The Sunday School Teacher Who Got Us Screaming


Up ahead, this road we’re following will leave Licking County temporarily and enter Muskingum County. Then it re-enters Licking County briefly before returning to Muskingum County where it remains for the next 27 miles. As we depart Licking County, let’s pay tribute to one of its famous sons: LaMarcus Adna Thompson.

What? You haven’t heard of LaMarcus Adna Thompson? Well, let me tell you his story.

LaMarcus Adna Thompson lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was, among other things, a Sunday School teacher who, it is said, was appalled at the leisure activities that drew young people in his day, and in particular saw amusement parks as places of sin and degradation. He sought to create a wholesome entertainment—one that would build character rather than subject children to vice and depravity.


            His invention, I think it’s fair to say, has resulted in all kinds of character development. It’s the roller coaster. LaMarcus Adna Thompson is credited as the inventor of the modern roller coaster.


            Let’s go back to Coney Island, New York, USA. 1884. LaMarcus Adna Thompson opened a ride he called the “Switchback Railway,” which he referred to as a “gravity pleasure ride.” It was based on designs first used in coal mines in eastern Pennsylvania. Some veins of coal were mined in mountains, above the canal where the coal was loaded for shipment. A track was built from the opening of the mine down to the loading dock. Then, a train was filled with coal, and it coasted down the hill. How were the cars to get back up the hill? Mules. Mules pulled the empty cars back up. How do you get the mules back down the hill efficiently after they’ve hauled up a load? Well, they were herded into another of the train cars and rode down with the coal. It can be said, then, that the first roller coaster riders were mules.


            Thompson’s “Switchback Railway” had a similar design. People climbed a tower, got on the train, and rode it down 600 feet of track. At its peak, the ride sped along at 6 miles per hour. When it reached the bottom, the cars were hoisted back up so that another group of fun seekers could experience this thrill.


            Coney Island patrons had never seen anything like it. They flocked to this new attraction, and it was profitable from the beginning, even at 5 cents a ride. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Adna Thompson—in a kind of missionary zeal—built roller coasters all over the United States and Europe. In just four years, he created almost 50 of them. For these contributions, LaMarcus Adna Thompson—native of Licking County, Ohio, and a Sunday School Teacher—can be credited with getting more people screaming than just about anybody ever has.  He’s considered the Father of the Roller Coaster.


From Museum of the Open Road audio script

for Interstate 90 East: Cleveland, Ohio

    to Erie, Pennsylvania

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