Summer means warm weather and visits to the amusement parks. This year, The Comet, a classic wooden roller coaster and without a doubt the most beloved ride at the Six Flags Great Escape in Queensbury, NY, turns 85. The Comet is such an icon that it was named a Roller Coaster Landmark three years ago by the American Coaster Enthusiasts.
“The Comet is truly a special roller coaster that was able to get a ‘second lease on life’ (or in this case, a third as it was part of a previous roller coaster at Crystal Beach). The coaster is fast paced from beginning to end, featuring tremendous ‘air-time’ (that ‘out of your seat feeling’) that coaster lovers craze the most,” explains Dave Hahner, the Historian with American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) organization. “We are indeed fortunate to be able to still ride the Comet years after its original park had closed forever.”
“The Comet continues to be our most popular attraction at the Park,” explains Rebecca Close, Communications Manager for the Six Flags Great Escape. “Each year there are over 400,000 rides on the Comet, above all other rides. Another measure of the Comet popularity is that it has been the setting for many weddings for park goers and coaster enthusiasts.”
The Comet was first constructed in 1927 by legendary coaster builder Harry Traver. It was first named the Cyclone, and was thought by many to be the most intense coaster ever. “A nurses station was built near the exit of the ride to assist riders who may have been overcome by some of that ride’s intensity!” said Hahner. It had a laminated wood track and a steel superstructure, but was considered to be a wooden coaster by definition. The Cyclone’s first home was Crystal Beach Amusement Park, a short distance from Buffalo, NY in Ridgeway, Ontario, Canada. The Cyclone enjoyed a robust life until 1946 when decreased park patronage and increased ride maintenance led the Park to dismantle it.
Crystal Beach then contracted with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) and Herbert Schmeck, considered one of the best coaster designers of all time, for the design and construction of a new, larger coaster. To save money, the new coaster was built with steel salvaged from the Cyclone. It featured a low-profile layout, which saved on materials, and produced the unbridled speed that riders crave. Unveiled in 1948 as The Crystal Beach Comet, the new coaster was thought by many to be the best of its kind because of its classic profile and thrilling interplay of G-forces.
When Crystal Beach Amusement Park closed in 1989 after its 101st season, enthusiasts mourned the loss of The Comet. A month later, the coaster was rescued from destruction when legendary Charles R. Wood, owner of The Great Escape Fun Park in Lake George, NY, purchased The Comet for a record $210,000.
After a lengthy approval process and several years of storage, reconstruction of this world-class wooden coaster began in earnest in October, 1993. More than 49 tractor-trailer loads of steel crossed New York state, while more than 1,000 concrete footers were poured at The Great Escape. The complex process of sandblasting, restoring, priming, and reassembling thousands of steel subassemblies was handled entirely in-house by park personnel. Hahner explains, “the ride reopened to the public in June of 1994 and is considered a great act of historic coaster preservation, which is also one of the reasons that ACE chose to classify it as a landmark roller coaster.
“This is our signature attraction and each year we invest significant dollars to keep it running smoothly,” said Close. “In the last two years we have replaced a significant portion of the wooden track to maintain its fantastic ride.”
The Comet stands 95 feet tall and reaches speeds up to 60 mph never ceasing to surprise riders with its gut-wrenching hills and drops along its 4,197 foot long track. The Comet is an icon, a classic, a universal favorite that perennially is chosen as one of the top ten roller coasters in the world.
“There are currently 28 roller coasters designated as an ACE Roller Coaster Landmark, with a 29th, Whizzer, an Anton Schwarzkopf steel coaster at Six Flags Great America, to be dedicated in August at our national ACE Preservation Conference,” said Hahner. “The purpose of the landmark award is to make the public aware of the historical significance of those rides that we feel are important to the evolution of roller coaster design or of special historical significance to the amusement industry.”
“We are honored to have such a high profile and historical attraction on our Park. The Great Escape loves to hear the feedback from park guests each year,” said Close. “Guests from all over the world come to ride the Comet and tell us about their first trip, when it was here or while it was at Crystal Beach. The Comet means a lot to The Great Escape and we look forward to providing many more years of thrills at The Great Escape.”
Sean Kelleher is the Historian for the Town of Saratoga in the Upper Hudson Valley.