Thunderbolt

The Thunderbolt was a wonderful rough and tumble ride.

There was no defunct roller coaster more famous than the Coney Island Thunderbolt, which sat dormant from 1983 until it was sadly torn down.  That being said, the Thunderbolt was more than a rotting heap of scrap and more than “that coaster down the street from the Cyclone.”  The Thunderbolt was fast, intense and every bit as exciting as the Cyclone or the Tornado.  The coaster opened in 1925. Back then, the island was full of scores of people.  The “Roaring Twenties” were in full swing and people were letting loose and enjoying the extremes of coaster riding.  In response to this search for thrills, the Ridbak Amusement Corporation hired renowned coaster designer John Miller to create an exciting coaster that was built not far from Steeplechase Park (owner information garnered from a 1926 New York Times article transcribed on Jim Barrick’s site).  Miller responded by coming up with a boardwalk coaster that was taller than any other coaster on the island.

Building the coaster next to Steeplechase was a very wise move, as the coaster got much of the crowd overflow from people visiting the park and walking the Bowery.  There used to be a Magnel’s-designed Whip located next to the coaster, but that was gone by the 1970’s.

One of the coaster’s most famous aspects had nothing to with the ride it gave, but with the house (formerly the Kensington Hotel) that sat under the first and third turns.  Although I am not sure of the date, the Moran family.  George and his son Fred both ran the roller coaster for many years of its life.  In the “American Experience” documentary Coney Island: a documentary film, Mae Timpano (Fred’s widow) described her years living under and working at the Thunderbolt, “We used to find teeth in the yard.  We used to find wigs, glasses, guns.  Everything we found in the yard…nobody came back for them, though.”  She lived with Fred under the house (an image popularized [and distorted]) by the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall.”  The house was uniquely used by the builders because it was incorporated into the coaster’s structural support system.

The Thunderbolt anchored the eastern end of the amusement area.

The 1970’s and 80’s were not kind to Coney.  The mid-sixties saw the opening of Astroland Park, but during the decade that followed the Cyclone closed (and was thankfully restored), the Tornado burned down and the many family businesses that had thrived at Coney closed their shops and moved away.  The lack of crowds and rising insurance costs forced the coaster to remain closed for the 1983 season.  During this period the Moran family to sell the Thunderbolt and it was bought in 1985 by Horace Bullard.  He had a lot of plans for building a new amusement complex at Coney.  Many say that they were never feasible.   On November 17, 2000, the Thunderbolt met the wrecking ball as another piece of Coney fell.  Peter Duffy’s article the next day in the New York Times read,

“But it is too late to save the Thunderbolt, a rusting mass of wood and steel that for years has been overgrown with bushes and vines that literally pulled it apart. The coaster’s fate was sealed Sept. 1, when city building inspectors declared it unsound and issued an emergency declaration recommending its demolition unless its owner repaired it.

The city proceeded with the demolition yesterday morning ‘to protect public safety,’ according to a statement issued by Jerilyn Perine, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. ‘The structure has been declared unsafe and in imminent peril,’ the statement read.