Historical Markers
Leap-The-Dips Roller Coaster Historical Marker
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Leap-The-Dips Roller Coaster

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Lakemont Park 700 Park Ave., Altoona

Dedication Date:
November 28, 2000

Behind the Marker

Where does work end and fun begin? Imagine interrupting your workday with a roller-coaster ride that whirls you down a nine-mile long wooden track and gives you stunning views of the Poconos and Blue Ridge Mountains. That's just the kind of lunch break you would have had in 1827-if you were a mule in Mauch Chunk, Pa.

Scenic Switchback Railroad flyer
Advertisement for the "Famous Switch-back Railroad," Mauch Chunk, PA, circa...
That spring the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company first began to launch trains of coal downhill on its marker Switchback Railroad to the loading dock on the Lehigh Canal. Gravity alone took the load-nearly 1,200 tons of coal-down the run, which dropped 96 feet per mile. In the first few decades of its operation, twenty-eight mules also rode thirty minutes downhill munching hay, then spent the next three hours hauling 46 empty cars back uphill again.

As technology changed, the mules made way for human passengers. By 1844 the company had replaced the mules with two stationary 120-horsepower steam engines, which hauled the empty cars back uphill assisted by small cogged cars called "barneys." As more mines opened in the region, railroads expanded to serve them, and the coal-hauling gravity Switchback became as obsolete as its mules. In 1873, the line converted exclusively to passenger excursions. Thrill-seekers paid $1 to be hauled uphill by the steam-powered barney. At the summit, visitors could eat in a restaurant or take a guided tour of a quarry and steaming sulphur pit. Once back in the train, the barneys were disconnected, and gravity took over, thrilling the passengers to a nine-mile downhill flurry, blurring past the scenery at speeds up to 65 m.p.h.

E. J. Morris toboggan slide patent, No. 522,2025 page 1, June 26, 1894.
The ride became so popular that a year after it opened the Switchback was second only to Niagara Falls in drawing a crowd, and in its heyday (the 1870s and 1880s), it carried some 35,000 riders annually. Operating until the 1930s, it still holds the all-time record for being the highest altitude roller coaster in the world (1,260 feet). Its eighteen-mile track was the longest ever built. It also influenced roller-coaster technology and the growth of amusement parks for decades.

One of the many thousands to visit Mauch Chunk was Midwestern hosiery manufacturer LaMarcus Adna Thompson, who in 1884 built the "Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway" in Coney Island, N.Y.; the first roller coaster built in the U.S. as an amusement-park ride. Charging a nickel a ride, Thompson made more than $600 a day. Thompson is credited as the "Father of the Gravity Pleasure Ride" industry, but it was Philadelphian Edward Joy Morris (1860-1929) who added the safety features and marketing style that would turn roller coasters into the premier entertainment technology of its day, as anchor attractions in the great amusement parks, and thousands of other local "trolley parks" around the country.

Leap-the-Dips, Altoona, PA, circa 2006.
In 1894, Morris patented a Figure Eight Toboggan Slide, a type of roller coaster that utilized two sets of wheels to help anchor the cars in the tracks. Support wheels beneath the cars carried the weight of the cars on rails, initially made of sugar maple. Morris then attached the side-friction wheels vertically on the sides of the cars, seating them into troughs on boards mounted along the sides of the track, making it less likely that the cars would derail or overturn.

Ratchets engaged the cars from below while they were traveling uphill, to prevent them from rolling backwards. Because they were inherently more secure, the new side-friction rides didn't require a brakeman to ride along. At the end of the ride, operators could then bring a side-friction coaster to a stop by means of a hand-operated friction brake in the loading station. Equipped with Morris's wheels, new rides could go much faster than the earlier switchback or scenic railway rides, especially on curves, thus producing the familiar, scream-inducing lateral G-force so popular with coaster riders today.

Leap-the-Dips, Altoona, PA, circa 2006.
Based in Philadelphia, with an office on Walnut Street and factories at Callowhill and Ludlow streets, The Morris Chute Company manufactured coasters and carousels. It designed and built the chutes and toboggans for Willow Grove Park near Philadelphia in 1896 and delivered its first carousel to the new trolley park at Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia in 1899.

Morris, however, soon became more interested in running his signature Figure Eight coasters than in actually manufacturing them. In 1903, he sold that side of his business to interests that eventually become the world-renowned Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Morris spent the rest of his life traveling around the country with his E. Joy Morris Co., installing and operating Figure Eights as a concessionaire. At least 250 of these Figure Eights were built in North America and an unknown number abroad. By the 1920s, side-friction coasters were superseded by the even safer under-friction safety wheels, and rides became faster and more thrilling.
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