Dreamland's Hell Gate, based on Dante's Inferno, was the darkest and most popular of Coney's many amusements. It featured, a whirlpool lit by flames where boats disappeared into the deepest levels of hell. Unfortunately, after a construction worker accidentally tipped over a bucket of hot tar onto live electric wires, Hell Gate became best known as the place where an out of control fire started.
Coney Island suffered two major blows after the 1910 season. First, horse racing was banned, putting four local race tracks out of business. Months later, a far greater tragedy.
While construction was being done at the Hell Gate in preparation for the opening day of the 1911 summer season, the ride caught on fire. Before long all of Dreamland was engulfed in flames.
With fires a common occurrence brand new water ducts had recently been added to the park. Unfortunately, these ducts weren't connected to the Atlantic in time to stop the raging flames. Show fire fighters (fire shows too were popular on Coney) unable to get water out of the ducts abandoned the park. Only Lilliputia's fire fighters stuck around trying to help as strong winds spread flames to all corners of the park. Many of the trained animals, used to the popular fire shows, did not seek escape and instead burned to death. 60 out of 150 animals were killed including monkeys, elephants, bears, leopards, horses, ponies and llamas. Several lions did break free, including Black Prince, Dreamland's biggest animal draw. Black Prince was caught running down Coney's streets in a wild panic before being put down by over 100 shots from the NYPD. In a final act of depravity, onlookers later carved up the dead lion. They used his paws, tail, ears, teeth, even his mane as souvenirs while Coney's biggest and most expensive park continued to burn for hours.
There were no human fatalities but the park suffered $3,000,000 worth of losses. 8 square city blocks were leveled as the fire could be seen from as far away as Manhattan. Devastated, William H. Reynolds decided against ever reopening.
The disaster even swallowed up Dreamland's Iron Pier which melted into the ocean. The pier had been home to a ferry terminal as well as the world's largest dancehall. Like the park, it was never rebuilt.
Martin Couney was one of the lucky few during the horrific 1911 fire. Thanks to quick moving police officers, Couney's exhibit was moved before the flames could reach it. The incubators were brought to Luna Park where they stayed on display for over 30 years.
The preemie babies at Luna Park.
Despite the loss of Dreamland, the party continued throughout Coney Island. Here a look at the 1911 Mardi Gras by the Sea.
1912: Surf Avenue facing east. Notice the banner advertising the Mardi Gras by the Sea in the b/g. The Mardi Gras was a summer closing, week long party which ran from 1903 to 1954. Profits generated from Mardi Gras Week went to local charities.
1912: Surf Avenue, facing east, from the western end of the amusement district.
1912: The Pavilion of Fun featured a life sized bull African Elephant at its center.
1913: More elephants, this of the smaller Indian variety. Notice the kids waving the new 48 star flag.
1919: From 1875 to 1881 five railroad lines were built connecting Brooklyn to Coney Island. Almost 40 years later, a terminal was finally constructed on Stillwell Avenue linking four out of the five lines. The fifth line was bought and closed by the LIRR in 1924, while the other four became part of the BMT (and after later consolidation, New York City's MTA) subway system. Thanks to being merged into the subway system, the People's Playground truly became accessible to all the people of New York City. The biggest crowds were still to come. 1925 brought in over 40 million visitors to Coney's shores, four times the amount who were visiting during the early 1900s.
Even during the Roaring '20s, the masses who came to Coney were made up mostly of the city's poor. Many of whom couldn't afford to pay to use the bath pavilions, or enter the amusement parks, or even spare a dime for just a single Feltman's hotdog. Live acts to entertain the poor, each charging only 5 cents popped up throughout the amusement district. A "Nickel Empire" was soon born. Nathan's, a Feltman's competitor, established in 1916, followed suit. They dropped their prices to 5 cents and were on their way to becoming the world's top hotdog establishment.
Despite cheaper competition, the terminal brought larger crowds to Steeplechase as well. Even after George C. Tilyou's death in 1914, his sons continued purchasing new rides until the grounds were practically flooded.
Part of the Nickel Empire, featuring a cheaper array of freak shows and animal acts, spread over the ashes of Dreamland.
Like the Nickel Empire and its rival amusement park Steeplechase, business at Luna, located adjacent to the new terminal also boomed throughout the 1920s.
For all the deep drop thrills of the new independently operated coasters on Coney, Luna Park's Dragon Gorge was still a favorite. The indoor coaster featured both fire and water inside its dark ride.
This Western themed ride brought patrons back to the days of '49. 1849!
1927: A bird's eye view of Luna Park just before the Great Depression and mismanagement lead to its decline in the 1930s.
Before the Five Families ruled New York, before Al Capone ruled Chicago, Frankie Yale (born Franco Ioele in Calabria, Italy but raised on Coney) leader of the Black Hand, was the most powerful mobster in America. He controlled union activity on Brooklyn's docks but made the bulk of his dirty money during Prohibition. Yale's main hangout was facetiously dubbed, the Harvard Inn. A notorious speak easy on Coney Island's Bowery which introduced the North to Dixieland Jazz, the Harvard Inn was also where Al Capone got his first job working as a bouncer.
In July of 1928 Yale was gunned down in Bensonhurst, just a few miles north west of Coney Island by members of Al Capone's crew.
Just as the Nickel Empire served as a competitor to the established amusement parks, new roller coasters, bigger and faster than anything seen before, served as a competitor to the Nickel Empire. As more and more sideshows and other live attractions gave way to a new generation of monster coasters, Coney became the world's twister capital.
At it's peak, during the late 1920s and 1930s, Coney Island was home to nine different roller coasters. Three of these, the Tornado (built by La Marcus Thompson's company and seen below) the Thunderbolt, and the world famous Cyclone survived well into the 1970s. A fourth coaster, the Bobsled Ride brought in from the World's Fair in 1941 joined the three classics into the 1970s.
Mary Dolan, Miss Coney Island, 1937.
As live entertainment found it difficult to compete with roller coasters throughout the 1930s, Luna Park too was finding it difficult to compete with Steeplchase. New rides weren't brought in, old ones weren't repainted, and during the day it was easy to spot Luna's age. While it was still beautiful at night, two separate bankruptcies caused Luna to cut the amount of used lights in half. Meanwhile multicolored and multistoried billboards were exploding all of Time Square, leaving tourists awed in the same way Luna used to.
Yearly visitation not only declined during the Great Depression, but many who did come, like the girl seen in this 1938 photo, were there to simply seek shelter under the boardwalk.
Martin A. Couney holding one of his preemies. Couney died in 1943. His exhibition lasted into the 1950s, even after Luna Park burned down in 1944. Once again fast moving cops kept Couney's preemies alive.
1939: Post beach showers proved difficult as crowds continued to grow. This was especially true after Robert Moses used eminent domain to build a new boardwalk, knocking down many of the old bathhouses in the process. In the b/g, Louis Stauch's bathhouse which remained in business until the early 1980s.