A couple of years ago, my mom, Collene Spencer, my sister, Cheryl Masterson, and I made a trip back to Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota to reconnect, and meet family members there. We had a wonderful trip, and both my sister and I have found sites on Facebook that display pictures of the area. Cheryl and I were both born in Superior, Wisconsin, so we feel a closeness to the area, even though we have not lived there for many years. It is still the area of our roots. Now that we have been back in a more recent time, a continue to feel drawn to the area. The strange thing is that the things I am interested in at this time, are more historic things…some of them, things that no longer exist. In my memory, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Duluth, but I’m probably mistaken on that count…at least to a degree. Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota are so close to each other, that if there were no signs to tell you so, you might not realize that you have left one and entered the other. I’m sure my parents shopped in Duluth, simply because as the larger of the two cities, there was quite likely more variety there.
Recently, I started looking into some of the history of that general area, and stumbled on something interesting. Duluth had an incline railway. Personally, I like incline railways, but I have never seen one that was in a city. Incline railways seem more like something that you would see at a tourist attractions, than anything that you would use in everyday life. Nevertheless, Duluth, in 1891, had a streetcar line, and in December 1891, the Duluth Street Railway Company opened the incline railway, as part of that street car line. The Incline Railway was on the right-of-way of Seventh Avenue West. The Duluth Street Railway Company had received a charter from the state in 1881 to build a streetcar line for Duluth. The hillside on Seventh Avenue West was too steep for a regular rail line, so they built an incline railway for that area. From it’s base station on Superior Street, the Incline climbed 509 feet in slightly more than half a mile, on a ten foot gauge track. Originally, a pair of forty one by fifteen foot cars counterbalanced each other, one going up while the other one descended. They were built to accommodate four teams and wagons, or up to 250 standing passengers. The Incline was powered by a stationary steam engine at the top. The trip took sixteen minutes, one way…just enough time to make it an enjoyable trip.
In 1925, it was noted that the Incline carried an average of 2,170 weekday passengers, while the connecting Highland streetcar line carried an average of only 1,114 weekday passengers. I’m sure that was because people like incline railways…they are unique….besides, climbing that hill would not be fun. Hourly checks showed that most riders traveled downhill in the morning rush hour and uphill during the afternoon rush hour. Most likely they were commuting to and from work. The Duluth Incline Railway was never profitable. Nevertheless, it and the Highland line were the last remnants of the streetcar system to be replaced by buses. Their last day of service was September 4, 1939. For that reason, I’m sure that many of the current residents of Duluth don’t even know about the incline railroad. I didn’t either, until I stumbled on it.
Pretty much everyone has taken a ride on a roller coaster, but have you ever thought about where these originated or who thought them up? You might be surprised to learn that the roller coaster originated in Russia. I know that this is not at all what I expected. In Russia, they built a wood frame that the sledders used to fly down 70 foot high mountain slopes as early as the 16th century. Now, I don’t know it I would consider that to be a roller coaster, but I can tell you that I know it would be a scary ride. There weren’t any breaks on the whole thing. Just you and gravity. The ride was so popular that they built a summertime version…a wheeled cart that took riders down a wooden ramp. If that version, which I have seen in Jackson, Wyoming, and Keystone, South Dakota, though not at 70 foot drops, was as uncontrolled as the first one, I would not be on it.
Many of the early roller coasters, which were probably not what we would consider to be real roller coasters either, were designed as improvements to incline railways systems. Those patents began as early as July 2, 1872, but they were designed to take you from the top to the bottom of a hill or canyon, like the one at Royal Gorge in Colorado, or at Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I have had the pleasure of riding and both of those and I enjoyed them very much. I’m sure that most people would consider this type of ride to be pretty tame, as it is very controlled. It would have to be controlled in order to stop at the bottom.
The Circular Railway, is probably the type of roller coaster that most of us rode as children. There are a few hills and slightly fast moments, but for the most part, it goes around in a circle, while going up and down hills. Pretty tame in the eyes of most thrill seekers, but for little kids, it works pretty well, or at least the old style did. I don’t know if some of the current circular railway roller coasters are scary or not.
Probably one of the most famous roller coasters received it’s patent on this day, January 20, 1885, and was the first Switchback Railway roller coaster. If you thought about it, you might guess that is was at New York’s famous Coney Island. It was designed by LaMarcus Thompson, and debuted in 1884. This roller coaster was considered to be the first successful roller coaster. It was really a fairly primitive Gravity Switchback Railway, but the people loved it, and it immediately began bringing in as much as $600.00 a day…an amazing amount of money in 1884.
Roller coasters continued to be very popular until economic changes in he 1940s, 50s, and 60s caused them to lose their appeal. Nevertheless, the roller coaster would rise again. Now, we have Megacoasters, Hypercoasters, and Gigacoasters. Megacoasters such as Phantom’s Revenge in Pittsburgh’s Kennywood Park or The Beast at King’s Island were first. Hypercoasters standing 200 feet high, the first of which was Cedar Point’s Magnum XL-200 and the Desperado near Las Vegas, Steel Force at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Mamba at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, took things to the next level. Cedar Point then introduced Millennium Force, the world’s first Gigacoaster topping off at an astounding 310 feet above the ground.
I suppose that in order to compete, rollercoasters will continue to become more wild, higher, and scarier as time goes on. I’m sure that many people look forward to each new one that is developed, but since I never liked merry-go-rounds or anything much scarier than a Ferris Wheel, I guess that I will have to leave those riding challenges to someone with more of a stomach for it than I have.