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Committee, as well as from local banks. On May 16, 1998, restoration of the roller coaster began. Because the ride was now considered a landmark, special care had to be taken so as not to ruin the character of the then almost century-old coaster. Lumber was purchased a year before restoration was to begin to let it acclimate, and a steam box was built right next to the ride in order to shape the wood, using the same method as was used in 1902s when the coaster was first built. A carpenter specializing in restoring furniture was hired to oversee the restoration and managed to retain 70 percent of the original lumber. Restoration finished successfully and the coaster reopened on Memorial Day, May 31, 1999, and has remained open since.
People from all over the United States and the world still come to visit this historic landmark. A rider from Dallas, TX, states, “I was utterly charmed by this unique, and deeply historic, little side-friction gem of a roller coaster.” Another rider who traveled from Toronto, ON, states, “A unique ride [for] sure, but not in a thrilling way…How often do you get to ride a piece of history?” One rider who has lived in Altoona his entire life still goes to the park and enjoys riding the Leap-the-Dips. He says, “the screeching of the wheels and the creaking of the wood make up for the lack of speed and dramatic movements of today's modern coasters.” Riders genuinely enjoy this roller coaster and come from hundreds and thousands of miles in order to ride on a piece of history.
Not only does the age of the coaster set it apart from others, but so does its design. It is classified as a side-friction figure eight roller coaster. Figure eight describes the shape of the track, while side-friction is the way the cars glide around the track. There are two sets of wheels on the cars, one set to support the weight of the car and passengers and the other set to guide the car by rolling against a side track. The cars don’t have underwheels securing them to the tracks, allowing for a quieter and smoother ride than most modern-day roller coasters. This type of roller coaster was prevalent during the time period that Leap-the-Dips was built, but Leap-the-Dips is now the only remaining side-friction figure eight roller coaster in existence in North America.
With a history as vast and rich as this roller coaster, Leap-the-Dips has clearly stood the test of time. Very few historic landmarks can give visitors such a “hands-on” experience, and it’s that experience that keeps the roller coaster from being forgotten or neglected. It has faced many hardships and almost death but has recovered, due to generations of loyal riders wanting to relive their past and new generations of riders wanting to experience a piece of history. Many people do not realize what lies practically right in their backyard, but those who do, recognize what a treasure this roller coaster is and how it is such a significant link to the past.