People & Events
Though no particular innovation can be credited to George Cornelius Tilyou, he probably did more than any other single figure to make Coney Island a unique place on earth.
Born in New York City in 1862, Tilyou was three years old when he and his parents moved to Coney Island. His father, Peter Tilyou, soon opened Surf House, a beach rental and eating establishment, then went on to become a realtor. By 1876 young George thoroughly understood the way Coney Island worked: he sold cigar boxes full of "authentic" beach sand to Midwestern tourists, then used the proceeds to start up a stagecoach business between Norton's Point, where the steamer from Manhattan debarked, and Culver Plaza, where the well-to-do frolicked.
George and his father went into business together in 1882, opening Surf Theater, the first theater in Coney Island, on an alley that ran between the pathways down to the sea. As various concessions sprouted around them, they laid planks over the alley, dubbed the Bowery, after the Manhattan street renowned for its theatrical attractions. The Bowery soon came to define the heart of Coney Island, and so it does today.
When local politician John McKane went on trial for a multitude of abuses in 1887, George Tilyou was the sole witness who dared testify against him. As a result, the Tilyous were hounded out of the area. They were able to return with the conviction of McKane in 1894, however, and George was made a justice of the peace for his earlier bravery. Meanwhile, he had been to the Columbian World's Fair on his honeymoon with his bride Mary O'Donnell.
After seeing the Ferris Wheel there, Tilyou resolved to buy it, but it had already been earmarked for the upcoming St. Louis exposition, so he had to make do with building his own smaller version. The following season, on the heels of his Ferris Wheel's success, he took inspiration from the neighboring Boyton's Sea Lion Park and erected his own enclosed amusement park.
The great strength of Steeplechase Park, known round the world for its trademark "funny face" logo, lay in its power to involve visitors. Many rides were calculated to play hob with gravity and so encourage couples to grab a hold of each other. In addition to the famous Steeplechase, which took its customers down a wavy track on mechanical horseback, the attractions included the Human Roulette Wheel, the Human Pool Table, the Whichway and the Barrel of Love, which spun humans in directions they'd never been spun in before. Equally involving was the Blowhole Theater--a stage built into an exit that forced customers to become actors, as they endured blasts of air and electric shocks to the delight of other recent victims.
Steeplechase burned down in 1907, but Tilyou didn't miss a stride. After charging admission to the burning ruins, he rebuilt the park, this time introducing the roofed Pavilion of Fun. After Tilyou died in 1914, various managers took their turn running Steeplechase, although ownership remained in the family. The park finally closed in 1964, ending what amounted to a 69-year run of comic relief from the modern world.