C is for Catherine the Great

This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.

Catherine the GreatCatherine the Great of Russia is one of the more flamboyant characters from history and is remembered for what she did for her country and for the mostly spurious stories about her personal life.

You can read more about the latter on Wikipedia if you must, but I wanted to concentrate on Catherine’s great contribution to the modern world – the roller coaster.

One of the pastimes that entertained 17th century Russians during their long and bitterly cold winters was the ice slide. As the name suggests, these were simply long chutes of frozen water down which people would slide.

Russian Ice SlideSo popular were they that by the 17th century they had become rather more elaborate constructions of wooden ramps covered with ice that were seventy or eighty feet high  and several hundred feet long.

Patrons would slide down them at tremendous speed on sleds made of wood or ice.

The ice sleds were simple blocks of ice with a straw mat giving some protection from the cold for the riders’ bottoms. A length of rope was looped through a hole drilled in the block giving the riders something to hold onto.

Sometimes bumps were added at the end of the slide for even more excitement and the ride ended when the sled drove into a pile of sand to slow them down. The slides were also built in parallel pairs, facing in opposite directions, so riders could spend the day going back and forth down the slides.

Catherine visits the Ice Slide in St PetersburgAs I hinted at the start, Catherine the Great was to become a big fan of the ice slide.

The image on the left is of her visiting the slide in St Petersburg and she was so impressed that she had one like it built at her palace in the city. The problem, of course, was that Catherine’s fun would end with the winter.

The solution was to build a hilly wooden track in the gardens of her summer palace at Oranienbaum and to use carts with wheels instead of blocks of ice.

Called the ‘Russian Hills’, the platform was 108 feet high and the track over a third of a mile and it became the first roller coaster, sparking a craze across Europe, leading to Les Montagues Russes a Bellevilles (The Russian Mountains of Bellevilee) in Paris in 1817 when the carts were placed on tracks.

And all because Catherine the Great was a thrill-seeker.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 29th January 2014

    And yet I have an Ohio Players song stuck in my head. Guess which one?

  • ellen b 29th January 2014

    What an interesting woman. Great post for the letter C…

  • leslie 29th January 2014

    I remember once when I was working at a church, I was asked to do some mission type stuff with kids. We were looking into Russia so I googled Catherine the Great. You’ll never guess what popped up! A porn site!!! I was so stunned that I actually screamed and shut the computer down rather than exit properly! I thought they’d check the history and find that someone was looking at porn! But really Catherine the Great’s history is fascinating…have actually read some historical novels about her.

    abcw team

  • Neddy Pudding 29th January 2014

    Catherine the Great had numerous lovers throughout her long reign, one of whom, Grigori Potemkin, procured young men for her after their own relationship cooled. The lucky stud would be “tested” by one of Catherine’s ladies-in-waiting, and if he showed promise he would be appointed adjutant general, or something along those lines, and spend a couple years servicing Catherine as required. But there is no truth in the oft-spouted rumour that she was killed while having sex with a horse. Gee up Neddy!


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