For the rest of the summer of ’79 I visited the property a half a dozen times, mostly to get clarity on issues I was having in the early stages of drafting plans for the Earthquake model. Even though I was trespassing, not once was I ever questioned or busted by authorities.
Maybe it was because I had become closer and more familiar with the roller coaster, for when I saw a headline in an August ’79 edition of the San Diego Union that read: Panel Approves Demolition of Roller Coaster, my heart sank. The one ray of hope I held on to was the article’s mention of some beach locals who wanted to restore the ride. “I just might have to look into that,” I thought.
I saw a local news story on TV where a couple of two very young clowns climbed atop the 70’ tall ride with balloons and banners trying to attract attention for the cause of preserving the coaster. The news also showed grounded police officers coaxing them off the scaffolds and then citing them once they were down. What was supposed to be a press conference about a handful of beach locals fighting to preserve the coaster, turned into a story of heartless police taking two clowns into custody.
I forgot exactly when I met Eddie Forrey, the leader of that press conference. He was an 86-year old self-proclaimed beach poet who lived across the street from Belmont Park. I knew nothing of a petition drive he started to save the coaster in 1978. He showed up at every city council meeting that had to do with the topic of demolishing the coaster and would rally for its preservation. He would show up at the meetings with his troupe in tow, defending the coaster’s right to exist by holding up signs and reading poems such as:
“What callous people would vote to destroy The last monument to thrill and joy? The echo of screaming laughter of children we’ll no longer hear The end for the coaster, I feel, is near.”
I remember being a little skeptical after I learned his group was made up of a few clowns, vagrants, hippies, bikers, and some tag-alongs, none of whom had any strong community influence. Regardless, I could already see myself immersed in such a restoration project. I wanted so much to believe that it could happen.
The roller coaster already had two strikes against it - two pro demolition, each vote from the San Diego Regional Coastal Commission and the San Diego City Council. The next and final hearing was to be before the California Coastal Commission. This is where Evans would get the final granting of the permit at a hearing scheduled March of 1980. It was April 1st, 1980 when I thought someone was joking with me about the sudden turn of events that took place at that meeting.
I felt like a pet of mine died when I saw this in the San Diego Union.
Pamela Sue Whitner (1959 - 2004) a.k.a. Flutterby Baby the Clown. One of the two clowns who was arrested after having climbed on top of the coaster. Pamela entertained kids at many Save the Coaster Commitee fundraisers.
In the April 2nd edition of the San Diego Union, I learned that what I heard the day before was no joke. At the meeting where the California Coastal Commission was expecting to hear a standard objection to razing the coaster before approving Evan’s demolition permit, instead were brought forth an intriguing proposal.
Evans pitched his idea for a “Coaster Village”. He envisioned a restored, yet dormant, roller coaster serving as a sculpture weaved through a village of boutiques, ice cream parlors, restaurants, and sporting-good rental stores. Based on the then-brand new Seaport Village retail/tourist center on downtown San Diego’s waterfront, the Mission Beach version would also include jogging paths, basketball and volleyball courts, and the original Plunge. The roller coaster would remain as a monument to the development of the area as well as serve as an example of the simple technology used back in the early days of roller coaster construction. It might even have a merry-go-round.
I immediately called Bill Evans’ office at the Bahia Hotel across the street from the ride. I wanted more details and expressed my wanting to be involved in this idea somehow. I spoke to his secretary Melanie who invited me to the hotel where I had a wonderful conversation with her. She told me some of the ideas they had in mind for the Village including people riding the coaster train up to the top where there would be a restaurant. I clearly remember thinking, “How the hell are they going to do that?” But I also thought if they could save the coaster, they can do anything.
My eyes were glued to the art boards that showed color drafts of the proposed plaza with a roller coaster loosely sketched in the back ground.
I was really excited and for the first time felt very VIP-like when she asked if I wanted to go to the presentation of the plan at his Bahia hotel the next night. HELL YEAH! It was more of a loose social reception-type gathering with invited guests, I’m sure there was a brief presentation of Evans’ idea, but I don’t remember it.
From that day for more than a year, it was a waiting game for me. All I knew was that Evans was getting all preparations in order to get approval for his Village and that would take a long time. I was going to College and started taking theatre classes in the spring of 1980. College kept me occupied enough so I placed the coaster on the top shelf until I heard news.
The Bahia Hotel and its proximity to the roller coaster (arrow)
Last edited by hillflyer on Tue Apr 01, 2014 11:43 am.
San Diego City leaders were also willing to grant Evans time to develop his plan. Revamping the park was not in the city's budget until 1983 so they felt there was time to explore any option that kept the roller coaster. While the thought of having a commercial enterprise develop the area seemed appealing, they were hesitant to stick with only one idea. Rather than allow coaster-owner Evans exclusive rights to redevelop the former Belmont Park, other entrepreneurs and developers were asked to present more ideas and concepts. Those proposals for commercial development of the property were to be drafted with the understanding that the Plunge be included, and while it was preferred that the roller coaster be incorporated into the plan, it was not required. Seven initial responses made it to the city, and not all of them included keeping the roller coaster.
January 1983 - If you look close, you can see the original signatures of Church and Prior. It was in far better condition until city workers removed the roof off the coaster's transformer room. I'm really disappointed a bigger effort was not made to preserve this.
Last edited by hillflyer on Tue Apr 08, 2014 12:25 pm.
There were interests that saw the roller coaster as being in the way of progress. Its vulnerability to vandalism became clear on the evening of February 27th, 1981 when someone set it on fire. When firefighters arrived at 9:50pm, they witnessed one of the coaster’s storage rooms engulfed in flames. The braking mechanism and the final tunnel were also scorched.
News of the coaster’s fire and its timing was curious news to Mike Gotch, city councilman for the Mission Beach district at that time. As a supporter of the roller coaster, he publicly said that while the fire was unfortunate, it was not severe enough to warrant the razing of the ride.
The first fire destroyed the hairpin part of the lower tunnel, the attached store room, the upper brake tunnel, and three coaster cars.
Last edited by hillflyer on Thu Mar 27, 2014 4:02 pm.
As if to squeeze lemon juice onto freshly burned skin, less than one month later, on March 18th, the roller coaster became victim to another evening fire. This one started in another storage room under the grease-soaked wood near the sprocket that turns the chain. The damage was double the size of the first fire.
The second fire destroyed the entrance to the start tunnel, an attached store room, three more coaster cars, and some critical support posts. If you look close at the tunnel entrance, you can see the caboose.
Last edited by hillflyer on Tue Apr 01, 2014 11:53 am.
Arson investigators were quick to start interviewing those that were at the scene. By 2pm the next day, police made their arrest. A 22-year old drifter from Canada was booked into county jail under suspicion of setting the fire and committing several local burglaries. He had spent his evenings in the living quarters set up in the various rooms and tunnels under the coaster. The other inhabitants found him to be troublesome and evicted him - as revenge, he set the fire.
coasterbill wrote:This is a really great thread. As someone who's never ridden the coaster I never knew much about it or it's troubled history.
Its troubled history is what makes it all the more amazing it stood neglected as long as it did. Since the thirties, the park and the roller coaster were always under threat everytime old leases expired which was about once or twice per decade. This coaster sat waisting beachside property for fourteen years, survived three fires, three orders of condemnation, two bankruptcies and the park's ultimate closure. It was caught up in a heated controversy when the surrounding area was developed into an unwanted commerical enterprise which was built AROUND it instead of in place of it.
I had driven down to the coaster the day after both fires – I think I took some photos. I was disappointed but I did not let that damper my dream that Coaster Village would still see the light of day. Almost two weeks after the second fire, and the same day that President Ronald Reagan was shot, I began a new job at a nice steak and seafood restaurant only one mile north of the coaster. It was more than 17 miles from home but I got to drive past the coaster to and from work. I worked nights, and occasionally before or after working, I would park near the coaster and let myself dream.
One night after work, I decided I was going to climb up to the top of the ride and take the one remaining light bulb from the coaster’s chase lights as a souvenir. It was located just over the lift hill on the side of the track that had no catwalk. I had climbed up to the top a few times in the daylight, but never at night.
Let me tell you it is a whole other experience. It was after 1am, it was dark, a little foggy, and the only noise was the distant surf and a street sweeper below. My legs were becoming more and more wobbly the higher I got, but I managed to make it to the spot. I tied myself off using one of those orange extension cords as a rope. I stepped over the tracks (to the side that had no catwalk and only the track to stand on) and reached up under the handrail…I could touch that bulb but it was screwed in too tightly for me to chance breaking it so I retreated down, glad only that I was back on the ground safe.
Top photo is the new Save the Coaster Donor board, posted in front of the second burned area. The bottom is a good contrast shot, the first burned section up against the curve the Save the Coaster Committee painted in 1984.
The coaster is really creepy at night. The arrow shows where the light bulb is. We eventually got it down, whoever got to keep it broke it eventually.
Beach side restaurant where I worked one mile north of the coaster, 17 miles from home.
Last edited by hillflyer on Fri Apr 11, 2014 1:05 pm.
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