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Ride America’s Most Historic Roller Coasters

This summer, ride the coasters that add history to their thrills

The famous Cyclone roller coaster in Coney Island, New York. (© CHIP EAST/Reuters/Corbis)

On June 16, 1884, Sunday school teacher and part-time inventor LaMarcus Adna Thompson unveiled his greatest creation to the waiting crowds at Coney Island. Reportedly inspired by the switchback gravity-driven railways used in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, Thompson’s amusement ride featured two wooden structures that ran parallel to one another. Riders piled into cars sitting sideways and went up and down the wooden hills at the breakneck speed of 6 miles per hour, propelled only by gravity. The ride was so popular that it took in nearly $600 dollars a day, despite only costing a nickel to ride. Within three weeks, the ride had paid for itself. Dubbed the “Scenic Railway,” it was America’s first roller coaster.

The use of gravity, and the sound of joyous screams, are probably the only things that connect the Scenic Railway of yesteryear to the high-tech rollers coasters of today. Despite the fact that coasters are continuously getting taller and faster, there are still a few oldies-but-goodies out there.

Here are six roller coasters that made history and can still be ridden today: 

Leap-the-Dips: Altoona, Pennsylvania

Leap-the-Dips in Lakemont Park, Altoona, Pennsylvania, is the world’s oldest operating roller coaster. Rolling downhill at an average speed of 10 miles per hour, it may not be the fastest ride, but its history is unmatched. Built in 1902 by legendary roller coaster designer Edward Joy Morris, the coaster closed down in the 1980s and was nearly demolished in 1986 before being refurbished and reopened in 1999. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark, but still doesn’t have seatbelts, lapbars or headrests. It is the only side friction coaster left in North America, which means it doesn't have the extra set of wheels under the track that have become standard.

Jack Rabbit: Irondequoit, New York

When the Jack Rabbit opened to the masses in western New York in 1920, it was the fastest roller coaster in the world, topping out at 50 miles per hour. Today, that distinction belongs to Formula Rossa in Abu Dhabi (clocking in at nearly 150 miles per hour), but that doesn’t diminish the charm of this wooden ride. Located at historic Seabreeze Amusement Park outside Rochester, the Jack Rabbit is the oldest continuously operating coaster in North America. In the overhead rafters of the ride there is still an original sign that reads “pay as you leave.”

The Giant Dipper: Santa Cruz, California

When Arthur Looff built the Giant Dipper on Santa Cruz’s boardwalk in 1924, he wanted the coaster to be a combination of an “earthquake, balloon ascension and aeroplane drop.” For over 90 years, the Giant Dipper has done exactly that for over 60 million riders, including celebrities such as Vincent Price and basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. Befitting its existence as the oldest coaster in California, it has played parts in many Hollywood movies, including Dangerous Minds, The Lost Boys and Sudden Impact with Clint Eastwood. Today, it is one of the oldest operating coasters in the world and creates a distinctive silhouette along the Pacific Ocean during a California sunset

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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