Coasting on thrilling memories
It seems like an oxymoron but the truth is, there are a lot of people who take amusement parks, very seriously: Especially roller coasters.
We learned that recently when a story about the “Freefall” ride at the old Rocky Point Park prompted a call from Conimicut resident John Caruthers who happened to have a copy of a news story about the Freefall before it came to Rhode Island. When he explained why he had a story about an accident in an amusement park in Illinois over 25 years ago, we learned that we had one of those folks who took amusement seriously.
“I collect material about amusement parks,” Caruthers explained, “but I am moving back to Mississippi and I gave a lot of my material to the National Amusement Park Historical Society, but I think I still have a copy of that story.”
A visit to Caruthers’ apartment lead to a discussion of roller coasters and Caruthers’ passion for riding them. Of course, as you speak with Caruthers, you can’t wait to hear which roller coaster in his experience was the best. Sorry, folks, it was not the various versions that once tore around Rocky Point. It was the “Shooting Star” at a park called Coney Island in Ohio, near Cincinnati.
“It was a wooden coaster but it could fly as smooth as glass,” said Caruthers, with a high cackle. “It had plenty of ‘air time’ [being lifted off your seat] and it had the ‘Crazy Helix’ through a tunnel that was lined with metal and you roared through the tunnel, right into the station.”
That roller coaster is long gone now, but the people who owned the park knew they had something special and offered people pieces of the wooden girders as souvenirs when it was taken down. Of course, Caruthers has a six-inch by six-inch square piece with a small plastic plaque revealing its history.
The Shooting Star was built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and designed by Herb Schmeck. Schmeck also redesigned and rebuilt the Giant Coaster at Paragon Park in Hull, Mass., after a fire in 1932, adding the improvements, including the helix at the end of the park, which was very much like the Shooting Star in Ohio. When we mentioned we were familiar with the Giant Coaster, before a second fire undid Schmeck’s improvements, Caruthers’ eyes widened in wonder and envy. “You rode it before the fire! Oh, I am so jealous,” responded Caruthers. “You know, that version of the Giant Coaster was rebuilt at a park in Maryland? There’s a Six Flags there that has the old helix!”
Caruthers said he went to Paragon Park in the 1970s and rode what was left of Schmeck’s work after a second fire in 1963 took out the helix, the station and some of the smaller hills that provided air time. He wasn’t impressed. Not many people were.
But it is thanks to people like Caruthers and their enthusiasm for the old coasters that the Giant Coaster, now called the Wild Cat, has survived to provide people with the experience that Caruthers had with the Shooting Star.
“There are probably 15,000 to 20,000 people who are amusement park enthusiasts and many are members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts club,” said Caruthers, “most of them in the States but some in other countries too.”
Caruthers says there have always been coaster enthusiasts but they did not really belong to any central organization before 1978.
“We have always been around but before the Internet arrived, we were not really in touch that much,” said Caruthers. “There was the mail and we did read about other enthusiasts and meet them occasionally but it was the premiere of “Rollercoaster” that brought about the organization.
“Rollercoaster” is a 1977 disaster-suspense film starring George Segal, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda and Timothy Bottoms. It was about a psychopathic bomber who sneaks into Ocean View Amusement Park and places a bomb on the tracks of a wooden roller coaster. The bomb detonates, causing the ride to derail, which kills several riders. It develops that the bomber wants $1 million to stop his bombing campaign and the film becomes a thriller about finding and stopping the bomber before he effectively closes down all the roller coasters in America with fear and terror.
The film is unique in that it provides detailed information about roller coasters and roller coaster fans all over the country that flocked to Richmond, Va., for the premiere. The making of the film coincided with a roller coaster marathon at King’s Dominion amusement park to promote the film and the park. The enthusiasts met and decided they needed a club to swap information, lore and other news concerning the roller coaster.
“That’s how it got started,” said Caruthers. “When they got together they started talking and realized that there were lots of parks and rides that we didn’t know about. That was before there was an Internet, and communicating with other enthusiasts wasn’t as easy as it is now. For instance, I learned there was a great park in Rye, New York and I didn’t know about it and I had lived near it for years!”
Caruthers’ love of roller coasters and amusement parks goes to his boyhood in Mississippi and a park known as The Fairgrounds in nearby Birmingham, Ala., that became a regular destination for him. Normally, a quiet, good boy who took his music lessons seriously and went to church, the Fairgrounds was a guilty pleasure for Caruthers.
“My mother didn’t approve of me riding roller coasters,” he said. “She didn’t approve of amusement parks in general, but I went as often as I could anyway.”
Caruthers’ music lessons got him into the University of Mississippi and being in the college band brought lots of travel, and more opportunities to explore what undiscovered midway thrills existed around the state and the region. But the real opportunity came when the college band was asked to play at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958 and had a stopover in New York City.
“When we got to New York, our chaperone very seriously said, ‘There are three places you absolutely cannot go; Greenwich Village, Harlem and Coney Island,’” Caruthers explained, ticking off the forbidden destinations on his fingers. “The first thing I did when I got to the hotel was to ask them how to get to Coney Island. I went there and rode the ‘Cyclone’ all night. I must have gone 100 times. It was only 35 cents a ride!”
After that, Caruthers made a point of planning visits to parks whenever he was wending his way home or to some other destination that took him to places that still had roller coasters.
Belonging to groups like the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) made that a little easier, but, like all travelers, he’s had his share of troubles.
“I remember once, after I had been out visiting a park, I came back to my hotel and learned that someone had broken into my room and stole things from my luggage … He took my father’s wedding ring, my watch, my shaving things and toiletries and some new underwear,” said Caruthers, before he returned to his trademark cackle of a laugh. “I told the police at least they know what to look for; a clean-shaven man wearing a watch and some brand new underwear!”
After a good many laughs, Caruthers got just a little bit serious, perhaps regretting that his pursuit of good old-fashioned fun had caused his mother so much worry.
“I have to admit,” he sighed, “I’m afraid I really never grew up.”