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The Beast: The original biggest, baddest, tallest, fastest wooden roller coaster in the world

John Keeter

John M. Keeter first attended Kings Island 35 years ago when “The Bat” was originally taking flight.  The awe of that first visit and later rides on “The Beast” (Still his favorite Kings Island attraction) triggered his enduring love of the park.  A picture of a flooded Cincinnati’s Coney Island found in a grade school library book triggered his quest to learn all he could of Kings Island’s beginning.   An avid roller coaster enthusiast, he’s ridden over 400 different coasters.  He resides in Louisville, KY and maintains “Sit on It”, a Facebook Page dedicated to remembering the Kings Island of our past, as well as looking forward to the Kings Island of our future.  It can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/SitonItKI/

Kings Island’s star attraction has become as synonymous to the city of Cincinnati as the Reds, Bengals and Skyline Chili. It has entertained tens of millions of brave riders. It is known the whole-world-over and is arguably the most successful wooden coaster of all time. When it opened, it was the biggest, baddest, tallest, fastest rollecoaster on planet earth. Those that created it could have in no way predicted the legend it would become. Why, the tale of “The Beast’s” origin is just as big as the ride itself. 

On July 10, 1978, Kings Island’s public relations manager, Ruth Voss, issued a simple press release stating “Kings Island Family Entertainment Center will open America’s champion roller coaster in the spring of 1979.” This was the first hint at what would become a legendary attraction of epic proportions. It had actually been a closely guarded secret Kings Island kept for three years. When the park opened in 1972, the highly successful Racer roller coaster had re-invigorated interest in wooden coasters and became a media darling. While the park had continued to add multiple rides to the park each season, Kings Island soon decided they needed a new, large, namesake attraction. As the park’s earliest operational years wore on, Kings Island had received national exposure by hosting the filming of television shows, the Wallenda high-wire walk and the Evel Knievel record-breaking 14-bus motorcycle jump. Each of these had continued to bring the park to the forefront of theme park interest. Taft Broadcasting and Kings Island executives liked the attention that breaking records brought – not to mention the revenue newsworthy events generated. So, never one to stagnate, they decided it was time to add marquee attraction to draw more interest. Their main intention was to see the park achieve a goal of 3 million visitors and hoped the new headline-making ride would increase attendance by 150,000 – 250,000 guests.  Even so, there was no hard-and-fast timeline on the ride, and initially they actually were not in any sort of hurry to build it.

Many of the park’s team had come from Cincinnati’s Coney Island, and they recalled how difficult it was to leave the “Shooting Star” behind. The immensely beloved coaster did not transfer to Kings Island and was demolished just a year after Coney Island closed following the 1971 season.  However, prior to being bulldozed, the engineering and construction team revisited the closed park surveying and recording measurements of the Shooting Star with the intent to rebuild it. In the southeast corner of Kings Island lied a vast undeveloped plot of virgin forest perfect for the location of a new coaster. The land was accessible to the park’s Rivertown themed area located opposite the park from the Racer. This would give them a high-volume, signature coaster on both sides of the park. The problem was, the land was untouched, uneven, hilly terrain. Executives also wanted something big - really big – that would break records and draw the attention they desired. It quickly became evident that simply rebuilding the “Shooting Star” would not suffice for both esthetic and attention needs. (The Shooting Star would later be replicated with some alterations as “The Mighty Canadian Minebuster” when Kings Island’s sister park “Canada’s Wonderland” was built.)

Once the decision to build an original coaster had been made, and the area chosen, the park sought someone to design the coaster for them. Having had such great success with the Racer, the park immediately turned to its creator, John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company.  Allen, a world-renowned wooden coaster designer, who had initially backed out of semi-retirement to build the Racer, had continued to build wooden coasters in subsequent years. Nearly 10 years after, he was firm in his decision to retire – so Allen turned the job down flat. Even without a designer, Kings Island and Taft executives began the process of traveling across the country to various parks to ride and rate various wooden coasters. Although steel coasters were growing in popularity and offered new possibilities, the Kings Island staff preferred the idea and feel of a traditional wooden coaster. (If you recall, in 1977 Kings Island installed its first steel coaster – the Screamin’ Demon.  The Demon was installed well AFTER initial decision making for “The Beast” had begun.) Charles Dinn, then head of maintenance and construction at Kings Island later said “We studied every major coaster in the country.” The intent was to incorporate the best features of each one into the new ride.  However the executives had three requirements for the ride: thrills, speed and smoothness. 

Al Collins, Kings Island’s head engineer and surveyor had come to work for Kings Island from CV Messer, the company that built the park. He had done much of the survey and engineering work for the original park while it was constructed in 1970. Collins and his assistant, Jeff Gramke, would become directly involved with the new coaster project due to their awareness of the land’s topography and their ability to oversee the engineering needs. Collins and Gramke began the immense job of surveying the area in question and creating a preliminary layout of the ride based on the topography. They decided early that the coaster should be a “terrain” coaster that would follow the natural contours of the land.  After months of preliminary survey work, they once again approached John Allen and invited him to the park to discuss the project. On the final night of his visit to Kings Island, Allen was at dinner with Collins and Gramke at the park’s International Restaurant. For a second time, the duo asked Allen to design the ride. However he again turned the project down. But he proceeded to tell the pair that they didn’t need anyone to design it for them.  Referring to all the preliminary design work they had already completed, Allen simply said “You guys can design the ride yourself.” He then took a menu from the table, turn it upside down, and wrote his calculations from over 50 years of coaster building on the back. This gesture would prove essential to the rides genesis. Allen then agreed to be a consultant on the ride, assisting the team with whatever questions they had and helping by designing components.

Collins and Gramke took the calculations and studied them. They recognized that many of the formulas were similar to the engineering work they had known at the park previously. This set the pair on the path to design the ride in-house. It would take over one-and-a-half years of their engineering prep work before construction could even begin. Park and Taft officials desired as many trees be saved as possible – so the coaster was designed to maneuver around trees and densely wooded areas – prompting countless revisions to the design. The pair would create preliminary designs in the office, then walk back to the woods to re-survey - repeating the process hundreds upon hundreds of times. All engineering and logarithms were done by hand, no computers were used, and the ride was calculated with a mere 1/8” variance. It became of painstaking process in which Collins and Gramke would independently produce calculations and then verify each other’s math calculations.

The Beast was designed with an elevation change of 201 feet. However, the structure never rises more than 110 feet above ground. The first drop is 135 feet long and the second is 141 feet, but both use a tunnel or hillside to achieve the differential. Throughout the entire design process, Collins and Gramke routinely consulted with John Allen who designed the braking system and chain lifts for the coaster. Originally the coaster operated with skid brakes – which consisted of brake pads on long platforms in between the side rails of the coaster. Hydraulically raised and lowered, these long braking platforms would press against the underside of the train slowing and braking it when necessary. Collins and Gramke faced a large challenge in getting the train back to the original higher elevation level, and knew they wanted the finale of the ride to be a large double helix. At the suggestion of John Allen, a second lift was added to the design to raise trains to another apex for what they called “act two.” The added inertia not only became the most exciting part of the ride, but also allowed the designers to accomplish the task of returning the trains to the station’s higher elevation.

Prep for construction began in May 1978 with grading of the land and vertical construction of the coaster began on June 10. This construction prompted the park to finally reveal the plans for the ride to the press/public who would now see a lift hill structure begin to rise at the rear of Rivertown. 

On July 11, 1978, Kings Island held a press event, complete with a scale model, and announced they would be building the “Ultimate Roller Coaster.” Kings Island’s general manager, William Price, told the media that day, “Our new coaster will be the ultimate thrill ride in the country and we are very proud of the fact that our own engineering, construction and rides departments have designed it and will build it.” Price added “Not only are the statistics of the ride awesome, but its use of the rugged natural terrain ensures no other roller coaster tops these thrills, weaving along steep cliffs, down ravines, into four spectacular tunnels, through nine sharply banked turns among a forest of trees and often at tree-top heights.”  Ironically, at the time of the announcement, the park had yet to decide on a name and/or theme for the ride – they simply knew it was going to be the world’s largest wooden coaster. Ruth Voss said “We don’t see how anyone can go faster, we think we’ve developed the ultimate coaster.” The park’s officials used catch words such as “champion” and “ultimate” in its press descriptions in reality these words had been tossed around internally as possible names – but nothing “fit.” 

Meanwhile, Charles Dinn, Kings Island’s director of maintenance and construction, was in charge of the construction of the coaster. Dinn served as the ride’s contractor, he led a team of carpenters, oversaw the purchase of construction materials, scheduled crews, and outsourced necessary projects such as the installation of footings. Curtis Summers was hired by Dinn to design the footings and the “dead man” cable system for the helix (this formed a working partnership which prompted the pair to form a successful wooden coaster building firm in 1984 – The Dinn Corporation – responsible for the construction/re-building of a dozen wooden coasters.)  Jim Kiosky, an independent structural engineer, was hired by the park to design and build the tunnels. Originally, there were three underground tunnels – one at the base of the first drop, and two more located a third of the way through the ride’s course – constructed using rebar, and thick-poured concrete. 

The construction cost $3.2 million (that’s roughly $14 million today) and took one year. Due to its design utilizing the land’s natural elevation changes, the park actually saved money due to Collin’s and Gramke’s decision to make it a “terrain” coaster. Had it been built on a flat parcel of land, the cost would have likely tripled. The ride required 650,000 board feet of redwood lumber, 82,480 bolts, 5,180 washers, 37,500 lbs. of nails, and 2,432 square yards of poured concrete (that’s enough to pave a 2-lane highway for 3.5 miles.) The good fall weather in 1978 actually allowed the park to build much of the coaster ahead of schedule. By November 9, when the coaster was “topped out”, not only were both large hills complete, but all three underground tunnels were finished and the laying of steel track plates and construction of the helix were well underway. The ride was 60 percent complete before the winter even set in.

However by early 1979, the park still faced a big hurdle. The coaster still didn’t have a name. Many ideas had been tossed around internally, but nothing would stick. Throughout its construction, Ruth Voss had routinely obtained updates from construction crews in order to feed the press with progress reports. Because of the sheer scope of the project, she was often met with exasperated responses such as “this things a monster” or “it’s a beast of a project.” It was these simple reactions that prompted Mrs. Voss to approach park executives with her idea – the coaster should be called “The Beast.”  Unanimously, the executives agreed and on February 6, 1979 (a mere two months before it opened) the name was finally announced to the public. The Beast’s iconic logo was created by Lawler Ballard Little – a national advertising firm– and would later win the top prize from the prestigious New York Advertising Club later that year. In addition, an unforgettable animated commercial was created adding to the mystique of the ride.

What many do not realize is “The Beast” has an entire back-story based on an abandoned mining company. Originally the tale was presented on signage outside of the ride’s entrance, it is as follows:

PUBLIC NOTICE: Help is urgently solicited!

Due to the increasing occurrence of mysterious Noises, inexplicable Tremors, and vicious acts of Vandalism within these premises, it has become necessary to suspend the normal operations of this Company. Although the Cause of this Evil Phenomena defies identification, Authorities agree it is surely the work of some Demonic Creature of prodigious size, which for now can only be designated as:

THE BEAST.

LET THE FOOLHARDY BEWARE! This so-named Beast appears to be very much alive and intent upon conquering all who would oppose him.  Nothing of the Imagination would be able to inflict such terror upon the Human Soul. 

IT IS WITH UTMOST URGENCY that the Management entreats all civic-spirited persons to assist its loyal Employees in the ongoing effort to subdue this disruptive Scourge and restore order to the Community. 

ALL VOLUNTEERS will kindly apply by entering through the Employment Office (At times it may be necessary to await recruitment at the Observation Area to the left of the Office Building.)

Thank you, and may the Lord have mercy! 

Charles J. Dinn

President, The Little Miami Amalgamated Mining & Minerals Co.

The coaster’s station was designed to resemble an abandoned mining shack – complete with flowing water trough. When it was built, the station/first turnaround and storage shed took the place of one of the park’s original attractions “Shawnee Landing.” (Trivia: Shawnee Landing was the canoe attraction in which Marcia and Jan Brady found the lost sketches in the Brady Bunch Episode.) In its first eight years of operation, the station and Beast’s first lift resided over the very same lake that had housed the canoes from 1972 to 1976.

In the final stages of construction, Aetna Electric was contracted to add the safety controls for the ride. “The Beast” was the first coaster at Kings Island to utilize a computerized safety controls system including location sensors and closed circuit television. The ride was set up in “blocks” (sections monitored by electronic eyes preventing multiple trains from entering within the same areas of the coaster) to streamline capacity. Dave Focke, who came to the project via Aetna, oversaw the safety system installation and stayed with Kings Island for 20 years after the construction completed. Eventually when Charles Dinn left, Focke became Kings Island’s VP of Maintenance and Construction. 

John Allen also designed a tire-driven launch system that helped propel the trains out of the station in order to increase capacities. It was his company that also provided the train. Originally, “The Beast” was designed to operate with four “PTC” trains. Each train would consist of five four-bench cars. However, as testing cycles began, they found that the use of four trains actually diminished capacity by locking up the systems safety control. The result was to reduce the coaster by one train, significantly improving cycling times. “The Beast’s” trains were originally mining car-themed, complete with a headlamp on the front of the train. The seats were a tufted leather with gold button embellishment, and the restraint was a single “buzz bar” that folded down over the legs of each pair of riders. However, by the time the coaster opened, the look of the trains had changed significantly. Predicting the onslaught of media attention, the park opted to remove the headlamps in place of a sculpted logo on the train fronts. The trains were painted with a “flame-themed” color scheme. Tom Rebbie, who had recently been hired by PTC, was sent to the park by Allen to oversee the installation of the “buzz bar” restraints once the trains were painted at the park. Rebbie would eventually become the president of Philadelphia Toboggan Company – where he remains to this day.

Construction was not without its struggles. Once testing began, it was found that there was too much side acceleration in the final helix, so the entire helix was re-engineered in order to widen its diameter thus reducing laterals. The original intent was to enclose the final helix, but because of the delay, the coaster operated for its first season without a helix tunnel. Another challenge was the banking of the curve out of the first tunnel following the initial drop. Seeing undue stress on the structure, this section of track was re-banked overnight. The benefit of the coaster being a terrain coaster, and following closely to the ground, was that it allowed for expedited adjustments – no large cranes necessary. In these days, there were no computerized force-measuring devices – and testing dummies were not used. Instead, coaster construction crew members would board a train to take test rides. If the train stalled – as it often did in the final brake course - the crew would simply hop out, and push the train back to the station!

Finally, after over three years of design and construction, the park completed “The Beast” in time for a press event on April 13, 1979. Unfortunately, Mother Nature stepped in to deter the event by dumping one-and-a-quarter inches of rain throughout the day. There were also complications requiring single-train operation and the safety bars be locked/unlocked by hand. Nonetheless, the park released its monster to 145 press attendees. The event began with welcome remarks by General Manager William Price and then a “breaking of the chains.” The first train was sent at 10:30 a.m. containing 17 official first riders comprised of Taft Executives and Kings Island staff. This was a strategic move demonstrating that the ride was indeed safe and to prove to the press/public that the executives were prepared to ride what the park had built. Many of the event’s sideline festivities were cancelled due to weather conditions, but even still, the Beast was unleashed to the world as planned. The press event lasted until 3 p.m. but then the park held a preview night for the ride beginning at 5 p.m. In the weeks leading up to the preview event, teenage focused radio stations in Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville, Dayton, Indianapolis and Columbus had been granted 250 invitations each to be used for call-in contests. The winners got to be among the first to ride “The Beast.”

On April 14, “The Beast” opened to the general public in the afternoon – the park had continued to work on the ride overnight in order to prepare for the public. Even still, the park operated that first weekend with a single train and hand released restraints. This prompted lines reaching in excess of three hours. The park was ecstatic when the reviews began… the public loved it. Unlike anything experienced before, “The Beast” offered un-matched thrills. By scope, it took up seven times the amount of land utilized by the Racer. The densely wooded setting enhanced the mystique of the ride, and the sheer magnitude of a nearly a five-minute coaster ride astounded riders. The ride became a media sensation, breaking world records and shattering the conceptions of what a wooden coaster could be. Among those first riders was Carl Eichelman, a local night auditor for the IRS. Eichelman became so enamored with the coaster, that he spent the next six years racking up a staggering 4,400 rides on it – which stands as the record for the most rides on “The Beast” to this very day. In June 1979, Kings Island hosted one of the first official events for the “American Coaster Enthusiasts” (ACE) which began one of the first, and most enduring, relationships the organization formed with a park. 25 years later, “The Beast” was awarded the coveted “Landmark Coaster” award by ACE for its contributions to the industry and role in the invigoration of wooden roller coaster interest.  

In the years since its inception, there have been some significant changes to “The Beast.” After its first week of operation in 1979, an entire curve was re-banked to reduce stress on the structure. For its second season of operation, the helix finale was completely enclosed and tunnels two and three were joined to form one long tunnel. For the 1981 season, significant changes included a complete re-design and banking of the turn going into the mid-course brake shed. Also, the trains were reduced from four-bench cars to three-bench cars. (That is why the queue gates in the station do not line up exactly with each seat, and there are arrows pointing you to the proper row!)  In 1987, the pond over which the station and lift resided was drained for the addition of an accessibility ramp, and the exit was re-routed. The “rock” façade that exists over the entrance to tunnel No. 1 was a later addition to the ride – and was created by forming a chicken-wire frame, sprayed with expanding foam/fiberglass and artistically painted to resemble stones. The coaster’s complete safety system was overhauled in the 1990’s, and its original blocking technology and control panel were replaced. Prior, the ride required that a crew member be stationed on lift No. 2, and the crew member waved at each passing train! In 1998, the station’s original queue gates were replaced. In 2003, the ride received its most noteworthy change when all of the original “skid” brakes were removed and replaced with a magnetic braking system. The fourth train was rotated for use for a few years, but eventually became integrated into the reduction/refurbishment of the others. Its lead car was given to Ruth Voss, upon her retirement from the park in 1989.  The trains have been modified through the years with the removal of single “buzz bars” to individual lap restraints, seat belts, headrests, and higher seat dividers. The paint scheme was altered from the “flame” theme to become solid red. Finally, the station no longer uses the drive tire launch system developed by John Allen.

Contrary to what many think, “The Beast” has always utilized speed or “trim” brakes to regulate the speed of the trains throughout the course. Increasing temperatures and general “breaking-in” would increase train speed during each operating day - so it was always necessary to control the ride. Prior to the addition of its current magnetic braking system, the process used to increase/decrease the pressure of the trim brakes on the trains was as simple as adding/subtracting counterweight to the underside of the skid platforms. This was literally a process by which a member of the Kings Island wooden coaster maintenance team would add rocks, bolts, screws, washers etc. to a metal can suspended by wire under the brake panel until the appropriate speed was achieved. Often, as night set in, the counterweight would be reduced as the sun set, and that is why so many “Beast Fans” recollect “faster” or “out of control” night rides. (In reality, the “faster” night rides had little to do with speed – and more to do with darkness, woods, and imagination!) The original skid brakes also required the talents, and abilities of a well-trained crew of drivers that would “drive” the train into the station. The “driver” would control the raising and lowering of the final brake run skid panels while the train moved forward into the station driven by gravity/drive tires. There was a yellow line painted at the front of the station (still visible today) which served as a target for the driver to stop the train.  Once the front of the train reached the line, they could unlock restraints and open gates for guest rotation!  Finally, the ride has been re-stained, re-tracked and had portions replaced many times due to general wear and tear over the years.

Since it remains Kings Island’s most popular night-ride, often crews are required to stay well past park close in order to run out the lines, clean the station and trains, and transfer them into its storage shed. “The Beast” requires that all trains be taken off the track and moved to a storage shed nightly. The trains are inspected every night after park close, and in the wee-morning hours, the entire track of “The Beast” is walked by members of the wooden coaster maintenance team to inspect/survey its entire course. Once the coaster has been signed off, the crew then transfers the trains back on to the track for test cycles – all before the public even enters the park. During the off-season, its trains are completely dis-assembled and rebuilt following a rigorous inspection, and then added back to the track in the early spring operation. No doubt, the task of upkeep and maintenance of “The Beast” is as mammoth as the coaster itself.

“The Beast” has been featured on hundreds of television shows and news programs. Its famous fans include countless celebrities ranging from Pete Rose to Britney Spears. With no end in sight, “The Beast” has given nearly 55 million rides – a staggering feat of accomplishment. It remains listed in the Guinness Book of World records as the longest wooden coaster in the world at 7,359 feet. No other coaster comes even close to the sheer magnitude of artistry and talent it took to create “The Beast.” Its origin is a mammoth as its size.  And thanks to so many hard-working designers, creators, builders, crew members and fans, “The Beast” continues to attract, delight and thrill coaster lovers the whole world over, generation after generation.

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John Keeter

John M. Keeter first attended Kings Island 35 years ago when “The Bat” was originally taking flight.  The awe of that first visit and later rides on “The Beast” (Still his favorite Kings Island attraction) triggered his enduring love of the park.  A picture of a flooded Cincinnati’s Coney Island found in a grade school library book triggered his quest to learn all he could of Kings Island’s beginning.   An avid roller coaster enthusiast, he’s ridden over 400 different coasters.  He resides in Louisville, KY and maintains “Sit on It”, a Facebook Page dedicated to remembering the Kings Island of our past, as well as looking forward to the Kings Island of our future.  It can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/SitonItKI/

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