One Helluva Ride

The Ups and Downs of the Washington State Fair’s Classic Coaster

With the days of summer waning, September heralds in not only a new season, but a new school year, a bounty of autumnal delights, newly sharpened pencils, dazzling colors, and — let’s not forget — all things pumpkin-flavored. But here in the South Sound, and all across the state, the best part about September usually is the Washington State Fair in Puyallup.

In July, the fair made the difficult decision to cancel its 2020 season due to concerns for the health and safety of its guests, employees, and vendors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At its core, any fair, ours included, is a people-gathering event — the more people the better. That hypothesis runs contrary to the challenges of containing this pandemic,” the fair’s CEO Kent Hojem said in a news release.

The absence of such an event will be felt not only because of the fair’s economic reach — it employs between 8,000 and 9,000 people each year and brings in approximately $250 million in revenue — but also because of the rich nostalgia the thought of the fair evokes in the minds of Washingtonians and visitors from around the globe — many of whom have been attending the fair for as long as they can remember.

And while we can’t fill your nostrils with the scent of French fries and funnel cake, or provide you with that first sweet bite of a Fisher Fair Scone, or scare the bejesus out of you in the haunted house, we can recount for you the history of one of the fair’s most beloved and notable rides: the Classic Coaster.

After all, the coaster itself saw more than 95,000 riders in its 2019 season alone.

However, first things first. Head over to YouTube, and search for “Washington State Fair Classic Coaster ride-on POV.” A number of the results will provide a first-person glimpse of the ride and will hopefully evoke some strong memories. Viewers won’t be able to feel the force of the turns, the rocky vibration of the track, or the tears streaming from their eyes, but it’s the next best thing.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can proceed.

courtesy Tacoma Public Library, Richards Studio, image #30311

The 55-foot-tall, 2,650-foot-long Classic Coaster — originally known by many other names, including Giant Coaster, Roller Coaster, and simply The Coaster — was commissioned by father-and-son amusement park entrepreneurs Edward and Robert Bollinger for the 1935 Puyallup Fair.

The two had owned and operated Oaks Amusement Park in Portland, Oregon, since 1905. They hired a famed coaster designer named John A. Miller to build the coaster, with the intent to accommodate old trains from the Scenic Railway at their Portland park.

Construction during that time already was an arduous process without robust materials like the heavy wooden beams and solid steel tracks that were needed to sustain a thrill ride. These materials were brought in by horse-led wagons and lifted into place with the assistance of a Ford Model A.

Following its inaugural season in 1935, the coaster became a major draw for fairgoers, tempting thrill-seekers from near and far with its bumpy hills and side-bending turns for decades. In fact, 2020 marks the coaster’s 85th birthday.

For some, the coaster’s age and wooden stature might make it less thrilling than other rides. In 2013, one Foursquare user commented simply, “This is your grandparent’s roller coaster.” Other fairgoers use sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Foursquare to lament the price of ride tickets. But many more alternatively flock to these review sites to laud the thrill ride.

“I loved all the carnival games and was surprised there were roller coaster rides. Like, epic ones. Super-sick ones,” wrote Yelp user Misc. B. in 2014.

Some fairgoers, like Trip Advisor user DavidJEllis, even travel from other countries just to experience the coaster.

“The Classic Coaster was certainly the highlight for me; (it) was a privilege to finally get to ride it,” the United Kingdom resident wrote in his September 2016 review. “The front is great for the views, but the back seats are where the ‘out of your seat’ action is. A wonderful visit to the fair — really enjoyed ‘Doing the Puyallup.’”

Another U.K. resident also noted his enthusiasm for the ride: “I was very happy to get the classic Puyallup coaster under my belt — it has been listed by the American Coaster Enthusiasts club as a ‘classic coaster,’ and I gave myself some personal kudos for collecting it,” Yelp user Yee Gan O. wrote in September 2011.

But the story of the coaster doesn’t end with its completion in 1935, as the coaster has had its share of triumph and tragedy over the years.

In 1950, the old train cars inherited from the Bollingers’ amusement park were replaced with newer ones purchased from a defunct amusement park in Vancouver, B.C. These are the same trains used today, known to many as Ol’Yeller, Blaz’n Blue, and Or’nry Orange. As a result of the new cars, the track had to be redesigned that year.

Twenty years later, tragedy struck when a fire obliterated approximately 25 percent of the ride, as well as damaging or destroying several other rides at the Fair. Fortunately, however, the ride was quickly rebuilt in time for that year’s fair.

Finally, the most recent iteration of the coaster began in 2009, when it underwent a three-phase, $1 million project to be rebuilt, restored, and updated by amusement ride inspector and wooden roller coaster expert John Hinde.

“It’s cheaper to replace it than it is to repair it at this point,” Hinde told The News Tribune in 2009. “We can’t keep up with the rot.”

Most coaster enthusiasts would agree the coaster was worth saving and preserving for future generations of Washingtonians because not only is the Classic Coaster a historic part of the Fair, but it is part of a dying breed of wooden coasters.

Of the more than 1,365 wooden coasters listed in the Rollercoaster Database, most of which were constructed in the early 20th century, there are fewer than 85 currently in operation today.

When the ride reopened following its third phase of construction, it did so with a new name — Classic Coaster — and a new feel.

“They’ll notice it sounds different, even,” Hinde told The News Tribune in that 2009 article. “It will feel more solid.”

Hinde, who died in December, was remembered in his obituary as favoring the Classic Coaster above most other rides he’d worked on.

“It’s unique, and it’s a great design,” Hinde’s friend C.W. Craven told The News Tribune in a January 2020 article. “It’s only one of a few of that type, and he liked it.”

Fact Sheet

Built: 1935

Construction: Wood

Length: 2,650 feet

Height: 55 feet

Drop: 52 feet

Inversions: 0

Vertical angle:63 degrees

Height requirement to ride: 52 inches

Trains: 3 trains with 8 cars each

Duration: 1 minute, 45 seconds

Capacity: 1,300 riders per hour

Source: Rollercoaster Database

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is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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