It’s not just a single mood. It constantly keeps changing—segues from one emotion to another.” Milton Berger is talking about a roller coaster; and if his terms might seem better suited to a symphony, that’s all right. The coaster he’s describing is a masterpiece.
Berger is the public relations representative for Astroland, the Coney Island amusement park that has since 1975 operated the Cyclone Coaster. It is a foul, smoky June morning, murderously humid and hot as August, and seagulls make desolate noises as they float through the Cyclone’s high arcs. The trains aren’t running yet. “There’s three thousand feet of track,” says Berger. “The whole ride takes a minute and forty-five seconds, but it can feel like a lifetime.” He points upward. “That’s the first drop, ninety feet at a sixtydegree angle. There’s eight other drops, and six fan turns.” Those drops and turns have been generating ecstatic terrors for sixty-two years now, and many consider the Cyclone the best of all roller coasters. Not the biggest, or the longest, or the fastest. Just the best.
It is fitting that the Cyclone should still be working out at Coney, for the roller coaster was born on that riotous finger of land at the tip of Brooklyn and went through every phase of its development there. In 1884 LaMarcus A. Thompson—remembered by showmen as “the inventor of gravity”—put up his Switchback Railway, two parallel stretches of track over which passengers rolled six hundred gentle feet and were hoisted up to roll back. This simple device cost Thompson sixteen hundred dollars to build, and from the start took in more than five hundred dollars a day. Even before the season was out, a competitor named Alcoke had joined the ends of the two tracks together in a continuous loop; the next summer Philip Hinckle was drawing cars to the top of the first drop with a chain—which is how it’s done today.
“The Cyclone’s chain is about five hundred feet long,” says Gerald Menditto. He’s the coaster’s operations manager, and we’re at the back of the shed that houses its workings. It takes a surprising amount of heavy machinery to get the cars upgrade. The chain is pulled by a belt-driven wheel twelve feet high, powered by a husky electric motor, and everywhere there are bearings studded with grease cups as big around as silver dollars. Both chain and motor have to be substantial. “Each car weighs two tons,” says Menditto, “and there’s three in a train.”
The trains are the same ones that began running on opening day, June 26, 1927—or, rather, the metal carriages are the same; the wood and upholstery have been renewed countless times over the years. “We tear ’em down and build ’em up every season.” One train is on the repair tracks behind us showing its friction wheels, which ride along beneath the rails and keep the cars from jumping into the air. “The chain is continuously oiled when it’s running,” says Menditto, “and we’re always changing the inside links, cotter pins. …”
It’s the same story with the rest of the coaster. All that scaffolding is the domain of Walter Williams, who took over maintenance here after a seventeen-year stint on the fine, now-vanished coaster at nearby Rockaway. “I’ve replaced probably 60 percent of the steel—the turns are steel—and maybe 75 percent of the wood.” He waves to a long stretch of unpainted timber. “There, you can see. And the entire lower course I built from the ground up.”
At noon the ride opens. It’s raining a little now, but even on this suffocating weekday the first train goes off full. People let out the obligatory shrieks as the cars clank upgrade and Coney fans out below, then gulp and moan as they plummet into the famous first drop. Then it’s up and over and down again in one powerful surge, and the passengers recover their voices as the train slams through the wood and steel thickets over subsiding humps.
What seems one great random bounding blur is an orderly and familiar route to Williams. Every morning of the season he’s out walking the tracks at six o’clock, making sure nothing has given way during yesterday’s battering, and he takes a ride every few days to check for soft spots. Men used to be doing that all over the country every summer morning: there were perhaps as many as fifteen hundred woodentrack roller coasters racketing their way through the season earlier in the century. Now the number is down to about eighty-five. “The people in those coaster clubs, they come and ask me to join. You know, go all over the country riding on roller coasters.” He shakes his head and grins up at some extreme lariat of track in the superb example he has in his charge. “But I don’t see the need of it.”