Coney Island, one of New York’s oldest and finest tourist attractions, wasn’t built in a day. There were many reasons why this place was built, how it was built, and the consequences of the build. And they’re all very fascinating.
When you vision Coney Island, you probably vision the amusement park. Coney Island is not only an amusement park, but a large neighborhood filled with many residents. Some of the extremely famous attractions of Coney Island can even be seen from a mile away, like the Parachute Jump and the Wonder Wheel. And up close, they’re even better.
The ride is about to begin, so fasten your safety harness.
This is how Coney Island came to be.
Where it All Began
Coney Island’s got a rich history.
Development began in the 1840s, when Coney Island wasn’t even connected to the mainland. That’s why it’s called Coney Island, despite not being an actual island. Looking on Google Maps, one can see the Coney Island creek, which gets cut off at Shell Road, and ends there. That’s because the creek used to be a river which flowed into Sheepshead Bay, but through the process of landfill (not where garbage is kept, but the process of filling in land), Coney Island was connected to the rest of Brooklyn, and was no longer an island.
When the first buildings were built on Coney Island, people who wanted to keep the island as a natural park were outraged. In the early 1900s, the city wanted to demolish all buildings south of Surf Avenue, the main avenue that runs through Coney Island, even to this day. The city took this shot, which was part of the Coney Island rebuilding process. The island still had potential, and the city knew it–they didn’t want to throw that potential away.
As mentioned, Coney Island was later connected to the mainland of Brooklyn by a process called land reclamation, or landfill. This process basically connects land to each other by creating new land from river or lake beds. The new land is called reclamation ground. In the 1920s, the city zoned the land so the land north of the boardwalk and south of Surf Avenue would be used for amusement purposes only. This was a settlement the people agreed with.
Three Parks in One Park
During World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the country, attracting millions of visitors every year, as seen above. At its most successful time, Coney Island actually contained three amusement parks: Luna Park, Steeplechase Park, and Dreamland. Coney Island was soaring at this point.
Steeplechase Park was the first of the three, built in 1862 by George C. Tilyou, whose family ran a restaurant in Coney Island. When he visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he observed the Ferris Wheel, which was introduced at that World’s Fair, and decided to build his own in Coney Island. Once it was built, it immediately became the island’s biggest attraction. He added other rides as well, such as a mechanical horse race course called the Steeplechase. This is actually where the park derived its name from, and is the origin of the name of a current horse-themed rollercoaster in Coney Island, which exists where the original ride once was.
Steeplechase was the western-most park, located where the present-day MCU Park baseball stadium is. Steeplechase was also the park which lasted the longest, because unlike the other two, it made enough money to thrive. Tilyou and his family were able to update the park gradually due to its success, so new rides, such as the Parachute Jump, which exists today, opened on its grounds.
Luna Park was the second park built in Coney Island, built in 1903. The park was built atop the ground of Sea Lion Park, the first permanent amusement park in North America, which was run by Paul Boyton. Luna Park was located on the north side of Surf Avenue, on a site between West 8th and 12th Streets, and Neptune Avenue. The park was created by Elmer “Skip” Dundy and Frederick Thompson. Thompson and Dundy leased empty plots from Tilyou, and used these land plots to build Luna Park.
The land leased was where the Elephantine Colossus, a seven-story tall tourist attraction built in the shape of an elephant, once stood. Unfortunately, in 1896, it caught fire and collapsed, killing many. After the destruction of this attraction, the land was available for new use, and Dundy and Thompson purchased the land to build Luna Park on top of. The park thrived for a while.
The last park built was called Dreamland, and it was the largest, most luxurious, and “the grandest” of the three. It was built in 1904 by then-state senator William H. Reynolds. This park was built because Reynolds wanted to challenge Luna Park by making it much more elegant and upper-class, rather than Luna Park, which was noisy, chaotic, and often looked at as ‘low-class’.
In order to build Dreamland, you could say he played a bit dirty: he had other people bid on the property for him in order to hide his true means of building an amusement park there. Once Reynolds won the bid, he used his political power to seize control of West 8th Street, which ran through the middle of the area. And so, Dreamland was built.
With these three parks, Coney Island thrived. It thrived more than the city and its citizens ever thought it would.
The Fun Burns
What could go wrong for Coney Island now? It seemed like nothing could.
But little did anyone know, everything could go wrong. And it did.
It was 1911. Coney Island was getting ready for one of its busiest days of the year, Memorial Day. Samuel W. Gumpertz, who later became the director of the Ringling Brothers Circus, was put in the park’s top administrative post. In Dreamland, the buildings, which were once all elegant-like, painted white, were repainted in brighter colors.
But at around 1:30 AM, the night before opening day, Hell Gate, a ride in which people rode a boat down a stream through dark caves, was undergoing last-minute repairs by a roofing company. While these repairs were being done, an electrical malfunction occurred and the light bulbs that lit up the attraction exploded. While all of this happened, a repairman accidentally kicked over a bucket of hot tar, resulting in the ride going up in flames.
The Hell Gate later collapsed, and the fire spread to the rest of Dreamland. Since the attractions were all made out of a fine painted wood, they all caught fire and collapsed. The surrounding area was chaos, and people died in the flames trying to escape. Captain Jack Bonavita, a one-armed lion tamer who worked in Dreamland for amusement, tried to save his lions, but about sixty of them died in the fire. Some escaped onto the street, but were shot and killed by police. Bonavita was also killed in the blaze.
Hotels and other prominent buildings across the street from the fire, also caught fire and collapsed. The fire was eventually contained and put out, and by morning, Dreamland had been reduced to ashes. What a shame.
During this time, many hospitals could not afford incubators to babies who needed it, but for some reason, Dreamland had a supply of them, so premature babies were kept there. Following the fire, news reports claimed that all the babies had died in the fire, but soon after, these reports were corrected, saying that no babies were killed. Most of the babies were saved by Sergeant Frederick Klinck of the NYPD, who made many trips into the burning Dreamland to rescue the babies.
The fate of Coney Island remained unknown following this. During the Great Depression, Coney Island served as a rejuvenation point so people suffering from the Depression could visit there to get their mind off of things. But if the great fire of 1911 wasn’t enough, Luna Park was destroyed by a fire in 1944. After a third fire and a legal battle in 1946, the burnt scrap was removed and the land was rezoned to be used for newer, better purposes.
Soon after Steeplechase Park was torn down, all three amusement parks of Coney Island were gone. However, there was no fear; plans to build a new park, AstroLand, would arise. AstroLand was built and opened in 1962, on the former site of Luna Park. At the time, it was a “space-age” theme park and was built to resemble the future. But as time went on, residents described it as “more like stepping into the past than the future”. The rides were more humdrum and standard; AstroLand didn’t bring anything new to the table.
On November 28, 2006, the Albert family, operator of AstroLand, sold AstroLand for $30 million to Thor Equities, which planned to redesign the area so that it could accommodate a $1.5 billion year-round resort. With the agreement, the Alberts could continue to operate the Cyclone, but would have no further control of the rest of the property. But at the time, the Alberts wanted to relocate attractions like the AstroTower to another area of the park.
On October 24, 2007, the Albert family and Thor Equities had reached a
deal, and agreed that AstroLand would open again on March 16, 2008. However, after months of not reaching an agreement, AstroLand never opened on that date, and closed permanently on September 7, 2008. A new amusement park, called Luna Park, named after the original Luna Park that burned down in 1944, opened on May 29, 2010, where AstroLand used to be, officially replacing AstroLand. The co-founder of AstroLand, Jerry Albert, died on March 15, 2012, after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Some iconic parts of AstroLand were the rocket which read “ASTROLAND” on its side, pictured above, and the AstroTower, a tall observation tower/amusement ride. The tower was built in 1957 by Dewey Albert and his partners, Nathan Handwerker, Herman Rapps, Sidney Robbins and Paul Yampo, who formed a corporation called Coney Island Enterprises.
The AstroTower was an iconic part of the Coney Island skyline for 56 years, until July 2, 2013, when the AstroTower was seen swaying in the wind. Due to this, Luna Park was evacuated and the FDNY declared the area unsafe, and canceled all rides for the Fourth of July. By July 6, the AstroTower was demolished and the remaining metal was sent to a nearby junkyard for scrap. It was the only part of AstroLand that survived after 2008.
Interestingly, a new amusement ride tower, also called the Astro Tower, opened in 2018, but on the other side of Coney Island. It is not related to the old one.
A Century of Screams
As we know, Coney Island is home to some very iconic attractions, that were famous both back in the day and today.
Take the Cyclone roller coaster for example. The Coney Island Cyclone was and still is in use today. It is a historic wooden roller coaster that opened on June 18, 1927. It was completely renovated and reopened to the crowds on July 1, 1975. Since then, AstroLand Park invested millions of dollars to regularly update the Cyclone. After AstroLand closed in 2008, the president of Cyclone Coasters, Carol Hill Albert, continued to operate it under an agreement with the city, saving it from permanent closure and demolition. In 2011, Luna Park took over operation of the Cyclone. The Cyclone was declared a New York City landmark in July 12, 1988, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 26, 1991.
The Parachute Jump is a 250 foot tall amusement ride, originally located in Steeplechase Park. The Parachute Jump was actually originally built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. It was moved to where it is today, then became part of Steeplechase Park in 1941. It is the only portion of Steeplechase Park still standing today. The ride officially closed in 1964 when Steeplechase Park closed, and today it’s no longer in use, but you can still visit it and snap some cool pictures. Fun fact: the Parachute Jump can be seen getting destroyed in the blockbuster film Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Deno’s Wonder Wheel is a 150 foot tall eccentric Ferris wheel located in the heart of Coney Island. It is actually an eccentric wheel, which are different from regular Ferris wheels because, if you ever visit the wheel and take notice, most of the passenger cars slide on rails between the hub and the rim as the wheel rotates. This is a factor that makes the Wonder Wheel so iconic. If you want to hop aboard the Wonder Wheel, but don’t want to deal with the car you’re in sliding back and forth 150 feet up in the air, you can hop in the white cars, which ride the edges and do not move, like a typical Ferris wheel.
Fun fact, the only time the Wonder Wheel stopped without permission was during the 1977 New York City Blackout on July 13, 1977. The Wonder Wheel thrives on electricity, but the passengers were not stuck on the wheel for long because the operators manually cranked the wheel around to get them off.
The fun and games don’t end there, though.
You could say parts of Coney Island are dumpy and underdeveloped.
But real estate investor Joe Sitt is planning to turn that around soon. “Imagine…the lights. The action. The vitality. The people…it’s exciting. It’s illuminated,” says Sitt, who owns Thor Equities, the company who has a rich history with Coney Island.
Sitt is a billionaire who owns most of the property in Coney Island. He wants to say goodbye to the empty lots that surround Coney Island, and turn them into something more. Sitt wants to build a giant Vegas-style resort right in Coney Island, complete with lights, fireworks, high-rises, an indoor water park, a 500-room four-star hotel, and an enormous psychedelic carousel.
And on top of it all, an airship station on the roof. The airship could take off from the roof and take tourists on a tour of Coney Island. But as expected, there’s lots of controversy surrounding this, regarding whether or not people actually want something like this in the area. Would a complex like this thrive in an area like Coney Island? Lots of people say no, but Joe Sitt is the director of this project and he grew up in Coney Island, and wants to make the change.
The future of Coney Island essentially lies in his hands. He could decide to move forward with the project, and it could be extremely successful. Or he could take the shot, only to let it fail, throwing $1.5 billion out the window.
But it’s not time to worry yet, it’s only a vision. We’ll just have to see.
As successful and influential Coney Island is, it’s had its fair share of events, as we’ve gone over in this article. The Parachute Jump, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone, three epic parts of Coney Island that essentially make it what it is today, and made it what it was then, still exist and function today (although one, the Parachute Jump, is defunct).
Many restaurants exist along the boardwalk and in the immediate area, such as Nathan’s Famous, home of the world’s best hot dogs and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which is held every year on July 4. The Coney Island Boardwalk, also known as the Riegelmann Boardwalk, is the second longest boardwalk in the world, stretching over 2.5 miles in length, and was made a historical landmark on May 16, 2018, its 95th anniversary.
So, what are you waiting for? After learning all about Coney Island’s incredible history, you better get over there, walk the Boardwalk, ride the rides, and get a Nathan’s Famous hot dog today.
Chris6d is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Contact him by joining his Discord server, the Fear League Squad.