In the course of his research on Belle Vue, Robert Nicholls uncovered the fact that The Bobs were bought by John Henry Iles, (the man who controlled Belle Vue towards the end of the 1920s), "from a Mr. Church of Buffalo, U.S.A., for a cost said to be £20,000". It has also been widely reported that the name came from the fact that the original cost for a ride was one shilling, known as a bob.
The Mr. Church in question was almost certainly Fred Church, a mechanical engineer born in Ontario, Canada. In the world of roller coaster builders Fred Church is one of the legends. After university Church worked for Webster Manufacturing and Engineering in Chicago. The company designed and fabricated replacement parts for amusement park rides. Church himself was working on side-friction roller coaster car designs.
While working in Chicago, Church met and worked with a man called Tom Prior who was the publicity director for two large amusement parks: White City and Riverview Park.
Tom Prior left Chicago in 1911 to work in Venice, California at the Kinney's Venice in America Amusement Park.and soon after Church joined him. That year, Prior and Church built a coaster on Venice Pier called "The Race Thru the Clouds". The ride, designed by the great John Miller, stood 90 feet high and had 4,000 feet of track.
It was around this time that Prior and Church turned their collaboration into a business relationship and became partners in the Venice Amusement Company. Tom Prior died in 1918 but his son Frank took his place. Prior and Church's second coaster was the Big Dipper which was also on Venice Pier.
Church had been working on the development of a new kind of coaster car, one capable of negotiating even sharper turns. He did this by using articulated couplings and the cars themselves were two seaters that he described as being similar to bobsleds. Church patented his new system and in 1921 he added another coaster to the Venice Pier which he called "The Bobs". Prior and Church made a number of Bobs style of coaster, incorporating the articulated cars, and almost certainly that was the origin of the name of the coaster at Belle Vue.
The Prior and Church partnership came to an end in 1928 and Church moved his operations to the Rye Playland, in Rye Beach, New York. It was here that he built one of his greatest coasters, The Airplane Coaster (right). It opened on May 26, 1928, and consisted of many spiraling hills and dips. The Airplane Coaster cost under $200,000 to construct. High maintenance and public statements from the locals deeming the ride as "too dangerous and terrifying" finally sealed the fate of this ride in 1956. It was demolished in November 1957.
Another of Church's masterpieces was the Cyclone Racer (see below) built at Long Beach, California. The Cyclone Racer opened on May 30, 1930. While it was a Fred Church design, it was actually built by Harry Traver, another engineer with links to Belle Vue. This marvelous coaster can still be seen in classic movies, as it was often filmed for amusement park scenes. The final rides were taken on Sept. 15, 1968 and demolition was started the next day. The coaster was removed primarily to make room for a roadway leading to Long Beach's newest attraction, the Queen Mary steamship. Plans are still being tossed around today about possibly rebuilding the coaster in the Long Beach area.
Conventional wisdom is that only two of Church's coasters have survived to the present day. Information that I have uncovered indicates that in fact there are 3.
Another is at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Park, in Santa Cruz, California. This Giant Dipper was built in 1924 by Arthuer Looff to a Church design.
However, there is also The Dragon Coaster that is still operating at the Rye Playland. It was designed by Church and for a number of years Church had is base of operations at Rye.
The Bobs ride that Iles purchased for Belle Vue rose to a height of 80 feet and fell down slopes of 45 degrees creating a car speed approaching 61 miles an hour. At one time it was picked by the Guinness Book of Records as the World's fastest ride. By today's standards the Bobs was a tame ride. The Rattler in San Antonio, Texas is a wooden roller coaster that stands 179 ft high and has a top speed of 73 mph. Of the steel roller coasters, though, the Fujiyama in Japan rises 259 ft and the cars reach speeds of 86 mph. By the standards of its era, though, the Belle Vue Bobs was a thrill.
Left, a wonderful view of the Bobs at the top of the lift hill. In the distance on the left you can see the Elephant House and beyond, in the mist, is the Central Grammar School on Kirkmanshulme Lane. On the right, behind the Bobs, is a glimpse of the Kings Hall.
Whilst Fred Church is almost certainly the designer of Belle Vue's Bobs, there is a very good chance that the actual construction of the coaster was done by Harry Traver.
What follows are extracts from an article first published in the magazine of the European Coaster Club, "First Drop". It is reprinted here with the permission of the magazine publisher, Justin Garvanovic. The article was written by John McCard.
1. The Airplane Coaster and the Cyclone Racer are shown here with the permission of Ken Rutherford. I discovered them whilst perusing his web site Ken's Classic Coaster Postcards. Anyone interested in coasters, old postcards or amusement park history should visit this site.
2. The close-up photograph of a train on the the Belmont Park Giant Dipper is shown here with the permission of Sue Dargusch of Belmont Park. Their web site provides some basic information about the park.
3. The wide view of the Belmont Park Giant Dipper is shown here with the permission of Jim Winslett, coaster fan and proprietor of the Out by the Sea B&B, in Crystal Beach, Texas.
4. I found the photograph of the Giant Dipper on Venice Pier on the excellent site by Jeff Stanton which tells the history of Venice, California. He has a very comprehensive page on Prior and Church that is well worth a visit.
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