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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2000

A Toledoan started all the screams

So, I'm betting on really long lines at Cedar Point today for that new, much-hyped roller coaster.

But as coaster freaks from far and wide converge on opening day at the Sandusky amusement park, dear old Alanson Wood - the largely unknown father of the modern roller coaster - lies undisturbed in the verdant peace and quiet of Woodlawn Cemetery.

"He really accomplished a lot, and really got very little credit for it,'' says Timothy Messer-Kruse.

A history professor at the University of Toledo, Dr. Messer-Kruse learned of Mr. Wood's unacknowledged inventiveness while researching union history.

Stumbling across the man's 1909 obituary, the professor was surprised to read "the fantastic claim that said this was the father of the roller coaster."

But patent research largely bears out the designation.

"Contraptions that bore a resemblance to modern-day roller coasters . . . were primarily undulating ramps lined with rollers that sent an unwheeled sled on a noisy one-way trip," writes Dr. Messer-Kruse on UT's "Toledo's Attic" web site.

"Various 'inclined railways' were built before the Civil War in America, but these were crude imitations of sluices and chutes - they were all linear, and they all began at a high point and ended somewhere far below," the web site notes.

Not until Alanson Wood came along did roller coasters become not just circular, but exciting.

"With the earlier coasters," Dr. Messer-Kruse says, "the purpose was to take you in one direction along a beach or a wooded trail. But Wood had no intention of being scenic. His ride would be thrilling.''

His life, less so.

What can you tell me about Mr. Wood's life, I ask the professor.

"Nothing," he replies.

"He lived in obscurity. He didn't cut a large swath over local history. I don't know what kind of man he was. He might have kicked his dog and been mean to children. We have no way of telling."

His Blade obituary did note that, "to many of his friends, he was regarded as eccentric, but perhaps it was the eccentricity of genius."

The story about his life also allowed that Mr. Woods was "a close observer of human life, and had his own ideas of immortality and existence beyond the grave."

Whatever those ideas might have been, evidence of Mr. Wood's life is now limited to little more than patent numbers and a cemetery headstone.

The man Dr. Messer-Kruse calls "a tinkerer and thinker" never actually built a coaster based on his own design. But of the royalties he collected for a variety of patents, the roller-coaster design yielded the most money.

Mr. Wood's lifelong toil and subsequent obscurity made him all the more intriguing to Dr. Messer-Kruse, who says, "you gotta like the underdog."

"Being a historian, I find so much historical credit goes to those who merely are successful, as opposed to being innovative or diligent. We have this myth in America that your wealth and social position are a direct mirror of your accomplishments in life,'' says the professor, who certainly doesn't buy into that line of thought.

"In fact,'' he notes, "the majority of people are intelligent, inventive, and work very hard doing amazing things - and 99 per cent of them never get the credit they deserve. The world is full of Alanson Woodses."

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Readers may contact her at 724-6086, or e-mail roberta@theblade.com.



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