A jump back in time with Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

You follow the yellow arrows, park your car, get your ticket, and walk through the iconic tunnel. You’re immediately welcomed with the sound of roller coasters clacking as they climb, shrills from thrill-seeking riders, the deep tune of the organ at the Merry Go Round… And just as you walk around the bend, you see that old familiar friend — the Jack Rabbit.

Can you picture it? It’s another summer day at Kennywood Park.

This Saturday, May 8, Kennywood is opening for its 123rd season and will kick off with a centennial celebration of the legendary Jack Rabbit roller coaster. It’s known for its 70-foot double dip and innovative use of the Monongahela Valley terrain, and for many Pittsburghers, it’s the first “big” roller coaster they ever rode. (I know it was mine!)

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the coaster, but celebrations were delayed due to the pandemic. But they’re picking up with the party this year. Winners of last year’s 100 Years, 100 Memories contest will take the first spin to mark the start of the season.

To commemorate 101 years of this Pittsburgh icon, we wanted to take a ride back in time and share eight Jack Rabbit fast facts with help from Nick Paradise, Kennywood’s spokesman.

The Jack Rabbit’s iconic double-dip. (📸:@kennywoodpark)

✍️ The Jack Rabbit was designed by legendary coaster maker John Miller.

John A. Miller, born in 1872, is widely regarded as “the father of the modern high-speed roller coaster” and was involved in approximately 150 coasters throughout the country. He designed the Jack Rabbit and built it with Harry C. Baker and Charlie Mach in 1920.

In addition to the Jack Rabbit, Miller designed the Racer and Thunderbolt, along with two other Kennywood rides that were retired, Scenic Railway (1904-1910) and Speed-O-Plane (1911-1923). The Jack Rabbit is one of only ten surviving John Miller designs.

Throwback Jack Rabbit. (📸:@kennywoodpark)

📜 It is the sixth oldest continuously operated roller coaster in the world.

The Jack Rabbit is narrowly edged for the fifth oldest coaster by one with the same name. Seabreeze Park’s Jack Rabbit, which was also designed by John Miller, is located in Rochester, New York.

“It is a very different ride experience,” Paradise said. “They opened their Rabbit just a few weeks earlier in 1920.”

Want to know what it looked like back then? Watch this black-and-white, point-of-view video.

Throwback Jack Rabbit. (📸:@kennywoodpark)

➡️ The Jack Rabbit was one of the first coasters to utilize underfriction technology.

“The Jack Rabbit was built in a really exciting time in industry history,” IAAPA historian Jim Futrell said in Kennywood’s mini Jack Rabbit documentary. “It was a period after WWI where advancing technology made rides really the prominent feature at amusement parks. Before that, people came to dance, have picnics. Rides were almost a sideline.”

The first coasters had a set of wheels that rested on top of the track and attached to the sides, but for the Jack Rabbit, Miller added a third set of wheels that attached to the bottom of the track, Paradise explained.

“This revolutionary addition allowed coasters to safely take deeper drops, sharper turns, and faster speeds,” he said. “This is the dominant style of coaster 101 years later.”

Modern day Jack Rabbit. (📸:@kurtmiller15211)

🎢 The current coaster trains are 70 years old.

The Jack Rabbit, which can hold 18 riders per train, still uses the same cars that were manufactured by Edward Vettel Sr. in 1951, according to Coasterpedia. The vintage trains are considered essential to the nostalgic experience of the coaster. Riders between 42” and 48” must be with a responsible co-rider for this reason, since there is only a small lap bar that is used to restrain riders.

💰 It would have cost $50,000 to build the Jack Rabbit back in 1920.

Including labor and supplies, this classic coaster would have cost $50,000 to build in 1920, and would cost around $8 million to build today, according to Pittsburgh Magazine.

$50,000 in 1920 has about $662,000 purchasing power today, so Pittsburgh really got a bang for its buck because that’s still significantly lower than the millions it would cost to recreate such an iconic structure. But to Pittsburghers, this coaster can most likely be summed up as “priceless.”

Hands up! (📸:@kennywoodpark)

The Jack Rabbit sheds its old “coat” every year.

Kennywood’s carpentry team replaces approximately 10 percent of the Jack Rabbit’s wooden structure every offseason, Paradise said. This past winter, they replaced 370 feet of track. For reference, the total length of the coaster starting from the loading station is 2,132 feet. You can find the full specs of the ride here.

Look mom! No hands! (📸:@kennywoodpark)

The coaster inspires fandom.

At 82 years old, Vic Kleman celebrated the Jack Rabbit’s 95th birthday by riding 95 consecutive times. He did the same for the coaster’s 85th and 90th anniversaries. You can watch the video of his 5,000th and final ride here.

“He has collected slips from Kennywood staffers to commemorate every ride. A drawer back home is filled with thousands of them,” an New York Magazine Intelligencer article from 2015 reported.

Sadly, he wasn’t around for the coaster’s 100th anniversary. Kleman passed away the following year.

Throwback Jack Rabbit. (📸:@kennywoodpark)

There’s even a song named after the coaster.

Kentucky-based “psych-folk” band Bendigo Fletcher released a single in 2019 called “Jackrabbit,” and is inspired by singer-guitarist Ryan Anderson’s visits with family in Pittsburgh.

Local musicians/comedians/entertainers Josh & Gab also have a song called “Nine O’Clock Behind the Jack Rabbit.”

If you’re curious what a trip to Kennywood will look like this year, Pittsburgh Magazine has you covered.