Those of you who speak French, or any one of several other Romance languages spoken in Europe, may have already guessed the topic of this article, since the term "Russian mountains" is still used to refer to this thrilling form of entertainment in those languages, to this day. What the French call montagnes russes, the English call a roller coaster. And two hundred years ago, this month, the first iterations of the modern roller coasters opened in parks in Paris. Regency authors seeking a thrill ride for one or more of their characters might like to send those characters on a visit to Paris for a ride or two on one of the new montagnes russes.
A brief ride through the history of the roller coaster, to the Regency . . .
When one realizes that the amusement park ride we know today as the roller coaster can trace it origins back to what amounted to artificial "mountains" built in Russia, beginning in the fifteenth century, the name montagnes russes is perfectly understandable. Winters in the northern reaches of Russia can be quite extreme, but many hardy residents of the area enjoyed winter sports like sledding. However, those living in the northern flatlands had to improvise for their fun. They took advantage of the consistently freezing temperatures to develop a similarly exciting form of amusement. They constructed large slides, covered with a thick layer of ice, down which they could ride on small sleds at speeds just short of flying. Perhaps that is why they were soon known as "Flying Mountains." These wooden "mountains" would eventually reach heights of seventy to eighty feet, from which the slide sloped down at about a fifty degree angle, supported on a sturdy open framework. Making a thick, smooth ice ramp down which people could slide was a very easy task during a Russian winter. The slide attendant simply poured water down the incline, which would quickly freeze into a slippery sheet of ice. Additional water could be poured down the ramp as needed, to maintain the thickness of the ice track and keep the slide smooth and slippery.
To take a ride on the ice slide, one first had to climb up a seventy- to eighty-foot wooden ladder at the back of the slide, to a small platform at the top. At the larger, urban slides, a guide on the platform would be seated on a small wooden sled, about two feet wide and just one foot long. The rider would then sit on the guide’s lap, awaiting their turn down the icy ramp. When the coast was clear, the next guide in line would scoot their sled to the top of the slide and give it a shove. The sled carrying the guide and the rider would rush down the slide in just a few seconds, before continuing on along a straightaway at the bottom which was at least six hundred feet long. The sled would gradually loose speed until it came gently to a stop near the end of the straight portion of the track. However, at some of the more rural or smaller ice slides, there were no guides, and riders were just as likely to travel down the slide on a large block of ice covered with a layer of straw than a wooden sled. These smaller ice slides seldom had such a long straightaway track at the end, so riders typically crashed into a large pile of sand at the end of the track to stop their forward motion.
To make the ice slide rides more exciting and accommodate more riders, it became common practice to construct two identical ice slides, facing each other, with the straight portions of the tracks parallel to one another. Once riders and their guides reached the bottom of one slide, they would grab their sled and climb the ladder up to the platform on the opposite slide. That second ride would then bring them back to very near their original starting point, the base of the first ice slide. Those who really enjoyed ice sliding might complete several rounds of sliding during the course of their visit to the slides. Over time, the ladders at the larger ice slides were replaced with sturdy wooden staircases, making it easier for more riders to reach the platform at the top. It was the usual practice for ice sliding customers to pay for their ride before they climbed the ladder or staircase to the platform at the top. At the ice slides frequented by the upper classes, it was also customary to tip the guide at the end of each ride.
Though ice slides may have initially been an amusing winter pastime among the lower classes, it was not long before it was enjoyed by many members of all economic and social classes across Russia. As the seventeenth century progressed, ice slides were constructed in large cities, small villages and even on the private estates of the affluent and the aristocracy throughout northern Russia. In the eighteenth century, ice slides were particularly popular in the region around St. Petersburg. It is known that ice slides in the St. Petersburg area were often decorated with dozens of colored lanterns hung along the straight portions of the track, adding a magical quality to the excitement of ice sliding at night. Ice sliding became so popular, even with royalty, that the Empress Elizabeth sponsored an ice sliding carnival in the winter of 1754. Catherine the Great enjoyed them so much she had large, ornate ice slides constructed on the grounds of several of her properties.
Despite its popularity, this exciting winter amusement was not exported beyond the borders of northern Russia until the turn of the nineteenth century. According to scholars of roller coaster history, a travelling Frenchman, whose name is unknown, spent some time in Russia and during the winter, was able to enjoy a few rides on an ice slide. He found the experience so exhilarating that he had the idea of bringing the amusement home to France. Unfortunately, the more temperate winter climate of his homeland seemed to be an insuperable impediment to his plan. The warmer temperatures typical of winters in France either prevented the water from freezing, or caused any ice which was made to melt, thereby spoiling the required slippery ice surface of the slide.
Undaunted, this determined Frenchman decided that he could adapt the winter amusement of Russia to a summer amusement in France. He built his wooden framework in much the same way as those he had seen in Russia. In order to make the surface of the slide slippery, he coated it with wax. But the wax coating was not as slick as ice and therefore the rides on the slide were not nearly as fast. In addition, the wax coating wore down very quickly and had to be reapplied frequently, a very labor-intensive process. In order to improve the speed of the ride down the slide, and reduce operating costs, a new version of the slide was constructed. But instead of a simple wooden track, this new version had wide rollers down the center. And smooth runners were added to the bottom of the sleds, which would coast easily over the rollers. Operating costs were reduced, since wax was no longer necessary, though the speed of the sleds down the slide was not significantly improved. Nevertheless, when the new amusement was set up in a picnic garden outside Paris, it drew enough customers to make a profit.
Over the next few years, several engineers and entrepreneurs in France sought ways to improve the design of this new amusement. During that time, a radical new design was introduced which significantly improved the speed of the trip down the slide. The center rollers were replaced by a pair of tracks, and the sleds were replaced by small, one-passenger carriages with wheels on the bottom which fit into tracks laid down on the slide. In addition, the slides were built on even higher frameworks, with a much sharper angle to the slope, which served to significantly increase the speed of the downward trip. But as with all montagnes russes to that time, once the trip down was completed, the rider faced a very long climb back to the top of the ramp if they wanted to slide down again.
In the years after Waterloo, further improvements were made to the design of these increasingly popular summer slide amusements. The single most profound change to the design was that the two once separate and parallel sections of straight track at the end of the pair of slides were joined as one. With this new design, the passenger carriage raced down the first slide so rapidly that the force of gravity propelled it across the straightaway and right up to the top of the second ramp. Thus, passengers wishing additional rides were spared multiple long climbs to the top of the slide. They had only to take another turn from the top of the second slide in order to return to the top of the first. They could continue to enjoy as many rides as they wanted, without having to repeatedly make the long climb up. However, when they were finished riding, they would have to walk down the stairs to the ground, since their trip on this new incarnation of the ride would not return them to ground level.
Other new features of this latest version of montagnes russes were added to control the ride, though they also improved the safety of the experience for the passengers. Most importantly, the wheels of the carriages were locked to the tracks, by way of the axles of the wheels being fitted within a groove cut on the inside of each track. This change went a long way to preventing the small passenger carriages from jumping the tracks as they raced down the slide. Versions of this same wheel-locking system are still used on most modern roller coasters, even today. In addition, guide rails were added to each side of the track to prevent carriages from wobbling or bouncing as they traveled along the tracks at high speeds.
In July of 1817, two of these new versions of montagnes russes were opened in Paris. The first to open, early in the month, was Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville (the Russian Mountains of Belleville), which was set up in a park in a suburb of the city. Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville was constructed with two fairly steep inclines facing each other across a straight section of track. Unlike most of the earlier montagnes russes designs, this new slide was wide enough to accommodate two separate tracks so that two passenger carriages could be in motion at any time. These passenger carriages could only carry one passenger, so two people could enjoy the ride at the same time, but they must do so in separate carriages. The first incline was reached by climbing up a staircase that was built inside a tall, tower-like structure which was lit by multiple rows of large windows. A small cupola capped the roof which protected the platform at the top of the first slide. The top of the second slide was a few feet lower, and was constructed with a large open area where passengers could take time between rides to relax or promenade and enjoy the view of the park.
The second new version of montagnes russes opened later that same month, in the Beaujon pleasure gardens, which were situated in the heart of Paris, between the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and the Champs-Elysees. This more complex roller coaster ride was christened the Promenades Aériennes (Aerial Walks), and was much more sophisticated than its suburban rival, Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville. Instead of two tracks side by side, Promenades Aériennes was constructed in the form of a heart, with two separate tracks descending in symmetrical curves outward from a central tower. The two tracks came together at the bottom of the incline, then ascended side by side on a pair of lift hills by which the carriages were pulled back up to the top of the tower by cables. The Promenades Aériennes also had two passenger carriages, but each of those carriages was built to allow two passengers to ride together in the same carriage. A new policy was instituted at the Promenades Aériennes not long after it opened. Riders were permitted to buy several tickets at one time. With a pocket full of tickets, a rider would be able to pass one to the attendant each time their carriage came to the end of the circuit, without having to get out, buy another ticket and wait their turn for another ride.
The Promenades Aériennes caused such a sensation in Paris that great crowds of people came to the pleasure gardens just to watch this daredevil ride in operation. According to an article published in a Paris newspaper soon after its debut:
The passengers take their places in elegant cars and reached the height of eighty feet, running at a speed equal to that of a galloping horse. Then they come down, then up again, and so on, until they are back at the starting point, from which they can start on another journey, and travel at forty miles per hour. This is as fast as the fearless aeronaut travels through space in his balloon.
The attendants at the Promenades Aériennes were cautioned by the engineers who designed and built it that it was important to keep the tracks clear of any debris at all times. There is a report that a passenger had to have a leg amputated after an accident caused when a horse chestnut fell onto the track, upsetting the carriage and spilling the passenger. Though the guide rails and the new system of wheels locked to the tracks did make these rides safer than their predecessors, there were still accidents from time to time. There were no seat belts or safety harnesses to keep passengers seated in their carriages, so there were other instances when a passenger might be thrown from their carriage, due to debris on the tracks or rough-housing by the passengers during a ride. Remarkably, the chance of injury on either of these new roller coaster rides did little to deter riders from flocking to them for as long as they were open.
Some years ago, the Entertainment Designer blog published an article on the early history of roller coasters. Not only is this article very informative, it also includes contemporary engravings of both Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville and the Promenades Aériennes, for those of you who would like to get an idea of how each looked in it park setting during the Regency period. There is also an illustration of a pair of early Russian ice slides, from which our modern roller coasters descended.
Dear Regency Authors, would any of the characters in one of your upcoming stories enjoy a ride on one of the new Paris roller coasters? Or, instead, be terrified by one? The Promenades Aériennes is an ideal ride for a Regency romance, having been constructed in the shape of a heart, not to mention having carriages which allowed two passengers to ride together. Of course, Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville, located in the Paris suburbs, might do nicely for characters who want a little fun and excitement without having to travel all the way into the centre of the city. Perhaps the heroine’s mischievous brothers slip off to Les Montagnes Russes de Belleville whenever they can to enjoy the thrill of speed. Will she encounter the hero there when she goes to collect them one day? Or, perhaps the heroine, a very quiet, but self-possessed young lady, is inveigled onto the Promenades Aériennes by an importunate suitor, thinking to frighten the girl into his arms during the ride, only to find himself terrified, while she remains calm and collected. Then again, perhaps a young lady, eager to enjoy the thrill of the ride, is forbidden to go by her overly conservative parent or guardian. Will the hero, sympathetic to her plight, agree to take her on the ride? How else might one, or both, of the Paris roller coasters figure in a Regency romance set during or after July of 1817?