Giant Dipper (Belmont Park)

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Giant Dipper
MissionBeachRollercoaster 640pixels.JPG
Roller coaster in Belmont Park
Belmont Park

32°46′18″N 117°15′0″W / 32.77167°N 117.25000°W / 32.77167; -117.25000Coordinates: 32°46′18″N 117°15′0″W / 32.77167°N 117.25000°W / 32.77167; -117.25000

Mission Beach Roller Coaster
Giant Dipper (Belmont Park) is located in California
Giant Dipper (Belmont Park)
Site in U.S. state of California
Location 3000 Mission Boulevard, San Diego, California
Coordinates 32°46′18″N 117°15′0″W / 32.77167°N 117.25000°W / 32.77167; -117.25000
Area 2.8 acres (1.1 ha)
Built 1925
Architect Thomas Frank Prior, Fredrick A. Church
Architectural style "Bobs"-type coaster
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 78000753[1]
CHISL # 1044[2]
SDHL # 90
Significant dates
Added to NRHP December 27, 1978
Designated NHL February 27, 1987[4]
Designated SDHL December 7, 1973[3]
Status Operating
Opening date July 4, 1925
General statistics
Type Wood
Manufacturer Frank Prior, Fredrick Church
Designer Frank Prior, Fredrick Church
Model Twister
Track layout 8 layers of laminated wood strips topped with a 1/4" x3" wide steel rail.
Lift/launch system Chain lift hill
Height 70 ft (21 m)
Drop 60 ft (18 m)
Length 2,600 ft (790 m)
Speed 55 mph (89 km/h)
Inversions 0
Duration 1:45
Max vertical angle 40 degrees at the bottom of first drop°
Height restriction 50 in (127 cm)
Giant Dipper at RCDB
Pictures of Giant Dipper at RCDB

The Giant Dipper, also known as the Mission Beach Roller Coaster,[4][5] is a wooden roller coaster, built in 1925. The Giant Dipper is in Belmont Park, on Mission Beach in San Diego. The coaster, along with its near twin at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, are the only remaining coasters on the West Coast built by noted coaster builders Prior and Church.[4]


Originally the idea of John D. Spreckels, the Giant Dipper coaster was to be the centerpiece of his new seaside Mission Beach Amusement Center (now known as Belmont Park) that opened on May 29, 1925. San Diego’s newest attraction featured a state–of–the–art natatorium, dance casino, roller rink, and a Luna Park area with rides and fun-houses. Construction of the Dipper started the week after the park’s opening. It was built by an experienced crew of 75 to 150 and took just under four weeks to complete. It reportedly cost $50,000 to build, including the two 18–passenger trains and 2,600 feet (792 m) of track. The Mission Beach Coaster Company owned and operated the attraction with George Barney as president.

The Dipper’s trains were made up of 9 single-bench cars that seated two people each. The chassis was steel and the coach was constructed of wood. Each car had two flanged wheels [6] under the seat and a ball in the front that hitched inside a socket located under the seat of the car in front.

Giant Dipper opens[edit]

It opened for business on July 4, 1925. In its first 10 days of operation, the newest Mission Beach attraction received more patronage than any other Prior and Church roller coaster premier. Hundreds of patrons waited in long lines for the advertised 1 minute 45 second long “ride through the clouds”.

A few days after the premier, a huge electric “Giant Dipper” sign was placed on the front of the loading station roof. A 50’ wide pathway was carved out through the center of the coaster, giving the public a shortcut from the parking lot to the beach. At the same time, steady-burning light bulbs were hung from wires over the coaster’s rails, brilliantly outlining the structure at night. A couple of months later the entire framework was painted white.

The only recorded death on the Giant Dipper happened on its first anniversary in 1926.[7] According to a July 5 article in the San Diego Union, a 19-year-old groom-to-be was thrown from the train as he was foolishly attempting to switch cars during the ride’s second drop. Through its history the rest of the amusement center had many operators and went through several decade-long cycles going from decay to spruced-up and back to decay again. The roller coaster was a good indicator of how things were going in the park.

The New Belmont Park[edit]

The one operator who made the brightest impact on the park was well-known carnival designer Jack Ray. He took over operations of the park in 1954. He planned to turn the park into a more attractive place for families and added several new rides and picnic areas in time for the 1955 season. All attractions had a futuristic space theme using colorful skyward spires and circles. He even changed the name to Belmont Park. The “New Belmont Park” opened the 1955 season without the Giant Dipper in the game.

The Fire of 1955[edit]

Earlier that year on February 2, 1955, the roller coaster inexplicably caught fire inside the engine room. While firefighters were investigating the damage, they discovered the body of Walter T. Barney, 59, president of the Mission Beach Coaster Company handed down to him from his father. Barney had operated the coaster since 1948. Firefighters believed the blaze started in the motor room where Barney must have been trapped while working.

A highly visible but crippled attraction concerned Jack Ray because he knew the coaster was his main draw for his park. After two years, the uninsured Mission Beach Coaster Company was unable to come up with the funds to repair the coaster and filed for bankruptcy. The ride was almost demolished based on public testimony before Ray was able to take over its ownership and operation. Freshly painted and restored, the ride opened in the summer of 1957, with a new look and the name “Roller Coaster”. In 1963 Jack Ray died and his widow, Eleanor, continued park operations.

Dipper condemned[edit]

Just at the height of the 1968 summer season on July 8, the roller coaster failed a city safety inspection and was condemned. More specifically, the trusses over the pedestrian shortcut were sagging and needed to be shored up. The roller coaster reopened on August 23, 1968, after passing the next inspection.

Mission Beach, not Miami Beach[edit]

Eleanor Ray sold the remainder of her lease to hotelier Williams Evans in 1969. His original idea was to run the park and roller coaster until the lease expired on January 31, 1974. He then planned to raze the park and put up a hotel.[8] Public opposition prevented him from developing that idea, and he was left with an amusement park operation.[9]

The Earthquake[edit]

After 5 years, Evans renewed his Belmont lease on year–to–year terms under the condition he invest more money towards public improvements and upkeep. Evans complied and he also invested a lot in advertising. In 1976, a local radio station, B-100, promoted a contest called Name the Belmont Park Roller Coaster. The original Giant Dipper moniker was a long faded memory since the coaster’s 1955 fire. Since then, the billboard over the red, white, and blue station house labeled the ride only as “Roller Coaster”. Contestants submitted entry slips at 7-11 convenience stores and within days the park received several thousand suggestions. The song “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players [10] had just come off the #1 spot on the charts, and thus accounted for most of the suggestions. On May 19, 1976, it was announced in the local Mission Beach paper that the roller coaster would be renamed “Earthquake”. It was an appropriate description as the roller coaster was known for being visually rickety.

Belmont Park closes its gates[edit]

Evans failed to get back the return on his improvements investment, stating that beach parking lots were always filled long before the park’s noon opening. By the end of 1976, Evans owed the city $100,000 in back rent. The City of San Diego shut the park and the roller coaster down. All the rides and attractions were removed except for the roller coaster, which Evans still owned.

For the next few years the former Giant Dipper (a.k.a. Earthquake) sat neglected and was a prominent eyesore in the neighborhood. On October 27, 1978, San Diego Historical Architect Toni Cianni had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in hopes of keeping the bulldozers at bay. A demolition permit was posted on the fence anyway. Vagrants were often chased off the property; one such person set it on fire twice (February 27 and March 18, 1981). A 22-year–old drifter from Canada was arrested. The fire was unfortunately timed as it happened to coincide with the time frame the city gave developers to come up with proposals for the former park property, and not all of them included the roller coaster. The first idea to preserve the coaster came from the ride’s owner, Bill Evans. At a meeting that would have put the final stamp on the coaster's demolition permit, Evans proposed that the roller coaster be kept as a riderless scenic sculpture sitting atop a market center to be called “Coaster Village”. The city turned down Evans's proposal and all other commercial development ideas in August of 1981, deciding that the land should remain as dedicated parkland. The fate of the roller coaster remained unknown.

Save the Coaster Committee[edit]

Bill Evans did not want to tear down his roller coaster, whether for reasons sentimental or financial. He reacted to the plea of the more liberal beach voices, led by beach poet Eddie Forrey, and contacted the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) with the proposal to donate the coaster to a non-profit group for its preservation. The Save the Coaster Committee was officially recognized as an organized non-profit group on October 7, 1981. Some of the original board members included Carol Lindemulder (local artist and former president of SOHO); Norman Starr (Mission Beach resident, contractor, owner of the Marin Hotel, located in the Gaslamp Quarter, 5th Avenue, and local entrepreneur); Timothy Cole (21–year–old student and roller coaster enthusiast); and Donald Reeves, historical architect and owner of the Louis Bank of Commerce Building, located in the Gaslamp Quarter, 5th Avenue. A three-year plan was submitted and approved by the city council on August 18, 1982. The initial task of cleaning up the property and scraping paint off the wood was done by the California Conservation Corps. The Save the Coaster committee hosted fundraisers and weekly volunteer work parties. The group would use a white oil-based stain donated by Frazee Paint,[11] San Diego, but had very little capital other than volunteers and donated paint to work on the coaster structure. By August 1985 the group had made little progress towards the renovation, mostly limited to replacing a few wood members and painting small portions of the structure. Although very little real renovation work had been done, most of it too subtle to catch the public’s eye, the group was allowed to continue for two more years so long as they received a $150,000 pending grant. The gift was received and on July 4, 1986, the coaster was lit with 600+ chasing light bulbs strung over the top. The group had the idea of saving the coaster but no expertise or funds to do it with. Norman Starr had one of the old roller coaster cars sitting in the front window of his Marin Hotel, located on 5th Avenue, in the hope of restoring the cars as well as the structure. Don Reeves submitted a "Report of Structural Survey" to the Building Department, hoping to get the report approved and start with the reconstruction. The Building Department never approved the report, because it consisted of no more than a few sketches of the vertical "bents" in key locations. It never provided a full plan, with keyed structural elements, showing the conditions of all the members, overall structures and mechanical systems. Despite repeated attempts, Reeves was never able to get approval from the Building Department for his Report of Structural Survey.

Belmont Park: the new development[edit]

In the early 1980s the San Diego City Council led by Councilman Mike Gotch called for proposals to redevelop Belmont Park and clean up the area which had fallen into disrepair and was occupied by homeless, drunks and vagrants selling drugs. The city received five redevelopment bids but eventually decided not to take action at that time. Later the matter was reopened and the City's Real Estate Development Department was authorized to contact architect Paul Thoryk and developer Graham MacHutchin regarding their proposal since it was the only development that restored the Plunge, the city's historic public swimming pool. On June 24, 1986 the City Council voted 6 to 1 to grant an exclusive right to negotiate a lease on the site with Thoryk & MacHutchin who by then were joined by a subsidiary of San Diego Gas & Electric as a partner in Belmont Park Associates. The parties negotiated a lease, plans were completed and approved, and construction began including the demolition and reconstruction of the exterior walls of the Plunge building which did not meet earthquake code requirements. The redeveloped Belmont Park and Plunge Building reopened in the summer of 1988.

The developers were worried about the slow progress of the Save the Coaster Committee in repainting the Giant Dipper roller coaster. It had been declared a National Historic Landmark #78000753 by the National Park Service, but there was no long term plan for maintaining it and could end up as an eyesore next to the renovated Plunge and new restaurants and other buildings. MacHutchin found out that the coaster were designed by Prior and Church, roller coaster designers, and that a similar coater designed by them existed in Santa Cruz. He contacted the owners and travelled to Santa Cruz to meet them where they discussed the possibility of leasing and restoring the coaster. MacHutchin arranged for them to travel to San Diego to see the coaster and to meet members of the City's Real Estate Development Department. They agreed to bid on renovating and operating the coaster, and the City then prepared an open invitation for firms to bid on the project. Subsequently a lease was awarded to San Diego Seaside Company which was owned by Ed Hutton, the General Manager of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and Dana Morgan of D. H. Morgan Manufacturing which designed and built circle rides and roller coaster vehicles. On September 1, 1989, the ownership of the coaster transferred to the City of San Diego, which in turn granted a 31-year lease of the coaster and property to San Diego Seaside. The company spent over $2,000,000 to restore the Giant Dipper to working order, and on August 11, 1990 the newly restored roller coaster was reopened to the public. [12]

Rebirth of a National Historic Landmark[edit]

On July 4, 1990, a ceremony was held to officially recognize the Dipper as a National Historical Landmark. On August 11, 1990, the Giant Dipper reopened to the public.[8] The ride’s new train was produced by Morgan Manufacturing. High demand suggested a second train would be helpful and one was added the next year.

The Giant Dipper has celebrated many occasions and seen a lot of history, including several noteworthy events celebrating its restoration. In 1997, local radio station Star 100.7 staged a coaster–riding marathon, "Whirl Til You Hurl." After eleven days of riding the coaster for more than 12 hours a day, three winners each received a new car. The radio station arranged a second marathon in 1998, which was eventually won by five contestants who split a $50,000 cash prize after riding the coaster for 70 days.


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ "California Historical Landmark: San Diego County". Office of Historic Preservation. California State Parks. Retrieved 2012-10-13. 
  3. ^ "Historical Landmarks Designated by the San Diego Historical Resources Board". City of San Diego. 
  4. ^ a b c "Mission Beach Roller Coaster". National Historic Landmarks Quioklinks. National Park Service. Retrieved March 2012. 
  5. ^ Charleton, James H. (October 30, 1984). "Mission Beach Roller Coaster" (PDF). National Register of Historic Places - Inventory Nomination Form. National Park Service. Retrieved May 2012. 
  6. ^ Cole, Tim. "Flanged Wheel". Retrieved 10/07/2013.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  7. ^ Cole, Tim (7/5/26). "Man Falls From Roller Coaster". San Diego Union.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ a b Engstrand, Iris (2005). San Diego: California's Cornerstone. Sunbelt Publications. pp. 219–220. ISBN 978-0-932653-72-7. 
  9. ^ Cole, Tim (June 19, 1969). "$8 Million Hotel Proposed for Belmont Park". San Diego Union. 
  10. ^ "Ohio Players". Wikipedia. 
  11. ^ "White oil-based stain". 
  12. ^

External links[edit]