People & Events
The Riegelmann Boardwalk Is Built
By the 1920s Coney Island had lost much of its special allure, partly because of the advent of movies and radio, partly because it was too expensive to maintain at its original level of magnificence, and partly, perhaps, because it was widely imitated in other cities around the country and the world. What it lost in uniqueness, however, it made up for in popularity.
Perhaps the most apt symbol of the new Coney Island was the Reigelmann Boardwalk, built in 1923. Previously, waterfront property had been privately held, mostly by the bathhouse proprietors, but with the completion of the subway line to Coney Island in 1920, the public could no longer be held back from the sea. The boardwalk, in addition to alleviating overcrowding, made Coney Island truly democratic, and lured more visitors in turn. The magnitude of the crowds who came flocking to the Nickel Empire, as Coney Island came to be called in this era, was captured most vividly in 1940 by the photographer Weegee, whose lens looked down on a veritable sea of sunbathers.
Another sign of the changing times was the rise of Nathan's. Charles Feltman had invented the hot dog at Coney Island in 1867, and then built a vast hotel that catered to the well-to-do. Nathan Handwerker had different ideas. Taking a job at Feltman's in 1915, Handwerker slept on the kitchen floor and lived on free hot dogs for a year, by which time he had saved $300--enough to open his own hot-dog establishment across the street.
Handwerker charged his customers half the price that Feltman did--only a nickel a hot dog--but even the poorer visitors to Coney Island reacted to the lower figure with distrust. When Handwerker hired local bums to sit at his counter, it only made matters worse. Finally, he approached a theatrical costume company and outfitted the bums in spanking clean medical attire. Passengers exiting the subway looked into Nathan's, saw a group of doctors eating there and, as often as not, decided that the food had to be all right. Business at Nathan's took off after that, and it became the dominant purveyors of hot dogs after Feltman's was sold in 1946. The tradition of New York City mayoral candidates to make Nathan's a mandatory campaign stop continues to this day.
As for amusements themselves, post-war Coney Island no longer boasted as many unique rides as it once had, but it certainly benefited from the golden age of roller coasters as much as any other park did. In the 1920s, designers such as Harry Travers took the gravity ride to new heights (and depths), and the roller-coaster experience became more death-defying than ever. The masterpiece of all wooden roller coasters (as opposed to the modern steel variety) is generally considered to be the Cyclone, built by Vernon Keenan and Harry Baker at Coney Island in 1927. With its clattering 85-foot drop reaching speeds of 60 miles an hour, the Cyclone prompted as brave a soul as Charles Lindbergh to remark that it was "scarier than flying." The Cyclone has been designated a Historical Landmark, and continues to operate today under the ownership of Astroland USA.