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Home The Decades 1920s Coney Island - Where Merriment Is King

Coney Island - Where Merriment Is King

Coney-Island-1

Pictured above:Coney Island/Bain News Service/1900/LOC

Coney Island - an intoxicating lark and the apotheosis of the ridiculous!

VAV!/April, 21, 2014

During the turn of the century near Brooklyn, NY, by the edge of the sea and some nine miles from Manhattan, there existed a one of a kind wonderland where anyone could catch a ring on the merry-go- round, indulge themselves in amusing devices, and eat all the hot dogs they wanted!  The wonderland? Coney Island, the iconic and extraordinary amusement park, of course!  

Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island boasted a conglomeration of the largest amusement parks in America, attracting several million visitors per year. At the turn of the century, Coney Island was in its heyday —Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, Dreamland and other smaller parks—offered rides, concessions and entertainment on an intoxicating scale of pleasure that took America from the Victorian Age into the modern world.

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Pictured above: Coney Island, 1910/Geo. P. Hall & Son , copyright claimant/LOC

Amidst brilliant lights that lit the night skies, gay music, whirling dancing, incredible foods, crazy (and we mean crazy) rides including elephant rides, a carousel built for two, roller coasters, loop de loops, freak shows from the four corners of the world, girlie shows, women without heads, horrific premature babies on display alongside historical displays, recreations of disasters, moving panorams featuring the end of the world, and Lilliputia, a miniature town truly inhabited by little persons...the money always flowed on Coney Island and the fun never ended !

Coney-Island-Elephant-Rides

Pictured above: Coney Island, Riding Elephant/Bain News Service, publisher/1911 June 18/LOC.

Coney Island sounded grand enough to make anyone pinch themselves in a disbelief intermingled with fascination and yet, the concept was a little frightening too.

 

A closer look at the evolution of Coney Island...

Before its discovery in 1609 by Dutch explorer, Henry Hudson, Coney Island was a mere 5 mile parcel of wasteland and consisted solely of dunes, scrub grass and wild rabbits known as coneys, thus, the name... Coney Island... or so it's said.  

In 1829, the first Hotel, Coney Island Hotel, was built on the Island and the Shell Road linked Coney Island with Brooklyn.  By 1847, nefarious forces  ran rampant and Coney Island had gained a reputation as home to disreputable pickpockets, swindlers, prostitutes and ne'er do wells...but not for long.  

Coney Island became an accessible destination once excursion railroads, along with the advent of the Coney Island & Brooklyn Railroad streetcar came into being in the 1860s.

When the 1870s rolled around, Coney Island had come under the vigilant scrutiny and ultimate greed of John Y. McKane, newly elected commissioner.  Through McKane's ideals and efforts, the Island was transformed into a respectable summertime vacation hot spot for families. Hotels began cropping up on the eastern vista of Coney Island with The Brighton Hotel, the luxurious Manhattan Beach Hotel, and Oriental Hotel being built. Fresh water was provided for picnicking visitors and band concerts were held nightly.

Coney-Island-3

Pictured above: Coney Island/Bain News Service, publisher/LOC

Light hearted people from every walk of life began flocking into the Island by the droves!  More Island growth came in 1875, when Andrew Culver built the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad to the resort and in 1876, a Danish wood-carver, Charles I. D. Loof built the first carousel at Coney Island. The Carousel was erected at Vandeveer's bath-house complex in the area later known as Balmer's Pavilion.  

Right there, available to guests on the island, was  "electric bathing," beneath arc lamps and well, heck, the hot dog (formerly known by its inventor, Charles Feltman, as Coney Island Red Hots) was invented on Coney Island in 1876.  

Coney-Island-Observation-Tower 

Pictured above: Coney Island, N.Y.: Observation Tower/Published: c1900/LOC.

Also in 1876, the observation tower, once featured the Philadelphia Exposition was moved to Coney Island.  The tower, the tallest structure in the United States at the time, featured steam-powered elevators that lifted observers to the top for gazing out upon the vast sea!  What a thrill! But the arrival of the observation tower was just the beginning for Coney Island. 

In 1879, the first horse racing track opened on the Island. 

Once the Iron steamboat company set down on the Island in 1881, two Iron Piers stood stalwart and reassuring while awaiting arriving steamships bringing people from Manhattan to the Island. (The piers were destroyed in a subsequent 1911 Dreamland fire).

In 1884, the gravity fed Switchback Railway was invented by LaMarcus Thompson...the roller coaster was born!  Holy Hannah what else could be coming up aces at Coney Island?!  The Loop de Loop (Loop the Loop) and the awesome, if only short- lived, Flip-Flap railway, that's what. 

Between 1885 to 1896, a hotel designed in the form of an elephant became a landmark on Coney Island.  

Coney-Island-2

Pictured above: Coney Island/Bain News Service, publisher/LOC

In 1893, Coney Island was branded by The New York Times as "Sodom-by-the-Sea"  and by then McKane had also become a detriment to Coney Island. Amidst political scandal, the keepers of the island (including Mckane) were ousted and replaced by a more reputable crew of caretakers, most notably George C. Tilyou, a native of Coney Island and a consummate showman.  

Tilyou was ever vigilant in scavenging incredible finds for his Coney Island.  He visited the Chicago World's Fair where he made great efforts to buy George Ferris's 250-foot-tall wheel for the Island, but alas, his efforts were thwarted and he returned home empty-handed. Not to be outsmarted or put off his course, after Tilyou arrived back home to Coney he ordered a wheel half the size of the one in Chicago.  In the place where the Ferris Wheel was to be erected, he placed a sign that read "On this site will be erected the world's largest Ferris Wheel."  By the time the wheel contraption had arrived in Coney Island, clever Tilyou had rented out enough concession space to pay for it.

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Pictured above: Chutes - Luna Park, Coney Island/Bain News Service/Published: between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915/LOC

Captain Paul Boyton, (who invented the inflatable rubber suit) opened Sea Lion Park in 1895 and came up with a refreshing little boat ride known as  'shoot-the-chutes.' Cool right?  During the rest of the decade of the 1890s, Coney Island was abloom with wonder,  amazed guests and even proudly proclaimed the title as home to the world's first roller coaster!

Not to be outdone by Sea Lion Park's presence, the irrepressible Tilyou wanted a park of his own.  The answer came to him in the form of  a mechanical horse race in England -  just the perfect fit for Coney Island.  The ride could take thrill seekers on 'Half a mile for half a minute!' The basis for the ride and all that followed became known as the ultra successful Steeplechase Ride Park. Hot Dog!

In 1896, the Edison Company motion picture's new fangled camera was perfected and featured flicks on the Island such as 'Sea Waves and Coney Island' and 'Cake Walk on the Beach.' 

With Steeplechase Park completed in 1897, folks could take a visit on over to the Blowhole Theater, too!  The who?  The Theatre was  New York's longest running show (of almost 70 years) and audiences could gaze on stage upon a couple selected from the audience while a jet of air blew beneath the woman's skirts (right up to her waist) while a dwarf shocked her date with an electric cattle prod. Sounds grand and shocking, but, there was more by way of the Earthquake Float, the Skating Floor, the Falling Statue, the Cave of the Winds, the Human Cage, the Revolving Seat, the Funny Stairway, the Eccentric Fountain, the Dancing Floor, the Electric Seat, the Human Roulette Wheel and dare we say more to make you quiver and tickle your funky bone?

Coney-Island-Bathers-4

Pictured above: Coney Island/Bain News Service, publisher/LOC

Don't forget the bathing on Coney Island was a real attraction, too.  Swimmers could show their off their rocking hard bodies tucked chastely beneath woolen swimsuits and exert their prowess at the same time.  What a way to cool off! Hubba, Hubba!

In the 1900's Coney Island crowds REALLY cut loose!  Some quarter of a million people headed there every Sunday in the summer.  When the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company electrified the steam railroads and connected Coney Island to Brooklyn and Manhattan at the beginning of the 20th century, Coney Island was transformed from a resort to a location accessible daily from New York City, especially to those seeking a refuge from the summer heat.

Coney-Island-Crowds-6

Pictured above: Coney Island/Bain News Service, publisher/LOC

On May 16, 1903, Frederic Thompson, architect and  Elmer "Skip" Dundy, former court clerk from Omaha, built an amusement park on Coney Island complete with towers and turrets and out-of-this-world venues. On the heels of the Park's success, in 1904, Dreamland amusement park, also erected by Thompson and Dundy, opened.  The exhibit featured the Infant Incubator holding and housing premature babies. The babies were under the care of a Doctor Martin Couney.  Questionably, Dreamland was heralded as one of the most popular Parks. 

Elsewhere trouble was brewing on Coney Island's horizon when in 1907, fire broke out at Steeplechase in the Cave of the Winds and the wooden park burned for some 18 hours.  Within nine months the park was rebuilt by Tilyou and re-opened.  This time around,Tilyou ensured the entire park was covered with a modernized glass-and-steel shed and he named the conglomeration the Pavilion of Fun. 

The Sea Beach Line was transformed to a subway line around 1915. In 1916, Nathan's Famous original hot dog stand opened on Coney Island.  Since then, as was possible, on every July 4 thereafter, an annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest was held.

It's said that he launching of the New West End Terminal during 1919, heralded one of Coney Island's most prolific ages. could there be any more fun?

In 1923 the Boardwalk opened and the Islands streets were widened.  Let the good times roll as the world's most famous roller coaster,The Cyclone, opened!

In 1944, Luna Park suffered a series of fires and closed in 1946. Following World War II, Coney Island began to slowly but surely lose its decadent appeal to the ever-growing savvy American public. Adding to the attrition of park goers, the 1950s street gangs were moving in and impacting business in a very negative way. The September 20, 1964 closing of the last major amusement park, Steeplechase Park, dealt a devastating death blow to Coney Island. Auld Lang Syne soulfully sounded over the intercom system that closing night and a bell tolled once for each of the 67 years Steeplechase had been open.

Gone, but not forever, were the acrobats and other artists, the spotted horses trotted off and the circus ringmaster had laid down his snapping whip...

In recent years, the historic landmark area has seen a revitalization to its former glory along with the opening of MCU Park, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team.

 

 

 


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