People & Events
Coney Island House Opens
The first signs that Coney Island would be a holiday destination came in 1829, when a crushed-shell road was constructed and the Coney Island House hotel opened for business. Transportation at that point was by carriage, the clientele strictly upper-class. During this phase, at least one showman appeared on the windy beaches there: Samuel Colt, an itinerant entertainer as well as the inventor of the six-shooter, installed an observation tower on Coney Island in 1845, with the idea of telegraphing the movements of ships back to the city. Colt left soon thereafter, however, and several decades passed before the amusement men would arrive in earnest.
The upper-class vacationers at Coney Island soon found themselves put upon by the political gangs that came to Norton's Point, on the western edge of the island, to drink, gamble and brawl. (As late as 1870, one 19th-century writer noted, a trip to Coney Island meant risking one's wallet, and possibly one's life, at the hands of the "three-card-monte men.") The focal point for the rough crowd was the hotel run by Michael "Thunderbolt" Norton, a ward heeler who catered to the movers and shakers of Tammany Hall. The middle class also began coming to Coney Island--and doing its best to leave in one piece--starting in 1847, when 50-cent steamer service to Norton's Point was instituted.
As corruption bloomed on the western side of the island, respectable citizens began to gravitate toward Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to the east. Among the key figures of this era were Andrew Culver, Austin Corbin and William Engemann, who built opulent hotels reminiscent of European palaces. Not to be left out, Charles Feltman, who invented the hot dog at Coney Island in 1867, opened his own hotel in 1878.
In 1877 Culver erected a 300-foot Steel Tower at Coney Island. A Camera Obscura Observatory followed--and so did the crowds. By 1878 as many as 60,000 people were coming to Coney Island every day, most of them to the eastern side, where the hotels were located.
The influx of visitors led to a scandal in 1879, when Austin Corbin went on record saying that he would ban Jews from his resort. Popular opinion was against him, however (as were many hoteliers around the country), and the democratization of Coney Island proceeded apace.
The 1880s saw several significant developments destined to deliver the area to the masses. In 1884 LaMarcus Thompson built what is considered by many to be the world's first roller coaster, known as the Switchback Railway, not far from the Elephant Hotel, an actual hotel shaped like an elephant. By that time, the first sideshow had arrived at Coney Island. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island, three race tracks provided excitement for bettors of every class.
The spirit of fun had taken possession of Coney Island. But it would take the efforts of a local to raise it to the level of immortality.