Coal and coasters have a lot more in common than simply sharing the first three letters. Take the coal car pictured here, outside the coal mining museum that stands in a far corner of Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Knoebels is located in the heart of coal country in the Pennsylvania mountains, so a museum honoring the history of coal mining makes sense here.
I was especially pleased to find this coal car here since a few days earlier I had visited the Tour-Ed Mine in Tarentum, just 20 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. To enter the mine I had climbed into a similar coal car and travelled deep into the mine. We had ridden over railroad tracks, not unlike a roller coaster does. Those who enjoy riding roller coasters have a fascination with trackage. We like anything that follows a predetermined course guided by rails. Many of us had toy trains as children. Many of us are still drawn to model train exhibits, and collections of railroad locomotives and cars. What do psychologists make of that? In this year of perfect vision, 20-20, have no idea.
But coal mines resulted in the first-ever roller coaster in North America. Surprisingly perhaps, the first roller coaster riders in North America were mules. Let me explain. In North America, the first gravity-powered railroad was built in 1827 at Mauch Chunk, in eastern Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Scranton. Today Mauch Chunk is named Jim Thorpe. Here an open-pit coal mine was was to be opened atop nearby Mt. Pisgah. Railroad track was laid to the top of the mountain and mules were used to haul empty coal cars from the base of the mountain to the mine on top. The cars were filled with coal, and one car was left empty for the mules to climb in. Powered by gravity, they then rode downhill with each trainload of coal. At the end of the day the mules were asked to walk down the mountain, and being very stubborn animals, they refused. It didn’t take long for the miners to realize what the mules had already discovered. Namely, that riding downhill, powered by gravity, was really a lot of fun.
By 1873 all the coal had been mined, and the railroad was converted completely to passenger use. The layout was expanded to a giant 18-mile (29 km) long figure eight. A stationary steam engine at the base of Mt. Pisgah would pull a winch that was attached to a single 70-passenger car. The car, filled with riders, would be pulled to the top of the mountain and released for a seven-mile ride to the base of Mt. Jefferson. It would then be pulled to the top of that mountain and roll back to the starting point. During the home stretch the car reached speeds of nearly 60 mph. People sat on park benches on the car. There were no seat belts, no lap bars, and during its 65 years of operation before it closed in 1938, no one was ever injured. It was the first out-and-back coaster.