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Pittsburgh’s First Roller Coaster at the Point

by Rachel
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Where do you think Pittsburgh’s first roller coaster was located? Kennywood Park? West View Park? Maybe even Luna Park? Would you be surprised if I told you it was located at the Point?

When most people think of Pittsburgh’s Point at the turn of the century, they think not of an area where people would want to go for amusements but more of an area filled with warehouses, factories, and slums. The truth is, the Point was the home to the Greater Pittsburgh Exposition which was the home to not only a roller coaster but also a Ferris Wheel and a Merry-go-Round in addition to a huge exposition hall.

Pittsburgh’s very first roller coaster was a Switchback Railway which debuted in 1885. The builders were aware that this ride would be very popular so Pittsburgh’s first roller coaster was actually two roller coasters because two were built side-by-side.

Drawing of Switchback Railway

This lithograph depicts the original twin switchback railway that was erected on the banks on the banks of the Allegheny River. This coaster lasted until 1901.

The double coasters opened September 4, 1895 and measured five hundred feet long (for a 1,000 foot-long ride), cost $10,000 to construct, and was a nickel to ride. They were constructed by James A. Griffiths, of Connecticut, who built several other coasters in the Pittsburgh-area. 

In 1896, the coasters were renamed Gravity Railway.

St. Patrick’s Day Fire

St. Patrick’s Day has never been very good for Pittsburgh natural disaster-wise. This was the case on St. Patrick’s Day in 1901 when a fire broke out on the Exposition Grounds, destroying a large portion of the property and causing $242,000 worth of damage. Sadly, the twin Gravity Railroad coasters were destroyed in the fire.

Then, T.M. Harton Company enters the scene. 

The Third Exposition Grounds Coaster

Several amusements were located at the Exposition Grounds including a merry-go-round which can be seen on the lefthand side of this card, as well as the roller coaster and a Ferris wheel.

The T.M. Harton Company (You’ll know them as the operators of Pittsburgh’s West View Park) was familiar with the Greater Pittsburgh Exposition, as they had built and operated many other rides there so it was only natural that they decided to built the next roller coaster on the Exposition Grounds. 

The Exposition Hall can be seen in the foreground along with industrial buildings. The roller coaster can be seen by the bridge. The Pirates stadium is across the river.

The new coaster, the third for the site, was a figure-eight roller coaster called the Togoggan Slide. The rights to build the coaster were purchased from E. Joy Morris, the patent holder for that sort of coaster.

The figure-eight coaster can be seen beside the exposition hall in front of the newly constructed bridge.

Built at a cost of $15,000 the new coaster opened in 1901. The Toboggan Slide was reconstructed in 1911, but continued operating each season until the Pittsburgh Exposition ceased operations after the 1916 season.

A roller coaster train can be seen climbing the lift hill on the far left of the picture. In the bottom lefthand corner is the merry-go-round building. The Pirates original stadium is in the foreground.

While some may be surprised to learn that the city’s first roller coaster wasn’t in an amusement park at all, it is an interesting fun fact to tell your friends next time you are visiting the Point!

More Pittsburgh Amusement Park History …

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