People & Events
Steeplechase Park Opens
The first of the great Coney Island parks, Steeplechase Park, was the work of George C. Tilyou, and it grew from the sprig of envy. A local since childhood and proprietor of the Surf Theater at Coney Island, Tilyou visited the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago on his honeymoon and was awestruck by the Ferris Wheel, which debutted there. Unable to procure the wheel for himself, as it had already been sold, he contracted the Pennsylvania Steel Company to build another one expressly for him.
Tilyou's Ferris Wheel rose from a plot of land on the Bowery and West Eighth Street, near Culver's Iron Tower. After covering it with incandescent lights and billing it as the largest in the world (though this claim was plainly untrue), he had his sister Kathryn sit behind the cash register wearing their mother's diamond necklace. For maximum effect, two strong men stood beside her, as if to protect the jewels from thieves. The Ferris Wheel opened for business in the spring of 1894 and paid for itself within a few weeks.
Although Tilyou owned a number of other rides, they were scattered around Coney Island until 1895, when Captain Paul Boyton inaugurated his enclosed Sea-Lion Park. Taking that as his cue, Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park, with its leering "funny face" logo, on a 15-acre plot of oceanfront land and began looking for attractions to fill it.
Since horse racing was easily the most popular diversion at Coney Island, Tilyou procured a mechanical race course, devised by the British inventor J.W. Cawdry, at a cost of $41,000. The Steeplechase Horses, as Tilyou called the ride, soon became synonymous with Coney Island. Six double-saddled mechanical horses took passengers down 1,100 feet of undulating track, over a stream bed and a series of hurdles, all around the outside of the park. The tracks ran abreast, simulating a horse race in which gravity gave the heavier riders the advantage. Always the master of effect, Tilyou dressed his attendants as jockeys and announced the start of each ride with a bugle.
In 1902 Tilyou engaged Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy to bring their "Trip to the Moon" ride from the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition. After one season at Steeplechase, they broke off to create vastly more ambitious Luna Park, but Tilyou managed to develop his own niche nonetheless.
A trip to Steeplechase in its prime resembled a journey inside a gigantic pinball machine. If visitors made it through the Barrel of Love, a tunnel that turned beneath their feet, they would then be faced with the perplexities of the Earthquake Stairway, the Whichway and countless other conundrums inside the Pavilion of Fun. The Human Roulette Wheel spun until passengers sitting on it were flung to the perimeter. The Human Pool Table presented a series of spinning discs that challenged the customer to cross from one side to the other without being seriously diverted.
Steeplechase had its share of surprises as well. Visitors to the Human Zoo descended a spiral staircase until they found themselves in a cage, where they were offered peanuts and monkey talk. The Blowhole Theater, located at the exit of the Steeplechase ride, forced unwitting women to stand above an opening that blasted air up their skirts while the crowd--generally recent victims themselves--looked on with approval. If a woman's escort protested, he often received an electric shock from a clown waiting nearby.
In 1907 Steeplechase was ravaged by fire. Undaunted, Tilyou charged admission to the burning ruins and immediately began building anew. The fire that razed Dreamland in 1911 left Steeplechase virtually unscathed, but George Tilyou died in 1914, and by then Coney Island as a whole was beginning to slip out of step with the times. Nevertheless, the park continued to operate until 1964, making it easily the longest running amusement enterprise in the history of Coney Island.
When the park closed, there was talk of designating the Pavilion of Fun as a historical landmark, but real-estate developer Fred C. Trump had it demolished before a ruling could be made. Today, the last sign that Steeplechase Park ever existed is the defunct Parachute Jump, purchased in 1940 from James H. Strong, a retired naval officer who originally had it built to train real-life paratroopers for service.