Pleasure Beach – The Reel

By Gary Radice

The Virginia Reel was not named after the way the cars ‘reeled’ down the track, nor was it named after the country dance of the same name. Quite simply, it was  named after Luna Virginia Riehl, the daughter of the ride’s creator – a Mr Henry Elmer Riehl of New York USA who patented the ride on November 26th 1907 (Patent Number 872253).

The Reel at Luna Park, Coney Island in 1909. Photograph: Marjolane Ball

The photo top right shows Henry Elmer Riehl standing in the foreground to the right in front of the barrier. The baby being held is Luna Virginia Riehl
“…the man holding her is Virginia’s Grandfather on her Mother’s side. Daddy was associated with the Pullman Train Car Co. Detroit and was in charge of their exhibit at the Worlds Fair in Buffalo when he met Skip Dundy and Fred Thompson. They were showmen. They liked Daddy and asked him to back to New York with them where Mr Dundy had just bought Luna Park in Coney Island, and he offered him the management of it.
“When Virginia was born on 1 April 1908 Mr Dundy insisted she be named Luna (after his sister in whose honour Luna Park had been named).
“On the back of the photograph it states: ‘Virginia Reel 1909 – Grandpa, Virginia – Dad and Mr Meyer’. I Don’t know who Mr Meyer is.”
Marjolane Ball
In the Mardi Gras photo below, HE Riehl is the man on the left. The person with him is again either Skip Dundy or H E Riehl’s father in law.
Blackpool’s Reel was built by William Homer Strickler, who was born in Chicago, USA. Strickler completed his masterpiece at Blackpool in 1922.

The Reel shortly after construction. Note the original Water Chute behind and no Fun House or Grand National – the Reel predated both of these rides and the Big Dipper.

 The ride stood for 60 years until it was replaced by The Ranger in 1982 and then a few years later by The Rainbow.
Today (2003) the Globe Theatre and cash machines now occupy this hallowed spot.
The Reel was Strickler’s second commission at the Pleasure Beach; in the same year he also built the magnificent Noah’s Ark.

Sadly, W. H. Strickler died following a fall whilst building the Noah’s Ark at Southport (about an hour’s drive down the coast) and is now buried in the Layton cemetery in Blackpool.

General view of the Reel
The Reel’s electrical work during the season mainly involved the maintenance of the two DC drive motors for the chain lift and their face plate starters. The motors were housed below the top of the pull-up in a small room reached via a steep wobbly staircase. Only one motor was used at a time (the other being in stand by). The motor was driven by flat belts, two sets of reduction spur gear and the top chain wheel. The face plate starters (again two for redundancy) were sited in a small room on the operator side of the platform next to the bottom of the pull-up.

The lift hill
Other jobs included the replacement of lamps from the decorative lighting – these often failed due to the vibration as a car traversed the track. In the winter all the deck lighting was removed and stored under the ride or within the boarder.

The Virginia Reel station.
Just prior to the decision being made to demolish the ride, we had a fire which occurred over night, possibly due to a spark from a grinder used the previous afternoon.

Demolition of the ride commences at the top of the lift hill
This resulted in the destruction of two of the bends on the left side of the ride, when viewed from the front, about half way down the structure.
Approximately half of Green Star workforce of around 12 people, including myself, rebuilt these two corners within the space of 3 or 4 days.
Do you think that holding on to the bar behind you (as you had to do back then) would be deemed OK by Health and Safety standards today?
I suspect today you would have seat belts, lap bars and shoulder restraints. Having said this even at the end if you kept an eye on your position on the track it was no problem to ride from beginning to end without holding the rail at all. Not as easy with your eyes shut, but possible. I much prefer to ride in an older roller coaster car than its modern equivalent, as most safety restraints are only there to prevent people standing up or doing other things they should not. The Wild Mouse is a good example or this.

High speed section of track
What happened to the cars, track, scenery, etc, after its demolition?
The larger items such as motors, gear wheels, chain, steel plate work and cars, etc, were weighed in at a local scrapyard. The timber was cut up and burned on sight.
I am unfortunately not aware of any piece that remains although I have a feeling that some of the car bodies, which were heavy steel fabrications ( these replaced the original wood and steel bodies prior to 1979), went to the Pleasure Beach as planters.
They could still be around the park today or in storage under the mountains at the south end of the property.

Was The Reel a popular ride during your association with it?

We were kept busy most of the time although this may have just been good management.
However on most high season Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays we would be faced with a full platform and people lining up to pay from the front of the Noah’s Ark from around 12 noon to 8pm.

When was the decision made to demolish The Reel and why?

I can only guess at this since it was not a decision I was party to. We had a company trip to Hamburg to look at the Ranger as a possible replacement during October 1982 (after the ride’s demolition had started).
I suspect that the Winter 81/82 survey of the structure was not good and a lot of work was put in prior to the ride opening at Easter 82 to have it fit to operate.
I think towards the end of the year the costings to keep it going any longer had been assessed and did not stack up.

Virginia Reel Gallery.

Photograph: Nick Laister Collection/
An early view of the Reel.

Photograph: Nick Laister Collection/
In this later view, the Reel is joined by the Fun House and Grand National.



Photograph: Phil Gould
The Reel in 1980, a few short years before its demolition.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The view from the top of the Virginia Reel lift hill.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The top of the Reel.

Photograph: Ian Beech
Demolition of the Virginia Reel in 1982.



Photograph: Ian Beech
Demolition well underway at the top of the ride.

Photograph: Ian Beech
Close-up of the demolition work.

Photograph: Ian Beech
A view across the partly demolished Virginia Reel towards the Hiram Maxim Flying Machine and Ghost Train.



Photograph: Ian Beech
Most of the track had been removed when this photograph was taken. Note the ‘Hardluck Bears Show’ behind.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The sad sight of the remains of the Virginia Reel. The Reel isn’t the only lost Blackpool landmark in this photograph. In the distant background can be seen Blackpool’s former Open Air Swimming Pool, which is now the Sandcastle Waterworld. And to the very right of the photograph, just in view, is the former Gables Balmoral Hotel, which was demolished in 2008.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The Enterprise ride can be seen behind the partially demolished Virginia Reel.

Photograph: Ian Beech
Mechanical parts of the Reel following its demolition.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The main lift hill pulley after the lift hill structure was removed.



Photograph: Ian Beech
A view of the main Virginia Reel slope after all the track was removed.

Photograph: Ian Beech
The end of an era – a view across the remains of the Reel towards the Noah’s Ark on a wet winter’s day in 1982.

Photograph: themagiceye
The Virginia Reel at Luna Park, Coney Island (USA).

Photograph: themagiceye
The Virginia Reel at Venice, California.

Photograph: themagiceye
Comic postcard featuring Blackpool’s Virginia Reel.

Photograph: Les Tomkinson Collection
Blackpool Pleasure Beach was not the only British amusement park to feature a Virginia Reel. There was also a similar Reel at the Spanish City Amusement Park at Whitley Bay near Newcastle.