The Untold Truth About Carnivals

The original roller coaster was really, really slow

Considering it’s not unusual for a modern roller coaster to top out at 90 or more miles per hour, it’s pretty hilarious to imagine carnival-goers of 120 years ago hopping on one that went barely faster than a brisk power-walk, hardly enough to jostle your mandatory 1880s top hat/monocle ensemble. But that’s what the 12,000 people a day who rode The Switchback Railway paid their hard-earned old people nickels for.

It was called “Switchback” because that’s literally what you had to do. For a nickel, you manually climbed up a staircase to the top of a 50-foot tower, boarded the car, and slowly coasted down a slight incline to the bottom, where you’d then walk up another 50-foot tower, get on a second car, and slowly coast back.

Those of us who barely remember high school physics may recognize this as doing all the work for the roller coaster for the payoff of a trip half as fast as an average golf cart. Those of us who barely remember elementary school recess may recognize this as a slide but with a bunch of extra pointless steps.