"The scene from Mount Pisgah is excelled by none in the country. There is perhaps, not another place in the world where so much of the truly sublime and picturesque is so magnificently displayed as here. After we feasted our eyes on this scene, the young man who officiated the brake got tired and let go. Then we scooted down the offside of the mountain at a rate of about a million miles an instant. We thought of all the sins we had ever committed, held on to our seat with one hand, our hat with the other, and wished that we'd minded our own business and stayed home"
— Walter C. Quevedo
This account from a tourist’s diary in the late nineteenth century, retold in John Drury and Joan Gilbert’s history of Mauch Chunk, PA, describes a ride on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad, a now-demolished secret of Carbon County, PA, and the forebear of the modern roller coaster.
Thar’s Coal In Them Thar Hills!
At the outset, though, the hair-raising trip down the Gravity Railroad was one that could only be experienced by a cartload full of coal or a mule. In the early 1800s, “stone coal” from the upper reaches of the Lehigh River valley made its first appearance in Philadelphia. At first, it was deemed too difficult to burn, and the transportation methods to get it from the mines down to Philadelphia were too primitive, costly, and unreliable. Nonetheless, “stone coal” showed promise: if transportation methods were improved, it could be competitive and even superior to costly British coal, and this promise attracted the attention of Philadelphia entrepreneurs Josiah White, Erskine Hazard, and George Fredrick August Hauto.
According to a history of this time kept by the Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation, the three negotiated a deal to exploit the Lehigh Valley coal lands and develop a three-part plan. First, they had to figure out how to get large amounts of coal safely and reliably from the river landing at Mauch Chunk to market in Philadelphia, a journey of over a hundred miles down a river riddled with shallows and rapids. Then, they had to develop a way to get the coal barges back up river to Mauch Chunk. Finally, and only if their success demanded it, they’d have to develop a railroad to move coal the nine miles from Summit Hill to the river landing at Mauch Chunk.
After solving their river navigation problems with an ingenious “bear trap lock” design, the trio set to work on a road from the mines at Summit Hill to the river landing at Mauch Chunk. The road was unique, requiring only one horse to draw four tons of coal down it with ease. The reason cited for this ease was because it became “the first road in the United States, laid out with instruments, scientifically, on the principle of never rising,” or more simply, it was downhill the whole way.
The new road and locks meant that Summit Hill mines could finally open. In June of 1820, a full four years ahead of schedule, the first shipment of 365 tons of coal made it down the road from Summit Hill, down the Lehigh River, and into Philadelphia. According to the Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation, it almost immediately sold out. Shortly after, the demand for coal from White, Hazard, and Hauto’s coal operation (now dubbed the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, Inc.) skyrocketed.
The demand was so great, in fact, that the road down from Summit Hill to the river below became a bottleneck. Quite simply, despite the convenient help of gravity, four tons of coal per horse-drawn trip down the road just weren’t enough, and this problem was compounded by the road’s unreliability in poor weather. For White, Hazard, and Hauto, it was time to begin work on the third part of their plan: the railroad.
In Robert Cartmell’s The Incredible Scream Machine, the author credited Josiah White with the idea to simply lay tracks on the scientifically revolutionary downhill road. When it was completed, the track stretched nine miles, and the need for horses was erased. On the iron rails, coal coasted down the track all the way from Summit Hill to the river landing, powered so successfully by gravity that the trains of coal cars actually required a brakeman to ride along and periodically keep the train’s speed in check. It could be said that these brakemen (and the undoubtedly terrified mule teams tasked with returning the empty cars back to the top of Summit Hill) were the first to take a ride on what is today considered to be one of the most important forefathers of the modern roller coaster.
The new “Down Track,” as it was called, greatly increased the efficiency of the mine, but it also created another bottleneck; the mules had to still haul the empty coal trains back up the hill, and that journey took significantly longer than the downhill trip. As a result, the demand continued to outstrip the supply. Josiah White had for years wished to make the route circuitous so as to eliminate the bottleneck, and he was eventually given the chance. There remained, however, one major problem to solve: gravity only works downhill. The solution White came up with was the so-called “inclined plane,” and it was effectively the world’s first roller coaster lift hill.
The mechanics of the inclined plane are discussed in Alfred Mathews and Austin Hungerford’s anthological histories of Lehigh and Carbon County. The inclined planed was essentially a very long, steep, uphill track that workers laid down on the freshly graded sides of the nearby Mount Pisgah and Mount Jefferson. After racing down the nine-mile descending track, the empty coal cars arrived at the bottom of Mount Pisgah and the base of the first incline plane. Here, connected via cable to enormous, stationary steam engines at the top of the mountain, pusher cars, or “barneys,” waited for the next empty coal train. The barneys then linked up with coal carts, dragging them to the top. From this new height, the cars once more coasted freely down the “Back Track,” another gravity-powered section of the railway, until they arrived at the base of Mount Jefferson where they ascended another inclined plane and returned to the Summit Hill mines. The completed circuit of the railroad stretched 18 miles, 17 of which were downhill. With trains running nonstop around the tracks, the mules were retired and production skyrocketed. Later, according to Cartmell’s book, Thomas Edison was asked to convert the system to electric power, but after examining the mechanics of the gravity railroad and inclined planes, he refused, citing the fact that the “engineering was already perfect.”
Meanwhile, In Russia
It was winter in 15th century Russia, and presented with an abundance of snow, the Russians set to work on developing a means to entertain themselves. Sledding was not a foreign concept at that point, but the Russians thought they could one-up their occasionally too-flat natural surroundings, and as mentioned in David Pescovitz’s history of the roller coaster, they constructed elaborate, multi-story wooden slopes, often stretching several city blocks. The next course of action was to cover the slopes in ice and hurled themselves down it. Pescovitz cited an account from one elated rider who said, “as you shoot along, a sort of ethereal intoxication takes hold of the senses, which is absolutely delightful.” Whether or not the Russian national drink has any influence on this “ethereal intoxication” is not well documented, but what is undeniable is how fantastically well received the ice slides were.
Ice slides caught on so fast that a business opportunity presented itself. What if these ice slides could be ridden year round? Granted, while there is no shortage of snow in Siberia, there is a distinct lack of it from April to November in such potentially profitable markets as Paris and London. Cartmell mentions that in the early 19th century, the first Les Montagnes Russes appears in the Ternes quarter of Paris. It was effectively a Russian ice slide with wheels instead of ice.
With no safety devices to speak of and no real model to base it on, the ride quickly developed a dubious safety record and an enormous amount of popularity amongst Parisians; they couldn’t get enough of it. Cartmell cites two articles that discuss the ride, with one report saying, “the speed with which these cars descended…caused a violent displacement of air and a lively sensation of freshness,” while another goes as far as to claim that the “amusement was most complimentary to the health of the persistent riders and that it was moreover the most certain manner of combating the diseases of the nerves and of dissipating all low spirits.” It should come as no surprise then that with a super sized version of this sort of ride built in their very backyard, the residents of Mauch Chunk soon became curious.
Early on in the history of the Gravity Railroad at Mauch Chunk, it attracted the attention of the locals. The brakemen told stories of the thrill of the descent, and as early as 1829, the Switchback Gravity Railroad Society reports that the railroad began taking passengers in the afternoon as a novelty attraction. The cost of one ride was 50 cents.
By 1872, though, the steam locomotive was in use as a practical, cheap mode of cargo transportation. In February of the same year, the construction of a rail tunnel into Mauch Chunk rendered the Switchback Railroad obsolete almost overnight. However, not wanting to lose all their business, the Central Railway of New Jersey (CNJ), which, according to historians William Greenberg, Jr. and Robert Fischer, owned the Switchback at that point, continued to operate it as a tourist attraction. The CNJ took advantage of the new rail line into Mauch Chunk and began running regular trains from New York and New Jersey to Mauch Chunk, whose picturesque setting in the Lehigh River valley, surrounded by mountains, earned it the nickname “Switzerland of America.” Robert Cartmell reports that in 1873 alone, less than a year after ceasing to operate as a coal-line, the Switchback served over 35,000 tourists. For the next 65 years, the Switchback continued to operate, thrilling thousands upon thousands of riders annually and helping the Switzerland of America thrive as one of the country’s premiere tourist destinations.
The End… Or Is It?
If the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway was, in fact, so popular, and Mauch Chunk really once was one of the top must-visit towns in all of the US, why isn’t it anymore? Why, if one were to venture into Jim Thorpe, PA (as Mauch Chunk is known today), would the only remnants of the once-famous Switchback be a reconstructed car, some rusting rails, and an 18-mile hiking trail? The answer is simple: like many once-great towns across the country, Mauch Chunk and its Switchback eventually ran headlong into the Great Depression. Cartmell writes that in 1929, the CNJ ceased bringing tourist trains into Mauch Chunk and sold the Switchback. On October 28, 1938, the last car ran down the tracks and the Switchback closed for good, a failing tourist market and nationwide dearth of disposable income to blame. It would never reopen, and is, for the most part, forgotten.
Yet, among the many thousands of tourists upon whom the Switchback left a lasting impression was a man by the name of LaMarcus A. Thompson. Thompson was an inventor, and saw profitability in the thrills offered by the Switchback. In 1884, he filed a patent for his “Roller Coasting Structure,” and in the same year built his own Switchback Railway at Coney Island in New York City. While somewhat simple and an order of magnitude smaller than the Switchback at Mauch Chunk, Cartmell insists that Thompson’s Switchback was an immediate moneymaker. At 5 cents a pop, lines could top three hours, and Thompson brought in an average of $600 a day in profits. The success of Thompson’s ride drew imitators, and before long the competition snowballed. Inventors constantly tried to outdo each other, and nearly every few months someone new stepped up to the plate with the latest and greatest in gravity-based entertainment.
The competition and one-upsmanship of those early days of the roller coaster have not died. Today, the legacy of the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway lives on in the nearly 2500 roller coasters operating worldwide, according to Duane Marden’s “Roller Coaster Census Report.” Literally millions of thrill-seekers around the world owe a great debt to Messrs. White, Hazard, and Hauto for creating in the coal hills of Pennsylvania over 100 years ago what would become one of the world’s favorite amusement pastimes.