Many roller skaters know about James Plimpton. He patented the forerunner of the modern roller skate in 1863. Plimpton’s roller skates were safer and easier to use than the existing versions, his “rocker skates” allowed people to steer just by leaning to the left or the right. But he also founded the NYRSA (New York Roller Skating Association) to promote the sport. His business concept was to lease out skates, not selling. So NYRSA leased the fashionable resort hotel, the Atlantic House, in Newport, Rhode Island, and converted the dining room into a skating area. At August 11, 1866, 150 years ago, this first roller skating rink in the US open to the public.
The Atlantic House Hotel having been abandoned by the U.S. Naval Academy after the civil war in 1865, was seeking new guests and activities for the summer. In July 1866 the hotel contracted with James Plimpton to provide rooms for the NYRSA to introduce roller skating to Newport. Known as “rinking,” roller skating developed in the parlors of European aristocracy and was actually imported to America. Europe’s first Plimpton skating rink opened at London’s Chrystal Palace already in 1865.
The success of roller skating in the US took some time. As rinks proliferated, Plimpton toured them in the 1870s, giving lessons for $2 a week, including skate rental. In the 1880s roller skates were being mass-produced in America from then. This was the sport’s first of several boom periods. Also in Newport, where the roller rink craziness began. In 1879 the Ocean House Hotel constructed a new rink. It hosted roller skating polo (rink hockey) and “circling” around the rink, enjoyed by “educated and refined patrons” and later opened to the general public.