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Coney Island | Article

Historic Highlights

Coney Island Gets Its Name
How Coney Island got its name remains a mystery, though theorists have drawn explanations from almost every stage of its history. 

A 1924 manuscript finds the answer in the pre-Columbian era, stating that the island was once inhabited by the Konoh, or Bear, tribe, a name that was eventually corrupted to become "Coney." Another theory traces the name to the arrival of Henry Hudson in New York Harbor in 1609. By this account, Hudson's right-hand man, John Coleman, was killed by Indians, leading to the name Coleman's Island in his honor. 

The Dutch settled Manhattan in 1624 and inhabited Coney Island soon afterward. Since the Dutch word for rabbit was "konijn" and the island had a large population of wild rabbits, many have supposed this fact to have led to the name. One variation of this theory is less flattering to the Europeans: when the Dutch battled the Indian inhabitants there, they are supposed to have said that their enemies "ran like rabbits."

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the Dutch, or the English after them, used any word resembling "Coney" for several centuries. On early maps, the Indian name "Narrioch" is given for the Western portion of the island that later became specifically known as Coney Island. Over the years, the three or more islets that eventually converged to become a single island were more likely to appear on maps with names such as "Pine Island," "Pelican Island," and "Sedge Bank." Not until 1816 does a treatise on place names in New York ascribe "Conyn," a Dutch surname, to the island. The assumption is that the Conyns were a family of early settlers, although there is no evidence to support this idea, either.

There is considerable evidence, however, that the name Coney Island came into use in the first half of the 19th century, after a ferry service was instituted to carry passengers across Coney Island Creek, at the time a waterway separating the island from mainland Brooklyn. This is consistent with another theory, not often mentioned along with the others, but compelling nonetheless. 

According to an article published in the "Sligo Champion," an Irish captain named Peter O'Connor sailed the schooner Arethusa between New York and Ireland in the late 1700s, and named Coney Island after an island that lay a mere mile from his home in Sligo. This Coney Island was, and is, about one mile long and about half a mile wide -- much like the American version.

Not only is the timing right for O'Connor to lay claim to the name, his nationality fits as well. In the early 19th century, Tammany Hall, New York's corrupt and predominantly Irish political machine, began to send its more ignoble operators out to Coney Island. It is reasonable to imagine these settlers reaching for a familiar name from their homeland for the location.

Of course, even if O'Connor did indeed supply the name, he could not have foreseen the irony in doing so. The Irish island, at its peak, had some 200 people living on it (and by 1960 had only 11), while the American one would go on to be crammed with millions.

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.

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.

Luna Park Opens
While the three great parks at Coney Island shared many characteristics, Luna Park, with its whimsical architecture and its commitment to a complete fantasy world in which visitors could lose themselves, represented something entirely new in its day.

The geniuses behind Luna Park, Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, forged their partnership at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo with Thompson's "Trip to the Moon" illusion ride. Lured to Coney Island by George C. Tilyou, the pair ran this ride and several others at his Steeplechase Park during the 1902 season. At the end of the summer, Tilyou offered them a lower percentage of the take for the following season. They declined the offer and instead bought up Captain Paul Boyton's Sea-Lion Park, intent on creating an amusement park of their own. 

When Luna Park opened on May 16, 1903, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Thompson, an erratically trained architect, had designed an environment entirely at odds with the Beaux-Arts movement of the time. The lines, colors, and shapes were constantly changing. Rather than the usual central tower, there were spires and minarets everywhere. And it was immense. By 1907 Luna Park employed some 1,700 people and was illuminated by 1,300,000 electric lights, at a cost of $5,600 a week. Almost a municipality in itself, it had its own telegraph office, radio office, and long-distance telephone service.

Inside this city within a city, worlds collided. Extending their success with illusion rides, Thompson and Dundy filled their park with visions of exotic events and locales, such as "The War of the Worlds," "The Kansas Cyclone," and of course, the ever popular "Trip to the Moon." The park itself was designed so as to keep visitors constantly on the move. If Dundy saw visitors so much as sitting down for a rest, he would send a group of musicians over to get them back on their feet. 

With Steeplechase Park and Luna Park operating at full tilt, the momentum was overwhelming, and in 1904, Senator William Reynolds and a group of speculators opened Coney Island's third large-scale park. Although Dreamland was generally not as inventive as Luna Park, it did do well with morality plays, such as "The End of the World" and the Orient Theater's "Feast of Beshazzar and the Destruction of Babylon." Another of its popular attractions was Lilliputia, a miniature village populated by very small people, created and run from 1904 to 1906 by Samuel Gumpertz, who later became Dreamland's general manager. 

On opening day of the 1911 season, a fire broke out in Hell Gate and soon ran out of control, leaving Dreamland in cinders. The same thing had happened to Steeplechase Park in 1907 and George Tilyou had rebuilt it without thinking twice, but the owners of Dreamland, unlike Tilyou, had not grown up with Coney Island sand in their shoes, and they decided to cut their losses. Within a few years, Tilyou died and Frederic Thompson, operating alone since the death of Dundy in 1907, was forced to file for bankruptcy. Coney Island had appeared in the world with a burst of imagination, but its most extravagant days were already behind it.

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. 

Luna Park Closes
With the coming of the Depression, Coney Island fell on hard times. People were less likely to spend money on extravagances, and when they did, movies were closer at hand. Nor did people have cross the world to get the Coney Island experience: the original had inspired imitators that, if not as grandiose as Luna Park or Dreamland, were not so very different from the Coney Island of the 1930s. After the first heady days, the Electric Eden was finding its equilibrium in the larger scheme of things. 

Adversity continued to dog Coney Island even after the economy improved. The 1939 World's Fair in New York was perceived as a beacon of hope by the general populace, but from the perspective of amusement proprietors, it only stole customers away. Moving several of the World's Fair attractions, such as the Parachute Jump, to Coney only helped for a while. During World War Two, the "lights out" policy dimmed the resplendent electrical aura that had always been its calling card, and the fun seemed to go out of Coney Island. 

Although Luna Park struggled along through these times, it had plainly been deteriorating. Then Coney Island's perennial curse of fire struck, not once but four times. The first blaze broke out before the 1944 season had begun, partially destroying LaMarcus Thompson's Scenic Railway roller coaster and the Tunnel of Love beneath it. Damp weather and lack of wind limited the damages, but on August 12 a second fire started in the washroom of the Dragon's Gorge, another classic roller coaster, and eventually spread to much of the park. For the remainder of the season, only the western half of Luna Park remained open. Then it closed, and an insurance battle commenced. In 1946 the property was sold to new owners, who planned to build a housing project. Before they could do so, two more fires took down everything that remained of Luna Park except the ballroom and the pool, which then had to be demolished the old-fashioned way.

Post-war Coney Island suffered from a competitor that was perhaps even more formidable than the rest: the automobile. Steeplechase continued bravely onward, but interest had clearly turned elsewhere. The various freak shows that had prospered after World War One began to lose customers as well, and to move out of Coney Island. As more and more housing projects were built behind Surf Avenue, the neighborhood took on an increasingly rough character. In this context, the various electric shocks administered at Steeplechase no longer seemed so funny, and customers began to complain. In the midst of family squabbles, the last of the great parks closed in 1964. 

Coney Island was not dead. Another park, Astroland, opened in 1962 and was able to stay in business despite all predictions to the contrary. The Cyclone roller coaster continued to take brave souls on its terrifying course, and the Wonder Wheel, with its design dating back to the early 20th century, still lifted lovers to a bird's eye view of sea and sand. 

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