Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!

Here We Go!

This morning I sent my youngest son to his first day of first grade. He’s a smart boy, usually pretty well-behaved (or so I hear from other people), friendly, and very funny. I know that he will do well with school this year. But for some reason he is incredibly nervous about this venture into first grade.

The poor kid ate very little breakfast and wouldn’t say much. When I asked him what he wanted to wear for his big day, he thought for a while and then chose a camouflage tee-shirt because he wanted to be able to hide if he got scared. I gave him a hug and told him he would be a great first-grader. Then I told myself he would be fine. And I told my husband (apparently several times) that our little guy would be just fine.

I have to hand it to the brave little man. When it came time to go, he looked slightly panicked, but he shouldered his big blue backpack and went willingly into the building. I found myself whispering, “Here we go” and, once again, “he’ll be fine.” I started thinking back over this summer’s many adventures and smiled to realize that these were almost the same words I had whispered to him as I sat next to him on his first roller coaster ride.

In 1850, at the tender age of twelve, LaMarcus Adna Thompson successfully built his own butter churn and ox cart. But believe it or not, this was not the height of his mechanical prowess. After a time, young Thompson grew up (as all young men must), apprenticed as a carpenter, and designed a machine used for the production of ladies’ stockings.

English: LaMarcus Adna Thompson, the inventor ...

He soon founded the Eagle Knitting Company in Elkhart, Indiana. Alas, as the well informed (which no doubt means you) will likely already realize, the ladies’ stocking industry is incredibly stressful and really is no place for a young man destined for greatness. For the sake of his health, Thompson took some time away from his growing company for a doctor-prescribed trip west.

He then apparently disregarded his doctor’s advice (or he was not a particularly competent map-reader) and found himself in Pennsylvania where he observed the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill and Switchback Railroad. The railroad was a clever way to cart coal from Summit Hill to the Lehigh River at Mauch Chunk (today that’s Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania).

What Thompson saw was a cart full of coal and a couple of bewildered mules, rushing on a track through a series of switchbacks down the mountainside as fast as gravity would carry it. At the bottom, the cart was unloaded so that mules could haul it the long way back uphill.

Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from ...
Switchback R.R. (railroad), Mauch Chunk, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And an idea began to form in the inventor’s mind. Perhaps he thought about the mules (likely more stubborn than stupid) that willingly took the carts back up the mountainside to repeat the process. Or maybe he observed them carefully as they flew downhill and noticed that though they screamed they also threw their hooves in the air and smiled as though someone might snap their picture on the hairpin switchback turns.

Whatever the reason, Thompson thought the railway looked like fun and he hatched a plan to design and build something similar for people. His “Switchback Railway” opened at Coney Island in 1884 and was an immediate success, giving LaMarcus Thompson a claim to the title “Inventor of the Modern Roller Coaster.”

Mind you Thompson doesn’t have a great claim to the title. Russians started slipping down huge ice slides as early as the seventeenth century and the French built the first wheeled coaster by 1817. Still, Thompson can take credit for the first successful introduction of the roller coaster to the United States, where it’s been soaring to higher, faster, and “upside-down-er” heights ever since.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, 1884.

And I, for one, am grateful for his contribution. I experienced my first roller coaster as soon as I was tall enough to pass the safety precautions and once I started, I never looked back. On more than one occasion I have arrived at the entrance of an amusement park in time to be among the first through the gate for the sole purpose of running to the back of the park and riding the best coaster two or three times before the rest of the crowd caught up and the line got long. I have also been the kid who chose to ride the coaster back-to-back-to-back many times over as the park neared the close of the day and no one else was left in line to take my place.

So I was thrilled to take my two sons to Six Flags this summer and introduce them to the rides that defined many of the summer days of my youth. My eight-year-old is tall for his age and would qualify to ride any coasters he cared to try. My six-year-old, though too short for some, seemed determined to conquer any rides that frightened him.

It turned out that they weren’t as brave as I had hoped. I did get my older son on a few rides, with mixed reviews (for some reason the feeling of his heart thumping in his ears and his stomach turning somersaults doesn’t especially appeal to him). My six-year-old took a long time to get up his nerve, but he surprised me in the end, choosing to ride one of the smaller wooden rollercoasters, one with a large hill and a dark tunnel.  I admit I was concerned that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Still, once he had decided to give it a try, I doubt he could have been dissuaded (smart as he is, he is easily more stubborn than a mule).

As the lap bar lowered, I held him close and whispered, “We’ll be fine.” And as the train began to roll, “Here we go!” He did conquer his fear and though I don’t think he would say that he loved the ride, he is pretty sure he will try it again someday. I just hope he feels the same way about first grade.

Backpack fashion
Backpack fashion (Photo credit: aka Jens Rost)