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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Coney Island History

Early 1900s

CONEY ISLAND HISTORY

"Coney Island is the Tom-Tom of America. Every nation has, and needs-and loves-its Tom-Tom. It has needs of orgiastic escape from respectability-that is, from the world of What-we-have-to-do into the world of What-we-would-like-to, from the world of duty that endureeth forever into a world of joy that is permitted for a moment."

- Richard Le Gallienne, 1905, Cosmopolitan Magazine

Rule

Many notice that most of the early coasters by Thompson, Alcoke and Hinkle were built at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Coney was chosen as a test site for many rides because it was the first mecca for American amusement parks and devices. I have included a short history of Coney here because it was the birthplace of the American amusement park, the modern roller coaster, the dark ride and even the hot dog!

Coney Island The Cyclone
The Cyclone roller coaster, still in operation today, is a standing landmark and reminder of Coney Island's amusement history. Enlarge Photo

New Yorkers started visiting Coney Island via a shell road during the 1830's and by the Civil War there were over a dozen hotels and bathhouses on the island.

During the 1870's Coney was divided in two areas. At the eastern end was Brighton Beach, where large hotels for New York's upper class went up. At the western end of the island prostitution and three card monty players were abundant. Men and women wore suits that covered much of their bodies, weighed several pounds when wet and pulled themselves along ropes through the water.

A corrupt friend of Tammany Hall, John Y. McKane, ran the island. He had an iron grip on Coney and nothing was erected without his approval (and often the appropriate kickback). McKane netted thousands of dollars by ignoring vice. He said, "Houses of prostitution are a necessity on Coney Island, and I don't plan to interfere with the gambling at Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. After all, this ain't no Sunday school." In 1894 McKane was imprisoned and the island exploded economically. The visiting working-class families spread out between the two ends of the island at West Brighton, the area where the amusement capitol of the world later sprung up.

In 1897 Captain Paul Boyton opened a collection of attractions called "Sea Lion Park." Boyton's small park was the first that utilized the idea of an amusement "park." Before, entrepreneurs had simply owned a few rides. Now, all of the rides were enclosed within walls, which allowed owners to keep out the prostitutes, gamblers and riff-raff.

Although the majority of people credit Boyton's park at Coney Island as the first amusement park, historian Stan Barker says that Boyton had a similar park, complete with chutes in Chicago. He claims that this park helped to jump-start the Coney Island growth and that Boyton revolutionized the industry on July 4th, 1894 when he opened Paul Boynton's Water Chutes-the world's first park.

Steeplechase Horse Race
The Steeplechase Horse Race ride was the signature attraction at Steeplechase Park. Enlarge Photo

In 1897 George C. Tilyou, a man who had grown up on Coney, opened Steeplechase Park. It had a signature ride, the Steeplechase Horse Race, which attracted thousands. This was an undulating steel track that featured eight wooden horses on which patrons rode around the park.

In 1903 Frederick Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy bought Sea Lion Park from Boyton and opened Luna Park. Their new fairyland was unlike anything anyone had seen. It featured over 250,000 electric lights and was hailed by one visitor as an "electric Eden."

Luna Park
Luna Park was illuminated at night with over 250,000 electric lights. Enlarge Photo

Luna was an overnight success and caught the attention pf William H. Reynolds, a local politician with a flair for the illegal. He built Dreamland Park in 1904. This park featured a set of rides that conveyed morals of the day to patrons. Rides like the Creation and Hell Gate preached to the visitors, while the Canals of Venice and Fighting Flames showed them places and events that sparked the imagination in a time when movies were just beginning. Dreamland only lasted until 1911 and was never as popular as the other two parks, but its one million lights completed a skyline more awe-inspiring than Manhattan.

Albert Bigelow Paine said, "Tall towers that had grown dim suddenly broke forth in electric outlines and gay rosettes of color, as the living spark of light traveled hither and thither, until the place was transformed into an enchanted garden, of such a sort as Aladdin had never dreamed."

In the world of coasters, Coney Island had some of the best and featured many firsts. As previously mentioned, the first economically successful roller coaster, the first full-circuit coaster and the first lift-hill were all pioneered here. Lina Beecher created The Flip Flap Railway and built it in Boyton's Sea Lion Park. It featured a circular loop that pulled up to twelve g's and had a habit of snapping rider's necks. There are conflicting dates as to when this coaster opened, some sources say as early as 1888, others dated the opening around 1895. Either way, the coaster is heralded as the first to successfully go upside down since the looping coaster in France's Frascati Garden.

Loop-the-Loop
Loop-the-Loop was one of the first looping roller coasters in the world when it opened in 1901. Enlarge Photo

Giant Racer
The Giant Racer opened in 1911 and operated until 1926 when it was torn down to make way for The Cyclone roller coaster. Enlarge Photo

The Cyclone First Drop
The world-famous Cyclone roller coaster opened at Coney Island in 1927. Enlarge Photo

Edwin Prescott's Loop-the-Loop was built at West 10th Street, Coney Island in 1901. The ride showcased engineering that greatly improved on the Flip Flap. The track was made of steel, the loop was larger, but most importantly it was an ellipse which pulled relatively few g's and provided a safe ride. Sadly, the public was more inclined to watch than ride. The Loop-the-Loop limped along until World War One, making money by charging people admission to the viewing area. Many more paid to watch than to ride and the coaster faded into bankruptcy.

There were over thirty coasters built at Coney from 1884 through the 1930's. One of the largest coasters, The Giant Racer, was built in 1911. It had a beautiful whitewashed structure and was one of the largest coasters built at the time. To increase revenue the coaster was placed upon rollers in 1916 and moved closer to Surf Avenue. The Giant Racer was torn down in 1926 to make way for what would become one of the most famous coasters in history, the Coney Island Cyclone.

Today, the Cyclone is the yardstick by which many other coasters are measured. It had steep drops, plenty of airtime, lateral g's and only a lapbar to hold passengers in. The ride was designed by Vernon Keenan, built by the Harry C. Baker Company and the National Bridge Company (which helped with the construction of the iron skeleton). The space on which the Cyclone was built was located at Surf Avenue and West End Street and owned by Jack & Irving Rosenthal. Opening six weeks late at a cost of $100,000, the Cyclone was arguably the most successful ride to be erected at Coney.

The Rosenthal brothers bought Palisades Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1934 and devoted most of their time to its success. They hired Chris Feucht, who had designed the Drop the Dips coaster, to manage the Cyclone. Feucht gave the Cyclone a lot of care and helped to turn it into the ride we still know it today.

The Drop the Dips was built at Coney Island by Christopher Feucht, taken from a design he saw in the office of his dentist, Dr. Welcome Mosely. Feucht was a carpenter and extremely intrigued by the steep drops and sharp curves found on the model.

The Drop the Dips opened on June 6, 1907 and gave a ride that raised the thrill factor and terrified many. But unlike the Loop-the-Loop this coaster was immensely successful and had many repeat riders. Feucht was never content with the ride that was first built. He stayed on as the coaster's caretaker and was constantly tweaking, re-working and re-tracking the ride so that the coaster only got better as time went by. Besides the first "modern" coaster, we have something even more important to thank Feucht for- the lap bar. He was the first coaster operator that installed something more in his cars than a simple chain or strap to restrain riders.

Thunderbolt Roller Coaster
The Thunderbolt stood at Coney Island until the fall of 2000 when it was demolished, leaving us with one less John Miller roller coaster. Enlarge Photo

The other two famous coasters at Coney Island were the 1925 Thunderbolt, designed by John Miller and the Tornado, built by the Thomson Company under the leadership of Frank Darling in 1926. The Thunderbolt was a very wild ride, but because it lived down the street from the Cyclone, the coaster was often overshadowed.

The Thunderbolt was a wooden-tracked coaster with a steel structure and featured a double up that had wonderful airtime. It was also a groundbreaking roller coaster, because it appears to have been the first to utilize a steel structure. The coaster had a cameo in the Woody Allen film "Annie Hall" and was sadly torn down on November 17, 2000. It closed in 1983 and stood idle until it met the wrecking ball seventeen years later.

The Wonder Wheel, Coney Island New York
The Wonder Wheel at Deno's Wonderland Park is another Coney Island landmark still in operation today. Enlarge Photo

The Tornado was a beautiful, twisting, Prior & Church coaster that burned down in 1977 and hurt the already struggling amusement area. The coaster had a tower built into the middle of the layout and inspired another legend. Many sources have claimed that LaMarcus Thompson designed many of his rides from the tower...even though he died seven years before it was erected.

Coney Island will forever be remembered as the most influential amusement area in the United States. Guy Wetmore Caryl wonderfully described the lure of Coney that still exists today. "The brazen voice of the island begins to beat upon the eardrums like the pulse of fever, the leaping horses and flying cars are metamorphosed into the agile demons of delirium. And through the doorways of endless concert halls and drinking places one gets glimpses of faces that follow and haunt like the endless phantoms of a dream."

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