The Scenic Railway (or Scenic) was a Switchback-type ride in which some, or all, of the cars were fitted with and driven by electric motors. Many Circular Steam Switchbacks were converted to Scenic Railways when it became apparent that Scenic Railways were the “must have” novelty of the day.
The Electric Scenic Railway was the ultimate riding machine of its day and development continued into the 1920s.
Despite not actually being a railway and initially carrying Motor Cars, the ride was named “Scenic Railway” after a roller coaster built for the 1908 Franco-British exhibition at London’s White City. This mile-long thrill-ride was elaborately decorated with vivid images of mountain scenery, lakes, caves and waterfalls.
In reality the Scenic Railway was an enlarged version of the Circular Steam Switchback – but without the centre engine. A version of the ride was patented in 1903, but the first machine was built in 1910. This first machine was the product of a collaboration between the engineer and ride builder Frederick Savage (of Norwich), and Enoch Farrar, the Showman. A regular customer of Savage, Farrar wanted to trump his rivals with a new idea. It had to be a ride bigger than anything seen before, and a forty-foot diameter track saw to that. It also had to be a ride powered like no other, and cars being driven by an electric current from twin rails saw to that.
The finished product was a revolutionary roundabout, not really because it was big and had electric drive, but because it introduced the idea of a “journey” through a scenic landscape. The space created by the removal of the centrally-located steam engine was filled with decorated scenery depicting landscapes and country scenes. There was even a real waterfall (powered by an electric pump) surrounded by painted foliage and rock formations, augmented by sky effects painted onto the underside of the canvas roof.
The ride caused a sensation when introduced and Farrar’s competitors rushed to either have their old Switchbacks converted, or to add to Savage’s expanding order book.
Unfortunately, what happened next wasn’t all sweetness and light. Savage’s business was not as prosperous as might have been expected and by 1911 the company was forced to close, leaving many ride owners in the lurch – although help was at hand.
The Burton-on-Trent based carving shop of Charles Spooner provided much of the carved work for Switchbacks and the new Scenic Railways. The collapse of Savages precipitated a partnership between Spooner and his father-in-law, George Orton, a move that quickly filled the gap in the ride building market. Orton was a carriage (wagon) builder and his company did extensive business with showmen. He was also a specialist in elaborate show-fronts, with his son-in-law being one of his main suppliers.
Orton & Spooner quickly began to dominate and although a rescue package was thrashed out for Savages (and the company eventually continued) it was never able to claw back what it had lost.
All early Scenic Railways were fitted with Motor Cars. Over time the carved work and artistic representations became more elaborate, with country images giving way to jungle scenes. Eventually, Motor Cars were ousted and replaced by riding cars embellished with Dragons, Whales, Peacocks, Dolphins and Neptune figures. The rest of the ride became bloated with ever more elaborate carvings and gigantic painted showfronts.
Unfortunately, once the dust had settled on the builder issue even bigger problems emerged for the Scenic Railway in the shape of the first World War and the prevailing economic situation of the 1920s.
Although still hugely popular post-war inflation pushed the price for an Orton & Spooner Scenic Railway above £20,000, putting them beyond the reach of most operators. And for existing rides the cost of keeping one on the road became increasingly uneconomic. The resources, effort and staffing levels required to assemble, dismantle and move the massive loads became unsustainable.
Eventually, the advances in electrical engineering that brought about the Scenic Railway in the first place made certain of its demise. New, faster, lightweight electrically powered roundabouts imported from Europe would prove far more attractive to showfolk struggling to make a living.
The period of Scenic Railway production at Orton & Spooner lasted only about seven years, and no more than 13 rides were built from scratch (although many Switchbacks were brought into the Orton & Spooner workshops for conversion to electric drive and additional embellishment).
Scenic Railways and their elaborate carved work were to resonate down the following decades, but when the 1930s arrived the roundabout had moved on – the time of the Ark had come.
Ironically, although the Scenic Railway signalled the end of steam power on the fairground it relied on steam to provide its power, supplied by means of a specially converted Showman’s Locomotive.
Like the Scenic Railway itself this Locomotive (also referred to as a “Scenic” by showfolk) represented the ultimate expression of its type. It was bigger than anything seen before and certainly more powerful.
Scenic Locomotives were different from their fairground contemporaries because they were not just “dumb” devices used to pull loads from one place to another. They were fitted with two front mounted dynamos (one large, one small) and a crane at the rear that was used to lift the heavy cars as the ride was built-up and dismantled.
The larger of the two dynamos drove the ride itself and was designed to handle the rapid acceleration of huge weight, while also being able to facilitate the slow running required to enable passengers to enter and leave the ride. The smaller dynamo was used for lighting and whatever was being used in the centre of the ride, for example the organ, the waterfall pump, etc.
It’s technology that makes the world go round in circles.
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