2009-08-06 / Local & State

PA Man Dead Since '56 Still Has Fans Screaming

By Darrin Youker

READING, Pa. (AP) - As roller coaster enthusiasts chase down the ultimate ride, many will find it in one of the creations of a former Reading carpenter who gained fame as a designer of thrill rides.

The many legacies of Herbert P. Schmeck are scattered throughout America, many of them nearby in his home state.

The Reading native, who died in 1956, designed more than 80 wooden roller coasters during his career in the early to mid- 20th century.

As the president of Philadelphia Toboggan Co., Schmeck designed coasters during a period that was considered the heyday of the amusement ride industry.

At Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom near Allentown, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Schmeck's ThunderHawk coaster continues a tradition of thrilling riders, said Charles Hutchinson, the park's public relations manager.

"It is a great wooden coaster,'' he said. "Wooden coasters hold a lot more memories for people.''

The family-friendly Rollo Coaster, which opened in 1938 at Idlewild in Ligonier, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, has been awarded the American Coaster Enthusiasts' "Coaster Classic'' distinction.

The Comet, which opened in 1946 at Hersheypark, about 10 miles east of Harrisburg, is a classic "out and back'' coaster that drops 96 feet and reaches a top speed of 50 miles per hour.

Schmeck's legacy was built with pine wood and steel rails, yet his contributions aren't widely known even in his hometown.

"He didn't get recognition in this area for his work,'' said Torrence Jenkins Jr., who wrote "Herbert P. Schmeck: The Forgotten Legacy,'' a biography of Schmeck. "But he has strong ties to this area.''

Born in 1890 in Reading, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia and east of Harrisburg, Schmeck started out working as a carpenter for the former Reading Furniture Works.

He moved to the Philadelphia area when he was 25, after he was hired to work with a crew constructing a coaster for the Philadelphia Toboggan Co.

His work ethic impressed Philadelphia Toboggan's owner, who offered Schmeck work on other projects, Jenkins said.

Schmeck had no formal engineering training, but learned how to design rides by studying blueprints and using his knowledge of construction.

By the time Schmeck's career ended in 1954, he had designed 210 rides, including coasters and fun houses. He also was involved in constructing many of those rides.

"He made the Philadelphia Toboggan Company a force to be reckoned with in the industry,'' Jenkins said.

Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters Inc. is still in the amusement park industry. But instead of building rides, the company manufactures cars for roller coasters. In 1971, the company moved its headquarters from Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood to Lansdale, about 20 miles north, and in 1999 relocated to Hatfield, several miles farther north.

Jenkins said one of Schmeck's most popular coasters is the Phoenix at Knoebels Amusement Resort near Elysburg, about 40 miles northeast of Harrisburg.

The ride originally was built for a now-defunct amusement park in San Antonio. In 1985, with the ride facing demolition in Texas, Knoebels bought it and moved it to Pennsylvania.

"This coaster has a lot of Pennsylvania connections,'' he said.

The classic ride receives consistently high rankings from coaster enthusiasts, and has become one of the most popular attractions at Knoebels, Muscato said.

There are thrills built into every inch of the ride, from the first drop to the series of three "bunny hops'' that give passengers a bit more air time during the ride.

"It is a lot of fun,'' Muscato said. "The ride has aged extremely well.''

Jenkins, who spent three years researching Schmeck's work, is thrilled that so many of Schmeck's coasters still survive.

"There is still his legacy of work out there,'' he said. "It is amazing.''

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