Since the early 1800s, Coney Island, “playground of the world,” has played many roles in the lives and imagination of New Yorkers and the world. From its beginnings as a quiet seaside town, Coney Island went on to boom years in the 1880s, as entrepreneurs rushed to stake their claims and make their fortunes. The area enjoyed brief stability in the late 1890's and early 1900's, the heyday of Luna Park (1903-1946), Dreamland (1904-1911) and Steeplechase Park (1897-1907), Coney Island’s famed amusement parks, but with the Great Depression, Coney Island transformed once again. The area became a “Nickel Empire” of cheap amusements; a nickel paid the fare on the new subway line. The amusement parks struggled to stay afloat and Coney Island began to experience hard economic times. Nevertheless, Coney Island continued to provide an accessible and affordable opportunity for a diverse population, always looming large in the history of New York.
the first amusement parks
When you think of Amusement Parks, you think of Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Discovered in 1609 by Dutch explorer Henry Hudson, Coney Island eventually became an amusement resort at the beach. During the 1870s and 1880s, several luxury hotels were built there and a railroad was extended to the resort. Coney Island was described as “Heaven at the end of a subway ride.” Coney Island was home to Sea Lion Park, the first enclosed amusement park, which opened in 1895. Coney Island became famous for having several of the best-known amusement parks in the world. There was Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland.
Sea Lion Park
Sea Lion Park was a 16-acre (65,000 m2) amusement park started in 1895 on Coney Island by Paul Boyton. He fenced the property and charged admission, the park becoming the first enclosed and permanent amusement park in North America. Up until the establishment of this park, amusement areas around the country consisted of pay-as-you-go concessions. In 1903, Sea Lion Park was replaced by Luna Park. The most popular attraction, aside from the aquatic show, was a ride called the Water Chute. The attraction, designed by Boyton and Thomas Polk, consisted of flat bottomed boat that slid down a ramp into a pool of water at the bottom. When the boat hit the pool it would skim across the surface of the pool.
Steeplechase Park was an amusement park in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York from 1897 to 1964. It was one of the leading attractions of its day and one of the most influential amusement parks of all time. It was created by George C. Til(1867–1913), who grew up in a family that ran a Coney Island restaurant. While visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he saw the Ferris wheel and decided to build his own on Coney Island; it immediately became the resort's biggest attraction. He added other rides and attractions, including a mechanical horse race course from which the park derived its name. Tilyou also constructed scale models of world landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and The Palace of Westminster's clocktower, containing Big Ben.
Luna Park was an amusement park at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City from 1903 to 1944. A second Luna Park was opened on the former site of the nearby Astroland amusement park. A pair of fires in 1944 damaged Luna Park, destroying much of it. It was not rebuilt and did not open for the 1945 season. After a legal battle and a third fire in 1946, the land was used for other purposes. The original Luna Park now houses a five building cooperative apartment complex and is still called Luna Park to this day.
Rides were only a small fraction of the entertainment available at Dreamland. The primary attractions were various exhibits, demonstrations, freak shows, and an animal circus. Dreamland adapted a firefighting demonstration from Luna Park, but not surprisingly, at a much larger scale. Fighting the Flames, as the show was called, featured a cast of 2000 actors and fireman saving a six-story hotel in front of 1500 spectators. Exotic animal shows were also a big draw for Dreamland. It was on the eve of Memorial Day, 1911, that Dreamland hosted its final spectacle: a real fire that engulfed every last structure.
manhattan beach hotel
August Corbin acquired the title to Manhattan beach on the far eastern shore of Coney Island and decided to built two large, luxury hotels there and a railroad to bring in customers. His New York and Manhattan Beach Railway brought the shore within an hour of uptown New York. The architect, J. Pickering Putnam, built what was considered to be the "most elegant and fashionable hotel in the United States." Opened in 1877, it featured 258 lavish rooms, restaurants, ballrooms, and shops. Corbin's Manhattan Beach Hotel was built on the far eastern shore of Coney
Island. Architect J. Pickering Putnam set its nearly 700 feet long front with its covered verandas and acres of manicured lawns facing the sea. It was considered the most elegant and fashionable hotel in the United States. When Ulysses S. Grant delivered the dedication speech for the hotel's grand opening on July 4, 1877 the event and the free fireworks show drew such huge crowds that it overwhelmed Corbin's railroad. And those who once thought that Corbin overpaid for the land changed their minds and pitied Littlejohn for selling so cheap.
In 1892, thousands more flocked to Coney Island to witness the great Elephant Hotel. Built out of wood and tin, and just accommodating a few guests, its spiraling staircases in its legs, shops, and an observatory, made it a sight to behold. With its numerous crooks and crannies, often, "seeing the elephant" became a euphemism for illicit activity in those dark corners (Kasson 33). After the race tracks closed in 1920, large numbers of middle class visitors began vacationing at Coney Island and the exclusivity that the rich once enjoyed vanished. Spending the summer at the beach became unfashionable to them, and the expensive hotels began to lose money and soon closed.
elephant colossus hotel
brighton beach hotel
The Brighton Beach came into existence around the same time as the Manhattan Beach hotel and was built by William A. Engeman's Brighton Beach, located west of Manhattan Beach. Not to be outdone by the Manhattan Beach Hotel, this was built in time for the 1878 season and could accommodate nearly 5000 and feed 20,000 people per day. He also constructed an Iron Pier nearby and the 400 foot wide, two story Brighton Beach Pavilion. The resort was connected to New York by railroad and was frequented
by the upper middle class rather than the wealthy because its location in Brighton was too close to Coney Island's seedier section immediately west of it. Unfortunately, the beach was steadily eroding and by 1888 something had to be done. To save the 6000 ton hotel, it was placed on railcars and moved 600ft inland. Not a single window or mirror was cracked in the process, and a month after the move, the hotel reopened.
the photo gallery
the amazing sideshow
Although the first “freak show” at Coney Island opened in 1880, the golden age of the village’s side shows began in 1904 when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened Lilliputia, an entire miniature city scaled for its dwarf and midget inhabitants. Lilliputia became such a popular tourist attraction at Dreamland, Gumpertz spend many years afterwards finding and promoting human oddities. After Dreamland burned in 1911, he opened Dreamland Circus Sideshow. Other side shows soon opened, including The World Circus Freak Show, The Steeplechase Circus Big Show, Hubert’s Museum, The Strand Museum, and Wonderland Circus Side Show. Human oddities who worked in circuses and other traveling shows enjoyed the relative stability and permanence of Coney Island.
HISTORY OF CONEY ISLAND
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FUN FACT #22
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The first escalator was actually a Coney Island ride in 1896.
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