An Ohio boy who first apprenticed as a carpenter, Thompson worked as a grocer, then designed a machine to create stockings and founded the Eagle Knitting Company at Elkhart, Indiana. Hard work impaired his health, a prescribed trip out west was supposed to improve it. En route, he saw the Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad, a coal carrying freight train which, in the slow season, took on thrill seeking passengers for a quick rush down the side of the mountain.
Gravity trains for pleasure, so-called Russian Mountains, had been build in Russia and France as far back as 1790, but Thompson took the concept to the big time. In 1884, after three years of tinkering, he opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island. For five cents you could climb a tower, get on the train, and thrill to the six miles an hour rush to the second tower.
Success was immediate, and the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company (and the inevitable copycats) was soon making others in America and Europe. Oval tracks, painted scenery, tunnels, all sorts of improvements and patents followed. The craze made him a millionaire, proving yet again that, pace Scott Fitzgerald, there are plenty of second acts in America.