Luna Park's luminary: Entrepreneur/roller coaster designer deserves his due
A vintage post card showing the entrance to Luna Park in Oakland.
Visitors to Luna Park, which opened in 1905, depicted in another vintage post card.
Fred Ingersoll. At one time, he operated 44 amusement parks and, during his lifetime, designed or built 277 roller coasters.
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If your summer included a screaming good ride on a roller coaster, you can thank a fellow by the name of Fred Ingersoll.
In the "Pittsburg" of 1905, as fiery steel furnaces belched black soot into the air, this gifted entrepreneur opened a palace of amusements in Oakland called Luna Park.
This stately pleasure ground offered picnic pavilions, dance halls, a lagoon, a coaster-like boat ride called Shoot-the-Chutes, and performers such as Mademoiselle Novi and her triple-somersaulting automobile.
Modeled after Luna Park on New York's Coney Island, it boasted a hodgepodge of architectures ranging from Japanese to Moorish and was built at a cost of $375,000; re-creating it today would cost about $8.5 million.
Mr. Ingersoll, the mustachioed genius behind this wonderland, went on to create the nation's first chain of 44 amusement parks and design or build 277 roller coasters.
You probably have not heard of Mr. Ingersoll, even though he designed and built Kennywood Park's first Racer roller coaster, a Three-Way Figure-Eight Toboggan.
He ranked among the five most influential men when amusement parks exploded between 1899 and 1905, a time when 75 new parks were built each year.
"He was very visionary in that he saw this as an industry, not just a collection of businesses," said Jim Futrell, author of "Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania."
Although he was inducted into the hall of fame at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in 1992, neither his former Downtown office on Fourth Avenue nor the Oakland streets where he opened the first of many Luna Parks in 1905 bear any reminders of his legacy -- not even a historical marker. (Sure, there's the Luna Lofts and the Luna Bar, but few locals or out-of-towners would make the connection.)
"There's [a historical marker] for George Ferris [inventor of the Ferris wheel] on the North Side, and I think Ingersoll deserves one in Oakland," said Carl Hughes, retired chairman of Kennywood Entertainment Co.
Long before the Six Flags Over Texas amusement chain arrived in 1961, Mr. Ingersoll replicated the Luna Park concept in as many American cities as possible, Mr. Futrell said.
"At that time, the focus was on live entertainment, picnics and dancing. Rides were secondary," Mr. Futrell added.
Mr. Ingersoll was born in New Jersey in 1874. By 1900, he was 26 and living in Glenfield, a small Ohio River community near Emsworth. He had a 25-year-old wife, Katie, and two daughters, according to the U.S. Census of that year. His occupation was listed as "coin machine proprietor."
A decade later, the 1910 Census listed Mr. Ingersoll as a "contractor -- amusements." By then, he and his wife of 13 years had moved to 6417 Bartlett St., a Squirrel Hill address that no longer exists.
One of five brothers of German ancestry, Mr. Ingersoll started out by designing slot machines, then moved on to roller coasters and scenic railways. His family's rifle range, or shooting gallery, was at Liberty and Seventh avenues, Downtown.
"Back in those days, they used live ammunition. We did at Kennywood for years," said Mr. Hughes.
The coaster Mr. Ingersoll designed for Kennywood opened in 1902. The Street Railway Journal said the Figure Eight was made up of "10 massive, handmade-carved cars that are carried up a 70-foot incline by a heavy chain. Attached to the sides of the cars are 'safety arms' which prevent the cars from running backward in case of chain breakage."
The local Luna Park, whose main entrance was near the intersection of Craig Street and Centre Avenue, was quite a sight in its day.
At night it was illuminated by 50,000 electric lights. It looked "peculiarly rococo" and "imparted a garish, 'show-biz' exoticism" to the neighborhood, said architecture critic James van Trump.
Although it closed after five seasons in 1909, several Luna Parks remain in operation. There's Luna Loca in Mexico City, a Luna Park in Melbourne, Australia, and in Greece the Luna Park is known as Ta Aidonakia.
In Mr. Ingersoll's heyday, amusement park operators were looking for extra revenue, and new rides were one way to earn income.
"Guys who built roller coasters learned by trial and error. If they didn't work, they'd tear them apart," said Torrence Jenkins of Denver, Lancaster County, author of the book "Herb Schmeck: The Forgotten Legacy." Mr. Schmeck mostly designed roller coasters for the East Coast.
Mr. Ingersoll declared bankruptcy in 1911, listing liabilities of $179,668 and assets of three suits of clothes, valued at $75. He died in 1929.
It's still possible to experience the world of Fred Ingersoll. Drive out to Lakemont Park in Altoona and ride Leap-the-Dips, a Side-Friction Figure-Eight roller coaster that is the world's oldest still in operation. Made by the Edward Joy Morris Co. of Philadelphia, Leap-the-Dips is similar to the coasters Mr. Ingersoll designed; at the time, it represented state-of-the-art technology for wooden coasters. (Between 1884 and 1990, there were at least 1,750 roller coasters operating in North America; of those 250 were Figure Eights, according to "The 1991 Roller Coaster Directory" by Richard Munch.)
Leap-the-Dips consists of a figure-eight course of track mounted on a wood trestle support structure, a station pavilion, a small storage shed for the two-seater sleigh-style coaster cars and a small shed that houses the chain motor. Leap-the-Dips was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
But if you go, don't expect the kind of thrills offered by the 82-mph Phantom's Revenge at Kennywood Park.
The top speed for Leap-the-Dips? About 10 mph.
First Published September 1, 2008 12:00 am