Carl MilerThe Man Who Staked His Life On A Roller Coaster
There seems to be a natural attraction to it. Having your body lifted to heights, then dropping bottom out, sending you heart-in-mouth straight down, moving you through space and 90-degree turns at 45 miles per hour; the sensation of being carried along by a cyclone without the accompanying loss of life and limb. There's really nothing to compare to a roller coaster.
Carl Miler's most popular roller coaster is the High Miler, a 50-foot high construction of more than100,000 pounds of steel. It can be disassembled and moved on four trucks.
Carl Miler will stake his life on it. He has, in Portland, for the last 27 years. And it's put him in the unique position of being the only designer-producer of portable roller coasters in the country.
"It's open to debate, of course," Carl laughs. "But you have to understand the market for roller coasters isn't exactly overwhelming. It is a pretty risky financial venture to make; suppose the thing is a complete failure, doesn't even make it over the first hill. What do you do with it? And the cost of materials is so much higher now that when I first got into it. I think I may have simply outlasted most of my competitors."
He designs them and builds every part, from upholstery seats to specially designed nylon wheels and collapsible I-beam track. Working out of an unlikely looking hangar on Southeast 96th and Burnside (which Miler plans to move before the year is out), he's put together portable roller coasters that range from six to sixty feet high. The designer estimates they have given rides to more than 5 million people. His roller coasters have been feathered in state fairs across the country, in tours and carnivals - most noteworthy the Royal American shows - that have played in major fairs in every state and in Canada.
"One important factor is that of portability," Carl says. "There does not seem to be much of a future in building permanent amusement parks in this country right now. The secret is to come up with a good collapsible rig that's as exciting as any you've ever ridden, but that can be taken down and moved at short notice. And it's worth a lot of patents, I can assure you."
The High Miler, his most popular roller coaster, is a 50-foot high construction that takes three days to erect and four flatbed trucks and a crane to move.
"Space is of the essence in carnivals today, so naturally you can't afford to have a construction that rambles over half an acre. The High Miler is over 100,000 pounds of steel, welded and packed tight into a space of 50 by 150 feet. It took me two years to build the first one."
With a background in metal pre-fab and a few good post-war ideas for making money, Miler had just about all the qualification he needed to break into the industry. He built a small six-foot high roller coaster and operated if for a year at Jantzen Beach in 1946. It and a second like it were qui9ckly bough by small carnivals. Relying, as he always has, a word of reputation promotion, his third order came from Denver.
By the early 1950s, amusement was big business in America. Miler was building three rigs at a time. Gooding Amusements in Michigan heard about his seven-foot high Kiddy Coaster and paid $6,500 each for three of them in 1953. Today they sell for $18,000.
Prices rose as shows become larger and roller coasters went higher and faster. The Royal American Shows, the largest railroad "carney" in the country, joined forces with Miler, and the coaster heights shot to fifteen, twenty and then thirty-five feet.
Prices for a ride inflated along with everything else (there are still aficionados who remember the most daring rides for a nickel). But roller coasters, even at 35 cents per ride, are still the all-time money-makers for amusement shows.
"I've designed some other rides also: Rocking funhouse ship and a monorail. But they can't touch the attraction of a roller coaster," Carl says. "We had a coaster at every Oregon State Fair at Salem for 16 years. And it was always the top grosser. When the Wild Mouse came along in the '50s, it doubled the gross of any ride before it."
The Wild Mouse was an immediate success everywhere it went. Thirty-five feet high, it featured turns and dips that guaranteed a cosmic encounter with your stomach. It has the smoothest ride ever, giving the uncertain feeling of no track, of hurtling weightlessly through space through hairpin turns that seemed impossible to negotiate, even to the steadiest of nerves. In fact, it was Carl's most efficient design to date; Equipped with emergency air brakes and electric block systems, the carriages were attached to the track by a sophisticated system of underfriction, with 24 safety rollers to keep the train on, no matter what.
"I've stress the safety features of design over all. If they're properly maintained, there should be no logical reason for an accident. Once in a while you'll hear of someone who stood up in a car and fell out on a turn; a lot of old European coasters have no seat straps at all. But American roller coasters are subject to so many safety inspections, you almost couldn't expect to operate an unsafe ride for very long."
Miler discovered the only way he could insure his constructions were properly maintained was to stop selling them entirely, which he did. Every roller coaster over fifteen feet high that Miler has built he also operates and services.
"It's an extra burden of work, of course," he says. "But it gives me a lot of control, too. I don't have to build the same construction over and over. I'm free to be creative with designs, which is the most exciting part of the whole business. Right now I'm working on my first semiportable setup; it will be about eighty feet high."
They've grown together, the roller coasters business and Carl, Carl and his family. They live comfortably in Portland's West Hills; Carl, his wife Margie, and their five children. "After all, there really hasn't been any place else to live. What other climate could be more agreeable?"
The land dips beneath their living room window, opening graciously onto a clear morning to a view that animates a magnificent descent on roller.
By J. Winike
J. Winike is a Portland writer.
Photo supplied by the author
Published in Northwest Magazine
Sunday, November 11, 1973