Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Smooth celebrations for a bumpy, thrilling 50 years

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 18, 2008


Nina Fraley shivered in the morning mist. She studied a rickety-looking contraption, lifting her head high to gaze at the top of a wooden hill.

A train filled with squealing children slowly rolled past, before climbing the steep track, a rhythmic clackety-clack, clackety-clack, counting the rise in elevation.

At the peak, the train noise stopped. The children became quiet.

At 68 feet above the fairgrounds of the Pacific National Exhibition, riders enjoy a panoramic view of mountains and the bridge linking the city to the north shore. The solitude lasts but a second or two, before the train responds, as it must, to the law of gravity, hurtling downward with a hail of shrieks.

The cries brought a smile to Ms. Fraley's face.

“I miss the sound of it,” she said. “I'd go to sleep at night with the sound of the roller coaster ringing in my ears. This takes me home.”

She has been riding coasters for 78 of her 80 years. She is the daughter of legendary coaster designer Carl Phare, who raised three daughters in a home on the grounds of an amusement park in Seattle.

“I got popular in school in the spring,” she said. Classmates were keen to befriend a girl who had a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster in her backyard.

On Tuesday, she attended a ceremony at Playland to mark the 50th birthday of The Coaster, the Vancouver landmark that has left millions of riders scared witless.

A mayoral proclamation was read, cake was served, and, best of all, free coaster rides were on offer. The lineup began in the predawn gloom, a mother and her nine-year-old son at the head. They would be joined by businessmen in suits, schoolchildren on a field trip and an assortment of daredevils and thrill seekers.

About a dozen members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts came to pay homage to a ride they have declared a classic.

“Every single dip on this coaster you get air time,” enthused Steve Gzesh, a Seattle aficionado who has survived 686 coasters in 14 countries. “That bump near the end – that's ejection-seat air time!”

Those who ride the coaster trust in the engineering wizardry of a man who quit school in the sixth grade.

As a boy, Carl Phare supported his poor mother by selling newspapers on the sidewalks of Kansas City. A stint at an amusement park convinced him to head east to work at Coney Island, where he became fascinated by the mechanics of the rides. He learned the science by correspondence courses.

In 1931, he bought a failing, year-old amusement park at Bitter Lake, north of Seattle. He managed to keep it running through the Depression, later designing several remarkable wooden coasters along the West Coast.

His Vancouver coaster is powered by a 75-horsepower engine that hauls the train to the crest of the hill. After those 20 seconds of climbing, the train is in down-bound freefall. No motor. No brakes.

The designer had an imagination. After the first big drop, novice riders assume they have endured the worst. Not so. The drop comes only within three metres of the ground, allowing for an even steeper – and more horrifying, because it is so unexpected – second drop.

The wooden skeleton creaks and groans like an old man, every passing train threatening to reduce the framework to a pile of matchsticks.

The coaster was built of Douglas fir grown at high elevations, making the wood especially durable. Some 300 carpenters and millwrights, among them a pair of Norwegian boat-builders, built the Tinker-toy coaster under the supervision of Walker LeRoy. Born in Ontario at Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), he became renowned for his expertise in building and repairing amusement-park rides.

For the maiden ride, he loaded the first train with his wife, Allegra, their two teenaged daughters, and a dozen sandbags. “I just lashed them in,” he once told me, “and away we went.”

Mr. LeRoy, who died nine years ago, understood the attraction of roller coasters.

“Everybody wants to defy the laws of gravity.”

Fifty years ago yesterday, he stood atop the big hill when he heard a low rumble that caused his stomach to churn. For an instant, he feared his beautiful coaster was falling beneath him. Instead, to the north, a cloud of dust rose from the collapse of a bridge under construction. Mr. LeRoy returned every year to check up on the Vancouver coaster, reminded when he climbed the hill of the 18 men who had died at the bridge.

A few hours after the giddy coaster ceremony, a more sober gathering remembered those lost at what is now known as the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.

The bridge and the coaster, built in the same year, were heralds of a modern, exciting city. Today, one is a humdrum commute of little notice, the other a thrilling transgression of our earthbound status. The bridge came at great cost. The one that is scarier is a tease.

The coaster has been featured in movies and ridden by such Hollywood stars as Mel Gibson, Johnny Depp and 1.42-metre-tall Gary Coleman, who beat the height restriction by 22 centimetres. Couples have been married at the top of the big hill, vows exchanged before literally plunging into wedded life.

The octogenarian daughter of the coaster's designer travelled north from California to attend yesterday's celebration. Having come so far, there was no way she was not going to ride the last of her father's coasters that still stands.

She sat in seat No. 1 of the lead car of the purple A train, waving to onlookers like the queen. Ninety seconds later, having endured two big drops, short climbs and dips, a horseshoe curve, a wicked reverse curve, a pair of bugaboos known as camel humps, her train pulled into the station.

Her white hair was askew. She clapped in delight at her father's handiwork.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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