Monday, August 19, 2013

Utah's Old 'Seaside' Roller Coaster -- Gone But Not Forgotten

                             Saltair in 2013.                                 Photo by Taylor Arave.

By Lynn Arave

UTAH used to have its own "Seaside" roller coaster, more than 55 years ago -- and it was taller than any coaster in the Intermountain West today.
And, when most Utahns think of roller coasters, they think of Lagoon.
But this thrill and chill making wooden coaster was right by the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, at the original Saltair.
 This former king of Utah roller coasters was the late "Giant Racer" of Saltair, which reigned supreme for 64 years. Unfortunately, you'd likely have to be nearly 70 years old or more (in 2013)  to have ridden the Racer, since a freak wind gust destroyed it in 1957.
Details on the Giant Racer are sketchy, but during the 1920s it was reputed to be "the world's longest wooden roller coaster." Its height is definitely known to have been 110 feet.
To put that into proper perspective, Lagoon's current wooden roller coaster (opened in 1921) is only 45 feet high. Even Lagoon's metal coaster, the Fire Dragon, tops out at 85 feet.
There were apparently three versions of the Giant Racer. The first may have opened as early as 1893, when Saltair itself premiered. Then, by either 1916 or 1919, the coaster was improved significantly.
A large fire at Saltair in 1931 destroyed the Giant Racer. It was rebuilt within a year for $70,000. This third version had two peaks, both 110 feet high, as well as eight other hills to climb.
Historical accounts say the Racer went so fast after that first drop that brakes were always applied going up the second hill to slow it down.
How fast was it? There's no official account, but it probably rolled at about 55 mph. (Compare that to 45 mph for Lagoon's wooden coaster; 55 mph for its Fire Dragon and 62 mph for the Colossus.)
Wooden roller coasters, although not as fast as modern steel ones, have an added thrill - the wood gives just enough to create a shaking sort of thrill.
"That was one wild ride,"  former Kaysville City Councilman Stephen Whitesides, said, recalling one of his rides on the Giant Racer.
Former Deseret News business writer Roger Pusey agreed, and said it took the company of a beautiful girl as a date to persuade him to ride it.
"It was enough to make my heart come up to my tonsils," said Joe Liddell of Tooele. "It was a great thing to take your date on."
He also said it was a nice way to get away from the mosquitoes that were an annoyance around the rest of Saltair.
One old advertisement for the Giant Racer called it "The ride through the clouds." Another said it was "one of the dizziest in the world."
Because the coaster had parallel tracks, coaster trains would often race each other through the almost milelong ride.
The Giant Racer met an untimely demise on Aug. 30, 1957, when an estimated 75-mph wind gust toppled 60 percent of the coaster's framework - including its two high points.
It is described as toppling like broken matchsticks, but no one was hurt. Fortunately, because of heavy rain, the Giant Racer had been closed at 3 p.m. that fateful day - two hours before the wind gust struck.
The wind damage was $100,000, and Saltair could never afford to rebuilt it. Saltair itself closed in 1959 and the entire complex burned to the ground in 1970, destroying anything that may have remained of the Giant Racer.
However, most of the remains of the coaster were dismantled in the early 1960s.
Unfortunately, the third and current version of Saltair didn't include a roller coaster.
(-Distilled from the Deseret News, a March 29, 1998 article by Lynn Arave).

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  


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