You could ask Salem – pick any resident – and the overall view would likely be that every year is a big year for Salem.
But perhaps even the 25,000 or so diehard denizens would say 1968 had more than its share of signature moments, beginning with the first day of the year, when the Roanoke County town of Salem officially became the City of Salem, to stand all by itself – on the map and in all things Roanoke Valley. (The first test came within a year, when a Roanoke Valley four-choice consolidation referendum went crashing down in Salem to the tune of nearly 80 percent opposed to any such idea.)
In the spring, after 13 years of fielding a team in the rookie Appalachian League, the Salem Rebels moved up to the Class A Carolina League. The team won its division and drew some 64,000 fans, a figure that would not be exceeded until 1980.
More good stuff: Salem schools became totally desegregated for the ’68-’69 year; and the Andrew Lewis High basketball team won the state championship.
And on the economic front, Hancock Steel began operations in Salem in ’68. Mohawk Rubber was turning out 6,500 tires a day, and the Holiday Inn at Exit 40 – now Exit 137 – opened for operations along a stretch of I-81 that had just been completed in 1964.
But perhaps the biggest event of Salem’s year took place at then-50-year-old Lakeside Park, which had during the previous year begun $1 million in renovations, which would see improvements to all aspects of the park. The previous primary structure of the park – the famous 300-by-125-foot pool – had closed as a part of the park in about 1964.
In its place came the $225,000 Shooting Star roller coaster, touted at its opening as the fastest and highest coaster in the world. The 4,120-foot distance of the ride, with heights up to 84 feet, was covered in 120 seconds, including loading and unloading, with those figures making precise speed difficult to calculate. The coaster, also said to be the largest in the world at the time, had two trains, each carrying 24 passengers at a time.
Four decades later, Salem remains a proudly independent city; the Salem Red Sox will likely set a new baseball attendance record for the city this summer; and the well-regarded Salem High School continues to win state sports championships with some regularity.
But the Shooting Star and Lakeside overall fell victim to several forces, including giant amusement parks on the eastern side of the state (Kings Dominion opened in ’74 and Busch Gardens in ’75), the Flood of ’85 and a ride worker killed in ’86. Lakeside closed that year.
The Shooting Star is Gone, But Virginia is Still First in Coasters
When the world’s once-fastest roller coaster – the Shooting Star at Lakeside Park in Salem – closed down in 1986, one of the factors in its demise was the coming of bigger, better, faster and better-placed coasters on the eastern side of the state.
Both Kings Dominion near Richmond and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg continue, about 35 years after they opened, to be home to world-class coasters:
• At Busch Gardens, the 205-foot plunge and the 75-mile-per-hour speed of the Griffon coaster are lauded features of the world’s tallest and first floorless dive coaster.
• Also at Busch, the 1978 Loch Ness Monster remains the world’s only “interlocking, double-looping steel roller coaster.”
• At Kings Dominion, the 4,210-foot Dominator (soo close to the Shooting Star), is the longest floorless coaster in the world.
• And Kings Dominion’s Anaconda, opened in 2007, was the first looping coaster in the world with an underwater tunnel.
The biggest roller coaster still operational in the Roanoke Valley? Why, Roanoke City Council, of course.