In the 1920s Fred Church played an important part in the development of the roller coaster. The coasters that he built with Tom Pryor and later Tom's son Frank were among those that set a new standard for engineering achievement and provided amusement park fans with a level of excitement that literally reached new heights. Whilst Church is by no means the only important name in the coaster business, he is regarded as having introduced important engineering innovations and designed and constructed coasters that are legends in the business.
Church, who was actually a Canadian, born in Ontario, started work in the coaster business in Chicago, where he met Tom Pryor. The two of them worked at the famous Riverview Park in Chicago on a coaster called "The Bobs". In 1911 they both moved to Venice, California where they built the Miller designed "The Race Thru the Clouds" coaster. In the years that followed the two collaborated in the construction of several coasters that are legendary in the business. Later in his life Church moved back east and set up his office in the Rye Playland in Westchester County, New York. It was here that he built perhaps his best coaster, the Aeroplane Coaster, so named in honour of Lindbergh
Most of Church's coasters are gone, victims of the Depression, fires and changing times. Conventional wisdom is that two remain, both called the Giant Dipper, one in Santa Cruz, California and the other at Belmont Park, Mission Beach, California. However, there is a third, the Dragon at Rye Playland.
"Constructed as part of the Mission Beach Amusement Center in San Diego, CA, the Giant Dipper opened to the public July 4, 1925. The coaster was built in just 45 days at a cost of $150,000 by a crew of 150. While not a giant by today's standards, the Giant Dipper has a lift hill of 73' and a total length of 2600' of track. The Giant Dipper is a true survivor, this coaster has withstood three fires, two closings and three name changes. Coaster enthusiast everywhere owe a great debt to Tom Cole and the Save The Coaster Committee for preserving this piece of American history for future generations of coaster enthusiast to enjoy." - Dan Smith (Danimation)
In 1923 the Westchester County, New York, Board of Supervisors authorized an appropriation of $600,000 for the purchase of 160 acres of Manursing Island and in 1925 an additional $2,500,000 to acquire 54 acres of Rye Beach. The Park Commission announced its intention to create an "unequalled seaside public park to provide clean, wholesome recreation for the people of Westchester County"
Darling brought in Fred A. Church to engineer the rides. His "Bobs" style roller coaster, called the "Aeroplane Coaster", which operated from 1928 - 1957, has been called the greatest wooden roller coaster of all time.
Among the rides at Rye were the familiar Caterpillar, a Tilt-a-Whirl and another Church invention, the Derby Racer. As opposed to the more sedate carousels, this was a real horse race.
One year after Church finished his Aeroplane Coaster, he built the Dragon. Joseph G. Montalto, the present Director of Rye, told me in a letter, that "The Dragon, equally famous (to the Aeroplane), still operates today, as one of your most popular rides and is a national historic landmark.
You can see the Dragon in the photograph on the right. Notice the track exiting from the Dragon's body behind the plunge in the foreground.
The Rye Playland entrance (left). Notice the sign "Undressing in Cars Against the Law $5.00 fine". I assume they were encouraging people to change into bathing suits in the change rooms.
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