Puyallup Fair roller coaster undergoes surgery

PUYALLUP — The old wooden roller coaster at the Puyallup Fair and Events Center has remained largely the same since it was built in 1935.

But today the historic coaster is in pieces as it goes through the first phase of a three-year, $1 million reconstruction project.

People who pass by on the west side of the fairgrounds might have noticed that the middle section is missing.

Maintenance crews plan to have the section replaced by late August so that the coaster will be up and running in time for the Puyallup Fair in September, said John Hinde, the project manager heading up the reconstruction.

The other two sections will be replaced over the next two years, Hinde said.

In recent years, the aging wood has forced fair maintenance workers to spend hours repairing it to keep it operating safely, Hinde said.

Fair officials decided it would be better to rebuild the coaster than continue spending time and money on annual repairs.

“It’s cheaper to replace it than it is to repair it at this point,” Hinde said. “We can’t keep up with the rot.”

The original design will remain largely unchanged. The Puyallup Fair’s board of directors decided against replacing the wooden structure with a more modern design because of the ride’s historical significance, said Karen LaFlamme, Puyallup Fair spokeswoman.

According to the American Coaster Enthusiasts organization, the number of wooden roller coasters in the United States has dwindled from about 2,000 in the 1920s to fewer than 125 today.

The organization has honored Puyallup’s Giant Coaster as one of 32 Coaster Classics in the United States.

“A steel coaster you can find anywhere,” LaFlamme said. “This one’s an icon.”

Milton resident Doris Vormestrand, 80, has ridden the coaster at the Puyallup Fair almost every year since she was about 10.

She remembers as a child waiting for the day she was finally able to ride it with her older siblings.

“That roller coaster was a highlight of your life, if you were brave enough to ride it,” Vormestrand recalled. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time when there’s not a line to get on.”

The coaster operates for 17 days during the Puyallup Fair in September and four days during the Puyallup Spring Fair in April. It’s the most popular ride at the fairgrounds, attracting more than 84,000 thrill-seekers during the past year.

That’s why the workers are doing the project in pieces, Hinde said.

“We can only take apart as much as we can put back together again by fair time,” he said.

The fair will pay for the reconstruction out of its own budget, LaFlamme said. Visitors shouldn’t notice an increase in prices for the coaster or other rides, she said.

Though workers are doing everything they can to stay true to the coaster’s nearly 75-year-old design, riders will notice a few differences, Hinde said.

The ride will need additional support because the quality of today’s wood is not as good as it was in 1935, Hinde said.

The legs of the coaster will be closer together than they were before, spaced 10 feet instead of 12. And there will be twice as much horizontal bracing.

“People will notice there is quite a bit more lumber than the old structure,” Hinde said.

And rather than having the wooden legs rest on the ground, they’ll be anchored into the soil by cement footers running 42 inches deep. Many wooden parts will also be glued together.

Because of the changes, riders this September might notice that the new section feels less rickety than the older parts, Hinde said. Each time they ride the coaster, they will pass over the new section four times.

“They’ll notice it sounds different, even,” Hinde said. “It will feel more solid.”

Puyallup’s Giant Coaster

Height: 55 feet

Length of ride: 2,650 feet

Maximum speed: 50 mph

Ride duration: 1 minute, 45 seconds

History: Although the coaster was originally built in 1935, about 25 percent of the ride was destroyed in a fire in 1970 and had to be rebuilt. The three-year reconstruction beginning this year will be the most work done to the coaster since the fire.

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