"end of Coney?" was the name of our first Coney Island based rant in June 2008. Twelve months later, the People's Playground is again a hot topic. Unfortunately, this rant comes with no question marks. "Again, The End" is a coming reality with Mayor Michael Bloomerg securing enough political backing to turn Coney Island into Condos Island. That in mind, this rant is a simple salute to the rich history of the place that Bloomberg and developer Joe Sitt both seek to profit from and destroy.
Almost 400 years ago, in September of 1609, days before sailing into what would become New York Harbor and the river that now bears his name, Henry Hudson, captain of the Dutch ship, the Half Moon, made Coney Island his first stop in the new world. Known by the native Canarsie, an Algonquin speaking tribe, as Narrioch (Place Without Shade) the island was completely uninhabited. Instead, the Canarsie used the natural beach to search for clams but little else. After renaming it Conyne Eylandt (Rabbit Island) the Dutch used it for hunting rabbits but little else.
Over 200 years later there was little evidence that Hudson had ever landed on Coney Island, or that it was part of a Dutch colony, or later an English colony, or later still the United States. The Canarsie, killed off by wars and diseases imported from Europe, were gone. Aside from two small private farms, only the clams and rabbits remained.
In 1829, John Terhune, town supervisor of Gravesend (a farming community established by Lady Deborah Moody, a warm hearted English Mennonite who gained a charter from the Dutch in 1645) which held jurisdiction over Coney Island, decided to build an inn by the beach. He called it the Coney Island House. Terhune's guests included a wide range of America's elite including Washington Irving, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John Calhoun, and Herman Melville to name a few. It was also frequented by more infamous types, from P.T. Barnum, to even pirates in need of short stays.
The Wyckoff Hotel, also frequented by an eclectic mix of elites and criminals on the run was built in 1840. Still aside from hotel guests and the families of the two small farms, the island was fairly barren. This changed in 1847 when steamer service was provided to Coney from Manhattan. The pier welcomed daytime tourists that numbered in the thousands as well as a new fishing community.
Shortly after the Civil War and with America entering the Industrial Age, Coney, to the chagrin of the still quite rural, Puritanical locals in Gravesend became an even greater urban escape. Rough and tumble, back room dealing, hard drinking, Michael "Thunderbolt" Norton, became town supervisor of Gravesend. With his own hotel, called simply The Pavilion (one noted for attracting other corrupt politicians, infamous outlaws like Shang Draper, prostitutes, and prize fighting boxers) Thunderbolt Norton was quick to remake Coney Island in his own image. His successor, John Y. McKane, an Irish born Protestant continued Norton's work in adding saloons, gambling parlors and race tracks. By 1875, as more and more bodies began washing up ashore, Coney Island gained a reputation as both lawless refuge, and the adult entertainment capital of the world.
That same year the Coney Island Railroad built the Culver Line, making the island easily accessible to those in various sections of western Brooklyn. Over the next six years, four more rail lines, two more piers and a highway (Ocean Parkway) were built. From the early 1870's to the late 1870's yearly visitors jumped from a million per year to six times that amount. After the many sleepy decades, Coney Island was finally a player inside America's largest metropolis.
The Golden Age (1875-1910)
Daily tourists, who were now numbering in the tens of thousands, rushed to Coney as an escape from the city. One of the first recreational reasons to escape came thanks to Danish born, Charles I.D. Looff. In 1876, during America's Centennial, he built the world's most elaborate carousel. His horses incredibly lifelike and decked in glass jewels became known as Coney Island styled horses.
The largest of the early amusements was the 300 foot Iron Tower. An observation deck complete with steam powered elevators brought in by John Y. McKane from the the Philadelphia World's Fair. At the time, it was the tallest structure in all of North America.
Food at Coney Island was taken care of by Charles Feltman. Starting from a small beachside booth in 1867, Feltman provided all of the local hotels with his invention, the hotdog. By the late 1870s Feltman established his own restaurant. Later still he added a beer garden, bath pavilion, Looff's greatest carousel, and even a roller coaster called the Ziz.
As for his hotdogs, until one of his former employees, Nathan Handwerker, opened a competitor in 1916, Feltman's was the undisputed hotdog king.
Although both places remained popular until the early 1950s, Handwerker's restaurant, Nathan's Famous, eventually overtook Feltman's. To this day the Handwerker family still operates Nathan's from its original location on the corner of Stillwell and Surf.
1879: Louis Stauch started with a restaurant. Shortly later he expanded and built the largest bath pavilion in all of Coney Island. Rebuilt over the decades, Stauch's remained on Coney Island for over 100 years.
1884: La Marcus Thompson's "Switchback Railway" was the world's first modern roller coaster. Unlike other rides at the time, it featured several peaks and valleys as well as the ability to travel backwards. It was knocked down a year later and replaced by two larger coasters.
1886: The Elephant Hotel. This imaginative structure made the world's largest land animal Coney Island's unofficial mascot for decades to come. Despite the fact that the hotel itself only survived 10 seasons.
1894: Surprisingly, swimming did not become a popular recreation until the 1880s. For all its many sights, the beachside location made Coney stand apart from any other entertainment district of its time.
1896: By the 1890s almost 100 separate bath pavilions filled Coney's shore. These pavilions (known later as bathhouses) each carved out private boundaries to the beach while providing customers with showers, saunas, lockers, bathing suits as well as restaurants, bars, and in some cases, private swimming pools.
Pittsburgh native, Captain Paul Boyton, began his naval career at the age of 15 when enlisting into the Union Navy during the Civil War. He would later serve the Mexican Navy and then the French Navy during the Franco-Prussian War. Returning to the civilian world, Boyton became a world renowned adventurer as well as an anti-whaling defender of nature's seas. He's most famous however for three things; inventing a rubber dry suit allowing him to float through hundreds of miles of ocean and rivers; founding the Coast Guard; and, in 1895, collecting enough rides on Coney Island to open the world's very first enclosed amusement park. 15 acres in size, Sea Lion Park featured live sea lion shows, deep sea scuba dives and water rides. Three larger amusement parks, one built around Sea Lion Park, would open soon later.
1890s: Beach debauchery just before the arrival of three separate world class amusement parks.
After John Y. McKane's four year incarceration for widepread voter fraud, George C. Tilyou (left) McKane's biggest adversary, would become Coney's most influential man. McKane returned from prison, defeated. He died a year later in 1899.
Below, a look at Tilyou's original Steeplechase. Built in 1897, it was an outdoor only amusement that burned to the ground nine years later. Tilyou rebuilt and redefined what a world class park should look like.
1902: Luna Park followed. Built by Frederic Thompson (no relation to roller coaster builder, La Marcus Thompson) and Elmer "Skippy" Dundy around Captain Paul Boyton's (which they later bought out) Sea Lion Park. Luna proved to be a bigger and even greater success than Steeplechase.
1904: Former Republican State Rep, William H. Reynolds, opens Dreamland, the biggest of 'em all. At 375 feet high, Beacon Tower, Dreamland's center piece practically dwarfed John Y. McKane's Iron Tower.
1905: Breaking the laws of gravity while spinning twenty feet high, Luna Park's Loop the Loops was at the time, the highest loop roller coaster of its kind.
1905: At night Luna Park was lit by over 250,000 lights. This at a time when most of the world was still lit by candlelight.
1905: Dreamland's 1,000,000+ lights out-shined both Luna and Steeplechase combined. Unlike its slightly older rivals, Dreamland included educational exhibits to its fun and games. Ambitious and pristine (all of its buildings were painted white) William H. Reynold's park provided Coney Island with an apex to its amusement empire.
1905: Realizing that future travel would be air based, George C. Tilyou built an Air Ship Tower, serving as a modern day blimp landing pad.
1906: The Bostock Brothers featured the most dangerous lion and tiger acts in the world at their own arena built inside Dreamland.
While the Bostocks specialized in large cats, Dreamland also had its own carnival Circus Sideshow.
1908: A year after a great fire, one that later had Tilyou charging admission to see the ruins, a new Steeplechase featuring an indoor fireproof glass and steal structure was built. Called the Pavilion of Fun and featuring horse rides wrapping in and out of it, the Pavilion of Fun, an amazing three acres in size, became Coney's single most iconic building.
Luna Park's Shooting the Chutes and lagoon, originally part of Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park.
Aside from the three parks and their many rides (including the Devil's Gorge indoor roller coaster below) Coney Island's amusement district stretched well over 100 acres. This includes independent rides, bath pavilions which extended to West 37th Street, race tracks (horses and cars) as well as countless saloons, gambling parlors, and even some not so hidden brothels.
"Cleaner" entertainment like dance halls (left) and skating rinks (lower left) also dotted each of Coney's parks.
1907: Notice the Imperial Japanese Navy flag flying over Luna Park's Oriental Pavilion.
Pediatrician, Martin A. Couney brought his mocked invention, the infant incubator, to Dreamland in 1904. The preemie babies were put on display, right next door to Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West shows, war reenactments, "towns" housing everything from indigenous people brought in from all corners of the world to midgets, to an array of different carney freaks. Inspite of being exploited by a paying public, of the 8,000 babies put on display, over 7,000 survived.
Lilliputia, a community for midgets put on display, built with everything in half the scale of the outside world. Unknown to the viewing public, the anarchy which existed within this Midget City. Fist fights, homosexuality, and infidelity ran ramped as 80% of births were illegitimate.
Dangling 250 feet over street level.
The statue at the front of Dreamland was named Creation. Creation was actually modeled after Little Egypt, a Persian born Coney Island belly dancer from the 1880s best known for a dance she invented called the hoochie-coochie.
Even during the day, without its million plus lights, Dreamland was still the most breathtaking of Coney's three amusement parks.