Construction Workers Recollect Building Iconic ’Thunder Road’

A look back at the construction of an attraction that saved a theme park.

📅   Mon August 03, 2015 - National Edition
DON WORTHINGTON - The Herald of Rock Hill


Image courtesy of Chris Hagerman. More than 539,000 feet of lumber went into Thunder Road. It took 3,500 pounds of nails and 30,000 bolts, nuts and washers to connect everything.
Image courtesy of Chris Hagerman. More than 539,000 feet of lumber went into Thunder Road. It took 3,500 pounds of nails and 30,000 bolts, nuts and washers to connect everything.

ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) - Thirty-nine years later Ray Hargis still treasures the photo.

The fading Polaroid shows a then-19-year-old Hargis standing next to an orange fiberglass car front shaped to resemble a 1957 Ford.

Johnny Campbell apologized for not having photos. He was sure he had some too, but apparently they been lost or destroyed.

More vivid than any photograph, though, are the memories of Hargis, 59, and Campbell, 68.

These Rock Hill residents were among the first to ride Carowinds’ Thunder Road roller coaster before it even opened to the public on April 3, 1976. More importantly, they were among those who helped build and then maintain the Fort Mill-area coaster.

Thunder Road is a masterpiece in every sense of the word as it was handcrafted on-site, they said. Nothing came pre-made. Each piece of lumber was measured, cut, drilled, then manhandled into place for nailing and bolting. The coaster cars were adapted to the Thunder Road theme and painted on-site.

It was, they said, the best job they ever had.

But after 39 years, and what park officials say is diminishing ridership, Carowinds closed Thunder Road. The final rides were in July.

Campbell was among those who answered an ad looking for carpenters. He had about six years of largely self-taught experience and a work ethic instilled at the Rock Hill’s Industrial Cotton Mill where he did whatever was asked of him. He was no stranger to a long day’s work for an honest day’s pay - and the Thunder Road pay wasn’t bad for mid-1970s standards at $10 an hour.

The coaster construction hours would prove long. There were stretches when they worked 10 to 12 hours a day, every day of the week, he said.

Most important, though, Campbell wasn’t afraid of heights.

More than 539,000 feet of lumber went into Thunder Road. It took 3,500 pounds of nails and 30,000 bolts, nuts and washers to connect everything. Campbell can attest to the large number of bolts, nuts and washers. He spent one rainy day taking inventory to make sure they wouldn’t run out of supplies at critical times. With many of the bolts 18- to 24-inches long you couldn’t run to the local hardware store for help if you ran out.

While the coaster was a copy of what had already been built at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, and Kings Dominion near Richmond, Virginia., Thunder Road was built entirely by hand.

Campbell and other carpenters used large 2- to 3-foot protractors to draw the angles for cuts. Large skill saws cut through the pressure-treated timber. They built large frames on the ground and then with ropes, and whatever mechanical means that were available, pulled them into place, placing them over concrete footers. Once a series of frames were up, workers would ”monkey up’ the frames to install angled cross braces and large horizontal ties.

A few of the frames were just feet off the ground, but most were higher. The ones that create the lift hill were more than 90 feet tall.

Campbell remembers one marathon session where they erected 29 frames. With the possibility of bad weather approaching they stopped and Campbell asked the foreman if they should brace the frames to keep them standing through the night.

When the foreman said he didn’t think that was necessary, Campbell bet him $100 the frames wouldn’t be standing the following morning. ”I collected $100,’ Campbell said.

Thunder Road celebrated its topping out on May 25, 1975, when the lift hill reached its full height.

After the official ceremony, the carpenters climbed to the top of the ride and had their own ceremony, Campbell said. They pulled out their measuring tapes and dropped them, and predictably, the tapes shattered when they hit the ground. The next day, each carpenter purchased a replacement measuring tape, Campbell said.

”The joke was since we had the topping-out ceremony, the `rest was all downhill,’ " Campbell said.

When all the framing was complete then came the laying of track, and that’s when Campbell and a newly hired Hargis were among Thunder Road’s first riders, crisscrossing the state line between North Carolina and South Carolina.

Sometimes they filled the coaster’s cars with sand bags to test the ride. But often the call would go out for people to ride and Campbell and Hargis volunteered.

”You were scared and there was fear,’ Hargis said. ”Would this thing run?’

But being paid to ride was one of the joys for Hargis, who joined Carowinds’ paint shop in early 1976.

One of Hargis’ first jobs was to help paint the car facades that once adorned the front of each racing roller coaster train. Designer Dan Holbrook created the two fronts out of fiberglass, one based on a 1955 Chevy, the other on a 1957 Ford.

As Hargis remembers it, the bootleggers - of the ”Thunder Road’ movie from which the coaster got its name - drove the Ford while the revenue agents drove the Chevy. Others remember it was the bootleggers in the Chevy and the revenue agents and police in the Ford.

Hargis painted both of the trains, learning to paint ”flames on the Ford’s front and down the sides of the train.’

For the Chevy, the Carowinds paint crew talked to the York County’s Sheriff’s Office to get permission to paint a badge from the time period. ”We put badges on the front of the Chevy and badges down the side of the train,’ Hargis said.

”It was a miniature Disney back then,’ Hargis said of his working the painting and fabricating shop. ”You created everything.’

The experience, Hargis said, was beyond what any school could teach him. ”I sucked it up like a sponge, I didn’t want to miss a day of work.’

When Thunder Road was finished Campbell went on to roofing and painting jobs. Hargis stayed at Carowinds until he was 31 before starting his own sign company.

The closing of Thunder Road caused each to pause and reflect, even shed a tear

”I had no idea of what it would become,’ Campbell said. But after seeing the public response each agrees Thunder Road was the ride that helped save Carowinds.

”Nothing had the impact of Thunder Road,’ Hargis said.

”It is a shame they are tearing it down,’ Campbell said. ”We built it to last. I hope all that lumber is used somewhere else.’

And then there’s the photo of a skinny 19-year-old Hargis.

”I’ve kept it all these years,’ Hargis said. ”Why? Because I love it. It was the first big thing in my life and it was exciting.’

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