Thrill Makers of Coney Island (Jun, 1931)
Thrill Makers of Coney Island
By Alfred Albelli
When you take a hair-raising ride on one of Coney Island’s roller coasters, the stunt isn’t really half so dangerous as it seems to you. Mechanical geniuses behind the scenes have built safety devices into these thrill machines so that they’re less dangerous than walking across a busy street.
EACH year from May to September, approximately 60,000,000 persons visit and abandon some of their dollars at Coney Island, the most famous playground of the western world.
This peninsula of pleasure, which is barely three miles long, attracts multitudes from all parts of North America. For the greater part of five months it pulsates, thrills, and explodes with fun; then it withdraws into its shell to await the following summer’s awakening and invasion.
Coney Island protrudes from the southeastern tip of Greater New York, jutting into the Bay off Brooklyn. For nearly a half century it has been a spa for those seeking relief from the heat and hustle-bustle of the congested city as well as the resort for out-of-town visitors. During the past twenty-five years its fame has been far-flung due to its variety of attractions, in addition to its lures of the sea.
The average pleasure-seeker at Coney Island, shrieking with delight as he swoops down a steep grade on the roller coaster, to be caught up the next moment and flung toward the sky as the thrill-car starts to climb at break-neck speed, never for a moment dreams of the science and mechanical skill which have been combined to give him his thrill in absolute safety. Yet both skill and science are there in the background, back of the Ferris wheel and the Whip and the merry-go-round and the thousand and one other thrill-makers which lure the dollars from Coney Island’s carnival crowds.
For example, let us pry into the workings of the Thunderbolt, one of the three roller coasters. George Moran, its manager, says that three years ago he installed the Thun- derbolt at a cost of $250,000. Since that time he has carried 750,000 passengers, which, at fifteen cents a head, means it has brought $112,500. “One more season,” says Mr. Moran, “and the Thunderbolt will be mine.”
“The Thunderbolt,” explained Mr. Moran, “is operated on a scale of 25 per cent electricity to 75 per cent of gravity. As you know, gravity costs us nothing.
“In conveying the cars up the inclines we use a link-belt chain, similar to those used in mines. On its first rise, the three cars which form a roller coaster train, go up to an elevation of 75 feet, then drop suddenly at a 57 degree and then pitch up at a 62 degree angle. About this time you feel that the car is going to turn over or be ripped from its moorings, but the engineering de- sign of the roller coaster takes account of natural laws and provides an adequate margin of safety.
“At another point it drops at a 68 degree angle and shoots up an incline of 66 degrees. After that first drop, the roller coaster is carried around the entire route of three-quarters of a mile wholly by gravity. There is no motor-power application. It covers the distance in one minute and seven seconds.
“In the plant we use a 100 horse power motor, which is 50 horsepower more than is required. The plant is located in a shed situated twenty-five feet from the ground in a space within the labyrinth of tracks which go to make up the roller coaster proper.
“Once the train is dispatched on its first drop, there are no brakes which can regulate it, should anything happen along the course.
However, even if so vital a part as its axle were broken, the train is so constructed that it would come home of its own accord.
“Each train has under-friction rollers, consisting of four rollers which hold it down when it has a tendency to rise off the tracks. Then there are four side-friction wheels which take care of the side-friction. And there are four more riding wheels which ride along the upper surface of the track.
“The cars are finally stopped, after their uncontrolled career through space, by a 200-foot friction brake with three levers.
When the brake is thrown on, the friction shoes on each car press down on the long friction-brake. This contact of wrought-iron against steel brings the train to a halt.
“The hazards of riding a roller coaster are negligible. Most of the accidents happen when the rider disobeys rules, and are not due to the construction or operation of the roller coaster. Two mechanics walk the course twice a day, inspecting every link and bolt. City inspectors make a thorough examination once a week, and then the insurance company sends around its men to inspect. Everywhere there are safety contraptions. We make it look far more dangerous than it is. Otherwise you wouldn’t ride it.”
Another mechanical ride which brings the owners a rich harvest each season is the Steeplechase. In this sweepstake there are four wooden horses which race around a course which is supposed to represent hill and dale and the riders imagine themselves as embittered jockeys. Two persons ride each saddle.
At the starting point the horses are released down a mild decline and again they are driven by gravity until they reach a gentle slope of a track. Here they are pulled up for about 25 yards by a system of chains and gears, not unlike the method used in the roller coaster, and then when they reach the top of this first hill, they glide off and downhill on their own again.
The horses are placed on two trolley wheels and it is these wheels which whirl them around the whole course after their first descent. Gravity and the wheels do the rest on the 1/2-mile ride.
There are 65 races run off an hour on this mechanical track. Over 5,000 ride these horses daily. Not more than $5.00 worth of electricity is consumed each day.
On the other hand, Coney Island has become so vast that there is a large electrical plant there and one of the biggest gas works in the country. It is estimated that the pleasure colony’s electric bill each day is $10,000 and that its gas bill is more than $5,000. Next to the labor item, these are the two outstanding costs of upkeep which disturb the proprietor at Coney Island, who is perhaps the only individual in the universe who can mix pleasure and business and make it pay.
Several Sundays during the past summer have seen a population of 1,000,000 persons on the beaches which flank the island. Bo-hind the boardwalk which skirts along the ocean front there are, strange as it may seem, a dozen swimming pools. Here all kinds of diving and raft apparatus are installed to win the swimmer from the ocean’s surf.
In the restaurants one finds none of the elements of a mechanical nature to intrigue the attention. Food is doled out according to the oldest of rituals to the hungry. One food stand alone, however, boasted of selling 100,000 hot dogs during one of the 1,000,000 population Sundays.
But in the matter of games, the inventive mind is more in evidence. They are no longer games of chance, but games of averages. They are for the most part on the level, the owner of a particular stand finding his profit in the law of averages. It is not always that some one wins anything, and often it may be some one he has planted out front to play a number which is consistently lucky. Occasionally, one still hears of the wheel with numbers which revolves until the owner puts his foot on a hidden brake to stop it at his desired number.
The day of the merry-go-round and the flying horses at Coney Island seems to have gone. There is a mournful, lugubrious atmosphere about these carousels which were once the center of the fun-making. Those indulging in these riding revels seem to take to other apparatus. At one merry-go-round the records showed that exactly 500 persons had been on the horses that week.
The Ferris wheel, one of the most ancient of rides, still gets a big play at Coney Island. This weird wheel which revolves slowly, giving the nerve-wracked occupant of a carriage-body contraption a view of the distant as well as proximate panorama, reaches up into the air 125 feet.
Around one rim of the wheel there are teeth of steel which sink into the links of a chain which rotates about two small wheels at the base. The chain turns with these wheels and drives the Ferris wheel around as it carries its teeth along its five-foot course and releases them. Then at the other end new teeth are picked up and carried on. A small motor supplies the power to the two small wheels.
One of the favorite rides is the Scooter, which consists of miniature automobiles. They are operated on an enclosure with a floor of steel plates and a ceiling of screen-wire which supplies electricity to the small auto by means of a rod which extends up from the rear of the car and moves along the screening on a small wheel. These cars are for the most part uncontrollable, despite the existence of the steering gears, and the chief joy is derived from crashing into other cars. There are no casualties because of the thick rubber fenders which protect each car.
The Heyday is a variation of this. The cars revolve about a track and follow a given line of motion, although the optical illusion makes it appear that one car will crash into another any moment. In this case the forward wheels of the car stick to the straight line, while the rear careens madly about on unregulated wheels.
In the Frolic, which is a modification of the merry-go-round, the carriages swing around in a circular course on a pivot. There are springs and depressions in the track which control the rise and fall of the carriage and its swaying. The airplanes which whirl around on rods which are suspended from motor-driven bars follow the same principles. In all these devices, which are the most popular attractions at Coney, one perceives that thrill is supplied with absolute safety.
The element of surprise, mingled with mechanical co-operation, proves a good drawing-card. The crazy-house fits into this class. There are several of them, but the most conspicuous one is Noah’s Ark on the boardwalk. Here one finds sliding stairs which slip from under you if you don’t watch out. You grab a rail to keep from falling and you get a shock. Some one has sent a few volts through the rail.
There are dark corners out of which a sheet will sweep. Some one screams that there are spooks. You try to run back and find that you have just traversed a turnstile which works only one way. Mirrors distort your face and body into monstrous shapes. Then there is a high, smooth slide which winds you up in a pit.
All along the route in the crazy house there are little holes in the floor through which air is suddenly gushed, raising havoc with your skirt if you are a woman. A man concealed in a lofty perch controls these air-holes just as he does the electricity which shoots through the rails.
A psychological commentary may be gleaned from the observations of the owner of the Noah’s Ark crazy-house. “Although many young people and women are filled with horror and scream with fright on their first visit through the place, they are always anxious to repeat the journey once they are safe in the open again. Two old-maidish dames once went through the place 48 times, actually. They must have liked that slide, I guess.”
Everything conceivable in the amusement world may be found at Coney. Its governors have overlooked nothing with appeal in this prodigious enterprise which depends for profit on the public’s palate for pleasure. They make it plain that there is room for many more mechanical devices. The multitudes are always seeking new thrills, in keeping with the laws of human nature. What they want and are always seeking is something which is a product of this fertile machine age, something gorgeous and thrilling.
The Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, an association which cautiously guards the destinies of the business men along the $1,000,000 boardwalk, estimates that the total earnings of its members during the five-month season amount to nearly $60,000,-000, striking up an average of $1.00 for each individual which crosses its circumference during the summer.
As a vast business enterprise founded on fun, Coney Island should not make a bad showing in Bradstreets. Its pleasures afford fat dividends. One might be amazed to learn that its earnings compare favorably with those of the United States Steel Corporation, one of the foremost industries in America. For the first five months of 1930, United States Steel grossed a little over $60,000,000.