Roller Coasters in Europe Before 1884

Gravity rides have a long history in Europe prior to the introduction of toboggans, roller coasters, and switchback railways from North American in the 1880s.

Russia

Artificial ice slides originated in Russia by the 17th century. Wheeled versions for summer use may have been constructed before 1800. Here are several later descriptions of both varieties:

Public Ledger or The Daily Register of Commerce and Intelligence (London, England)
Monday, March 31, 1760

Letter from Peterburgh, Feb. 19.
...
The frost is gone: for these three weeks past the weather is mild; so that those who used to slide down a hill of ice from top to bottom, according to the custom of this week, are a little out of humour, because the thaw has disappointed them of this diversion.
The Examiner (London, England)
Sunday, December 11, 1836
The Emperor [Nicholas] wished to descend one of those inclined plains, called Russian mountains, situated in a Royal park.
The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, England)
Saturday, November 24, 1838
A Russian Court Ball.--On returning from the ball, we found the emperor's young children, the two grand dukes Michael and Nicholas, with their governess and preceptors, assembled in the outer room, where a large montagne Russe had been erected for their amusements ...
The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England)
Thursday, January 13, 1870

Notes from Russia

The said "ice-hills" (Russian mountains they are called in the west of Europe) must, by the way, have been of difficult construction, for there has been scarcely any frost yet at or near St. Petersburg. An ice-hill is a steep slope made smooth and paved with blocks of ice down which you are precipitated in a little wooden box, placed on rails under the guidance of an expert skater. But the pavement of ice to be perfect should be washed over with water, and it is of course desirable that this wash of water should freeze.
The Pall Mall Gazette (London)
Wednesday, July 30, 1879

Russian Fairs

... and lastly the dancing booths and the Russian mountains. These "mountains" are sloping tram-lines rising to a height of about forty feet, down which sleighs holding two people are sent sliding with a velocity which would bring up an Englishman's stomach into his mouth. When the sleigh has reached the foot of the slope, its impetus carries it half-way up another incline, where it meets a movable plate which slews it right round and sends it flying up again into the opposite direction--unless, the springs being rusty, it simply chucks the sleigh off the lines and tumbles out its inmates headlong. This delightful exercise seems well suited to Russian digestions, or it would not be so popular.

Paris

A number of wheeled gravity rides were built in Paris in the early 1800s, although contemporary accounts in English are scarce:

Poulson's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Thursday, October 31, 1816

A new diversion is now fashionable at Paris.--
In a garden situated at the Barriere du Roule, there have been erected, what are called the Russian Mountains. These are inclined planes, to imitate the ice-hills of Russia, and the amusement is to slide down this abrupt descent on a sledge. The rapidity of the motion which takes away the breath, and a noise resembling a burst of thunder, do not deter the adventurous belles of Paris, from partaking this new amusement.
The Times (London, England)
Tuesday, July 29, 1817

Fatal Duel in France

After having traversed the Bois de Boulogne without meeting a suitable place, they found means to get rid of the crowd which had followed their movements, and took their station in the rear of the Montagnes Russes.
The Morning Chronicle (London, England)
Saturday, November 29, 1817
[Extract of a Letter from Paris]
If this be the fact, as there is some reason to believe, Count Rupping must look elsewhere for the money which he expended so nobly at our Boulevard Theatres, the Montagnes Russes, &c. &c.

Although the Parisian rides did not survive many years, it appears that gravity rides were introduced into other locations and did not completely die out.

Berlin

The Morning Chronicle (London)
Saturday, June 12, 1819

The King of Prussia has had an awkward accident. Diverting himself in descending a Russian mountain (a pastime well known in Paris), his Majesty's sledge was overturned, by which he bruised his face, and broke the lower part of the bridge of his nose.
The Times (London)
Saturday, June 12, 1819
Berlin, June 1.
The accident which happened to the King in the Pfauen Insil (Island of Peacocks) is stated to have occurred in the following manner:--Among other diversions, a Russian mountain, as it is called, was erected, and before dinner the company amused themselves with this pastime. The King's sledge overturned ...
letter to his sister from Richard Cobden,
Monday, September 3, 1838
as quoted in The Life of Richard Cobden, by John Morley, 1908
At the Tivoli Gardens, which are about two miles from town, they have a good view of the city. Here are Montagnes Russes and other amusements. The day was splendid, and such a scene! Hundreds of well-dressed and still better behaved people were lounging or sitting in the large gardens, or several buildings of this gay retreat; in the midst were many little tables at which groups were sitting. The ladies had their work-bags, and were knitting, or sewing, or chatting, or sipping coffee or lemonade; the gentlemen often smoking, or perhaps flirting with their party. Then the scene at the Montagnes Russes! The little carriages were rattling down one after another along this undulating railroad with parties of every kind and age, from the old officer to the kitten-like child, who clung with all its claws to the nurse, sister, or mamma who gave it the treat. Then there was music, and afterwards fireworks, and so went off the day at Tivoli, without clamour, rudeness, or drunkenness.

Great Britain

A theatrical device was installed in 1823 in London, but was also used to give rides to the public:

The Times (London)
Tuesday, April 1, 1823

Sadler's Wells.

A new pantomime followed, called Harlequin's Trip to Paris, or the Golden Flute, in which were introduced the gardens of Tivoli, with the favourite Russian amusement of descending in sledges on inclined panes; which plains, or Russian mountains as they are termed, were erected from the extremity of the stage to the back of the pit. Two sledges, with two performers in each, descended at the same time, one on each plane, with great velocity; and when they stopped, they were hauled up empty for two other couples to descend in the same way. They seemed to afford considerable amusement.

[The reference is to the Jardin de Tivoli in Paris.]

The Times (London)
Monday, April 7, 1823

[advertisement]
Sadler's Wells.
The Russian Mountains, introduced for the first time in this country, on their present extensive scale, having produced the novel and unexpected event of many of the audience nightly descending in the cars, they will continue their rapid and safe career from the extremity of the stage to the back of the pit, every evening till further notice.
...
Harlequin's Trip to Paris. With the celebrated Russian Mountains.
The Times (London)
Saturday, June 14, 1823
[advertisement]
Aquatic Theatre, Sadler's Wells.
...
To conclude with The Tivoli Gardens, in which will be introduced the Russian Mountains.
The Morning Chronicle (London, England)
Monday, June 30, 1823
[advertisement]
Aquatic Theatre, Sadler's Wells.
...
Tivoli Gardens--Celebrated and Stupendous Montagne Russe.--Permission to descend the Russian Mountains may be obtained by application to the Door-keepers any time during the performance.

Examples were also built elsewhere in England:

Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England)
Wednesday, March 1, 1871

Local Notes and Queries

[589.]--Russian Mountains on Newhall Hill.--Where Highbury Chapel, Graham Street, now stands, the houses right and left of it used to be called the "Top of Newhall Hill"--being then elevated about 10ft. above the level of the street and front, and about 30ft. above the canal at back, where the schools of the chapel are built--as shown in the clever picture of the "Gathering of the Unions," in 1832.

Half a century ago, many (who are now grandfathers) used to fly their penny kites on the top of this hill, and will recollect it being boarded in by some genius, speculator, or Barnum of that day, announcing that the

"Russian Mountains will shortly be Opened to the Public."

As this was a death-blow to kite-flying, I watched the operations going on inside the boarding very minutely, but as my age did not reach two figures, my engineering description will not be much of the Watt or Brunel character.

First of all there was a stage or platform erected, in an oval shape, about six feet wide, with four ascents to an elevation of about thirty feet, also four descents to the lowest parts of the stage, which, I think, was about three feet from the ground; on this there was placed what answered for rails, but I can't recollect whether they were wood or iron.

The carriage was a kind of large perambulator, to hold two, with four small wheels and hollow tyres. The axles being made extra long, the wheels were a foot or more from each side of the carriage. This, I presume, was to give a surer balance.

There were two flights of steps to the starting stages, one at the east and the other at the west end. There was no steam engine used. The grand opening day came at last; and I saw men and women start from the elevated stage, in what appeared like a gig body. Down they went; up they came; down again, and up again--all this being seen from the outside.

Well, the happy day came when self and a companion entered the sacred Mountain ground. Up at the starting stage we soon arrived. We were soon in the perambulator, and strapped in, and told not to be frightened, and to hold our breath. The velocity with which we went down the descent, took us nearly to the top of the ascent; but as we neared the top to make sure we did not run back, something caught on our carriage underneath, which made a click-click sort of a noise, steadied us over the elevated bridge, then down we went and up again, and might have done so all day by paying. The Russian Mountains remained on the hill for months, then vanished, leaving nothing behind but the recollection to one who has battled with the world, and views the past use of Old Newhall Hill with great pleasure. Should any of your older readers be able to throw any further light on the Russian Mountains, it will please.
B. J.

Centrifugal railways, first exhibited in England in 1842, are described on the Centrifugal Railway page.

Italy

Daily News (London, England)
Wednesday, October 31, 1855

Naples

His majesty is also in the country, though this is nothing extraordinary, for his month of October began in 1848 and has not terminated yet. At all events he is at the "Favorita," and twice a week receives and amuses his faithful subjects in the gardens of the palace. There are swings, and the "cockhorse to ride to Banbury Cross," and see-saws, and Russian mountains.
Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Tuesday, November 20, 1855

Italy.
Bomba Turned Serious.

The Villa of the Favorita at Portici is now closed for the season, and the people are thinking that 120,000 ducats was a large sum to pay for swings and round-abouts and Russian mountains. The State, however, will pay for all ...

Denmark

Tivoli Gardens near Copenhagen opened in 1843 with a gravity ride. Here are two later accounts:

Daily News (London, England)
Thursday, June 23, 1864

The War in Denmark

Near the Vest Port is the Elsinore Railway terminus on one side, and the Korsor on the other; Tivoli gardens lying just outside. ... The gardens can boast an ingenious parody upon the original "Montagne Russe," named by its proprietors the "Russian road," and so well calculated to give visitors a new sensation, that I think the Crystal Palace directors very backward for missing such a grand idea. Two wooden towers are erected about 300 feet apart, and between them is a sloping railway, with what our locomotive engineers would term a very difficult gradient. You mount tower No. 1 by a rickety staircase, and reach a little platform, where are some four-wheeled cars awaiting the stranger's pleasure. The payment of a penny having entitled you to a seat in one of these vehicles, its leather apron is buttoned tightly down, the conductor gives it a push behind, and you are off with a headlong rush, down, down, as though your neck must be broken; then a slight ascent to check the speed, another plunge and a second check, and finally, after a last descent, the carriage is arrested by a sharp up-hill bit, and bounces into tower No. 2, about half way from the bottom. A strong buffer mitigates the shock of stopping suddenly, and if you are not satisfied with a single experiment, you can mount this tower and return on a similar jerky railway to No. 1. Many patrons complain of giddiness and palpitation of the heart after a journey by the "Russian road," whilst some appear to enjoy it thoroughly. I noticed a party of sailors who must have taken a dollar's worth of amusement out of the concern. It is said that no accidents have occurred--an encouraging fact for British speculators.
Harper's New Monthly Magazine
October, 1884

The Home Of Hans Christian Andersen

... there was one extraordinary amusement, which may be been reproduced elsewhere, but never chanced to come in my way. It is called in Danish Rutschban, and may as well be dubbed in English rush-railway. A tower stands at either end of a railway, which is perhaps a hundred and eighty feet in length, forty feet high at one extremity, and half as high at the other. I climbed the rude staircase of the higher tower, and found myself in a room crowded with people waiting their opportunity for a ride. At the entrance stood a phaeton-like car on four small iron wheels, the car being very stout, and holding two people with comfort. The wheels were in grooves, and the course extended over the descending and ascending slopes. Two people would get into a car and be strapped in by a leathern boot; the car would be started down the inclined plane by an attendant, and away it would go down the first slope, and by its impetus rise to the next height, go over and down and up again, at each rise pitching a little lower, at each pitch rising to a lesser height, until the last slope, when it rushed up the hill, bumped against a buffer, and the two travelers got out. The car would then be seized, dragged aside, put upon a lift, and hauled up to a height above, and sent back, with other passengers or empty, down a corresponding road parallel to the first, and terminating in a similar lower tower by the side of the one I was in, where it would be hoisted again into place, and be ready to make the round of the rush-railway again.

I stood by the entrance where the car started down, watching he couples get into the vehicle and then go thundering down the slope. I saw sedate men who might have been bank presidents get in, and children, and ardent youths and maidens, two by two. They held each other in; they almost lost their hats; they bowed, and fell back upon the huge "thank-you-ma'ams;" they looked frightened, and they looked bold; they smiled, and they almost cried; but I heard no one scream. At length, when I had politely given way to those more eager, I was driven by shame and an inextinguishable curiosity to try this reckless "coast." I paid the fare--about two and a half cents--and took my seat. I jammed my hat down over my brow, grasped the back of the car with one hand, and no doubt turned pale as the push was given and we began that awful descent. I felt that thrilling sensation of vibration in the pit of my stomach which one has in a swing when descending, and the we shot up the slope, saw a new abyss, and plunged into it. A delicious reprieve was followed by another fearful descent; four times we dashed in the face of fate, and then, with one triumphant rush, flew up the last incline. I got out of the car with my wits standing on end, and tumbled down the staircase in a bewildered, groggy way, anxious to get my legs upon the immovable earth again.

The 1884 Harper's item was reproduced in several newspapers under the title: A Danish "Roller Coaster."

France

Although the Parisian rides of the early 19th century did not last many years, gravity rides did not completely die out in France. Here are three accounts, one dating from shortly before the reintroduction of roller coasters from the United States:

Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England)
Monday, May 29, 1871

Property Destroyed
Versailles

The Magasins du Petit St. Thomas, the Montagnes Russes, the establishment for the sale of the Eau de Botot, forming the angle of the Rue de Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli, have been destroyed.
Daily News (London, England)
Friday, September 3, 1875

French Holiday Sports.

The fair of itself was worth seeing, as what French fair is not? There were gaudy booths and still gaudier shows; whirligigs spurred round to the music of loud barrel-organs; Russian tram-mountains, down which bevies of screaming French girls were borne in company with their sweethearts or brothers; learned pigs ...
Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California)
Tuesday, March 14, 1882

French Idiosyncrasies.
Fondness of All Classes for Gayety and Recreation.

[From a Lady Correspondent.]
Paris, February 8, 1882.
Just beyond we find an extraordinary structure, looking like a bewitched railroad track, as if the rails had received a terrible blow in the middle, causing both ends to fly into the air and remain there. These are supported, and high up at one end rests a car in which are seated four people. But see! she stirs! she starts! she moves! and we turn lest we should witness the horrible sight of the occupants dashed to the ground. Hearing a shout of laughter, we timidly look up to behold them on their return trip, the descent having given them sufficient momentum to carry them up the opposite side and back. Breathless, we wonder what they are to do next, when the party in charge receives the car, loosens a bolt, sets the upper half revolving, and thus, amid shouts, turning round and round, do the hairbrained occupants start and return over the same route.
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Last revised 10-Apr-2016

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