the early days
and how we got there
View of Surf Avenue. See roller coaster
tracks on the right and entrance to the "Loop the Loop."
There used to be a "Dreamland" section to
the Coney Island amusements. This is its entrance.
"Shooting the Chutes"
at Dreamland (1905)
Inside Luna Park, (1905).
Photographs courtesy of the
New York Public Library,
Inside Luna Park,
Electric Towers at night (1905)
The Miniature Railway (1905)
A View of Luna Park (cir 1910)
A crowded part of the beach
at Coney Island,
by the boardwalk (1939)
Coney Island beach
[outdoor swimming pool]
Island that many of us have known and grown to love in our youth is, without a
doubt, one of the world’s most famous seaside attractions. An island less than
five miles long and half a mile wide, it has drawn millions upon millions of
visitors seeking rest and relaxation for as long as anyone of us can remember.
Who can ever forget Steeplechase Park, the Cyclone roller coaster, the Wonder
Wheel and the Parachute Jump? Of course, Coney Island did not start out this
Located at the southern tip of Brooklyn, the area we now know as
Coney Island was discovered by Henry Hudson in 1609, who was sailing under the
auspices of the Dutch East India Company in search of spices. When the Dutch
finally arrived at these marshlands (it was bought for some wampum and a couple
of guns!), they made it part of their New Netherlands colony and renamed it "Conye
Eylant," "conye" being their name for the many rabbits that had
inhabited the area at the time. Mostly, this collection of small islands was a
sandbar that the Dutch used for their livestock to graze on, until they transferred the
title to an English Mennonite in 1643, who then named this area Gravesend. For
more than two centuries, Coney Island was used for little more than grazing
In 1824 the supervisor of Gravesend and his brother built a
toll causeway (Shell Road) across the Coney Island Creek. This led directly to
an inn that they had built in hopes that they could attract those residents
from New York City who might want to escape their sweltering confines and spend
some time "bathing" in the sea. Later, a local schoolteacher built a second
small inn. Of course, at that time there were no buses or subways to bring
visitors to Coney Island, so they hired stagecoaches to bring their guests
Years later a small pier was constructed and daily ferry
service was started. A tented pavilion was built, and dining, dancing, and
bathing was available to all. This facility was generally meant for those who
would come only for the day for a bath, or just for a frolic. In contrast, a
number of inns were built in hopes of attracting those a little more well to do,
who would we willing to spend more of their leisure time and money there.
Prominent literary figures remarked positively of their visits
to Coney Island. Walt Whitman was inspired by his visit, accompanied by sixty of
his friends in celebration of the plans to build a new Brooklyn City Hall. He
wrote of the beautiful vistas he saw as he strolled along the beach. After a
time, Coney Island became quite popular, and other notable visitors came there
too. Herman Melville came in 1849. Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe visited
too. In 1850, statesmen John Calhoun, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster enjoyed
their time there. Even P.T. Barnum visited, in the company of songstress Jenny
photo, left: The toll gate beneath
the willows, on the Shell Road. [Trip to Coney Island.] ([1865?]-1919).
Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital Gallery.
With the success of the Pavilion at the western end of the
island and the various inns at Gravesend, it was shown that those of every class
could have a grand time there. However, A large problem that had to be overcome
was how to transport the increasing numbers of people from various parts of the
City to the various points of interest at Coney Island.
TRANSPORT TO CONEY
Advances in transportation would play an important part in the
development of Coney Island as well as other parts of Brooklyn. This transport
was offered by the "Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad," requiring one to
change cars at Prospect Park. Contrary to what you may think, these cars were
driven by horses, and the trip took two or three hours each way! In 1867, William Engeman purchased Brighton Beach, and
subsequently built Coney Island’s first ocean pier. In 1871, Charles Feltman
opened a restaurant and café; this is significant because he introduced (but did
not discover) the frankfurter (not named the "hot dog" until 1906!).
In the decade that followed the end of the Civil War, much
change occurred throughout the nation. A great deal of wealth created rapid
industrialization in urban areas, and New York City and Brooklyn were no
exception. With the industrialization came jobs and a need for large numbers of
workers. Thus came the large increase in population, including thousands of
immigrants that needed to find jobs. The workers that filled all these new jobs
needed a place to spend whatever leisure time they had. What better way to
recreate than to spend a day cooling off than a summer’s day at the beach? How
many places were there like this that were open to all classes of people, where
they could go for clean air, dining, dancing and bathing in the sea? Much of the
area’s development was paid for by railroad men and entrepreneurs savvy enough
to exploit this new interest in ocean bathing.
photo, left: A holiday crowd bound
for Coney Island, Ulmer Park and Bath Beach, 1899.
In 1876, fourteen years after horse-driven transportation was
first offered as a means of public transportation to Coney Island, steam-powered
locomotives were employed that would deposit travelers at the doorstep of a
fancy, full-service hotel. The Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad offered
rides that originated from various points in Brooklyn and the East River ferry
landing. This was done by way of streetcars that took passengers to Prospect
Park, where they would have to disembark their horse-drawn streetcars and board
the steam-powered trains. The very same year, the year of America’s centennial,
the Ocean Park Roadway (another toll road) opened, allowing for transportation
between Prospect Park and Coney Island. This displeased the property owners in
Coney Island, for now their area would be inundated by the teeming masses of fun
seekers from the City. Certainly by this time, Coney Island was becoming a very
popular seaside resort. Between 1876 and 1881, four railroad lines ran to Coney
Island and another large pier was built. In 1879, Coney Island had its first
aquarium, and a year later, the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack began its operation.
During this year, the Brighton Beach Race Track opened. The next year, the Surf
Theater, Coney Island’s first theater, made its debut. In its early days, Coney
Island also had beer gardens and gambling and concert saloons and, with all of
this, came pickpockets, thieves and scam artists.
Of course, with the increasing popularity of the area, more
people were seeking housing and business opportunities there, and with its
development came the opening of new streets, e.g. Coney Island in 1876, running
from Ocean Parkway to Coney Island Avenue, and Surf Avenue in 1879, which ran
from Brighton Beach to West Brighton.
Different areas of Coney Island attracted different crowds.
Manhattan Beach was developed by Austin Corbin, who hoped to attract the
wealthier folk from the surrounding area. He built an elegant resort. Brighton
Beach was built more for the middle class of Brooklyn. The poorer classes
congregated around West Brighton.
As more and more men, and even young working women, had more
free time, Coney Island increased in popularity.
Manhattan Beach Hotel. photo, right: Music Stand, Manhattan Beach.
[American views, Coney Island.] ([1865?]-1919). Courtesy of the New
York Public Library, Digital Gallery.
For those of you who were roller coaster enthusiasts, there were
plenty of roller coasters that operated there over the years. The first one
built in Coney Island was in 1884. A second one was transported from New
Orleans, and opened on the Iron Pier.
The "Loop-the-Loop" opened in 1901 and
"Drop the Dip" opened in 1906, but this one burned down when Coney Island had a
fire (there were a number of them) that burned thirty-five acres of structures
there a year later. It was subsequently rebuilt in 1908.
The "Thunderbolt" was
built in 1925 over the Kensington Hotel, but eventually closed in 1981.
the "Tornado" opened on the Bowery at Stillwell Avenue. The Tornado didn’t have a chance once the Cyclone Racer was unveiled.
The Tornado eventually was leveled by fire in 1977. Let’s also not forget this coaster that we are probably most familiar with, the
Cyclone, which opened in 1928 and is still going strong.
short videos of Coney Island.
photo, left: Transportation -
Horses - Carriages - Wagons - Coney Island [when horse carriages and
bicycles were popular mode of conveyance in Brooklyn] (1899?).