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Coney Island’s Early Years

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January 23, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Lottie, the fictional main character in my next book, spent her teenage years at Coney Island, trying to escape the pain of her life at home. At first working to lure men into the seedy “gyp joints” along the boardwalks, she later took a job at Luna Park. When she escaped New York in 1905, she ended up in Denver, at Elitch’s Gardens. She met Mary Elitch Long, who visited the Coney Island Parks each winter and drew inspiration from them. This week, I thought I’d share a bit more about Coney Island and its early history.

Coney Island is the best-known amusement park area in the United States. Home to multiple parks, its origins were as a resort area and beach vacation destination. Coney Island itself is a five-mile stretch of land near Manhattan. The area was discovered in 1609 by Henry Hudson and was a vacant wasteland for years. In 1829, the Coney Island Hotel was built, followed by the Brighton, Manhattan Beach, and Oriental Hotels, each more lavish than the last.

Coney Island soon attracted vacationers. After the Civil War, many were drawn to the new saltwater bathing activities. Socialites discovered the east end and it became more than just a family spot. Hotels vied for business by adding their own ferry lines to transport visitors from Manhattan. Eventually, developers focused on attracting visitors to the west end (Norton Point) and drew those from the middle and working classes.

Over the years, lavish hotels were added to the east end while adult entertainment establishments such as saloons, shooting galleries, horse racing, gambling houses, and dance halls sprang up on the west end. The attractions on Norton Point soon developed a reputation for drawing troublemakers and violence. In 1881, John McKane bought land in the center and began development there, focusing entirely on building adult pleasure activities.

Entrepreneurs took notice of the crowds and, in the 1880s and 1890s, other businesses began to spring up. Specialized hotels, such as the Elephant Hotel (standing 122 feet high and shaped like an elephant) were built. Charles Feltman began selling “red hot dogs” from mobile stands. The Bowery alley became home to variety shows, dime museums, shooting galleries, burlesque theatres, and other attractions. Single adults–men and women–flocked to the area. The rise of women visitors began to change the flavor of attractions. Coney Island was now neither a family resort nor just a seedy adult-focused spot but an entertainment hub that would soon explode into the nation’s first cluster of amusement parks.

After attending the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, George Tilyou was inspired to expand attractions at Coney Island. Particularly drawn to the Ferris Wheel, he attempted to buy it for Coney Island. When Ferris refused , he had his own Ferris Wheel made, then added Double-dip Chutes and an Aerial Slide, all situated near the hotels. Competitor Paul Boyton opened Sea Lion Park in 1895, the first park to fence in attractions and charge an entrance fee. Boyton grouped attractions and added his signature ride, Chute the Shoots. Tilyou then bought a ride with wooden horses that raced around a track and opened Steeplechase Park in 1897. Both parks continued to add rides and expand in attempts to out-do one another.

These earliest rides were tame by today’s standards but new and different for the time. The Ferris Wheel took riders high into the air while the Chutes plunged cars down in incline and into a pool of water (like today’s splash rides). Both the heights and the movement drew rides looking for escape from their work-a-day routines.

Popular attractions at Steeplechase Park included the Wedding Ring and the Barrel of Love, both of which threw couples off balance and tossed them together. The Barrel of Love was simple but effective—a revolving 15-foot-long wood cylinder. The park also featured the Dew Drop (a parachute ride from a 50 foot tower that raised women’s skirts), Earthquake Float, the Dancing Floor, and the Human Roulette Wheel. Tilyou added a miniature train, a saltwater swimming pool, the largest ballroom in New York City, and a pedestrian arcade. In 1902, he opened a science-fiction ride called A Trip to the Moon, designed by Frederic Thompson.

In 1903, ride architect Frederic Thompson decided to open his own park on Coney Island. He and partner Skip Dundy envisioned a place where people could escape to a make-believe world. Luna Park suggested many including a Far-Eastern temple. It also included Hindoo, Old German, Japanese, and Irish villages as well as the Philippine Islands and Venice. The park was lit for nighttime attendees. They included large thrill rides such as one of earliest roller coasters (nothing like today’s roller coasters but incredibly thrilling for the time), A Trip to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The park spread over 38 acres, featured 28 rides, 2054 towers and minarets, and 1,450,000 lights. Over the years, more and more rides were added as well as additional “worlds”.

Competition on Coney Island was huge. With the wild success of Steeplechase and Luna Parks, another park was soon proposed. Dreamland opened in 1904 with a futuristic theme. The new park cost more than two million dollars, more than three times the amount spent on Luna Park. Dreamland could host more than 100,000 attendees and had the grandest dance hall in the state of New York. It featured psychological morality plays such as Creation and End of the World in an attempt to attract those who complained about the lack of morals at the other parks. While thousands were initially drawn to Dreamland, the moralistic tone failed to hold them and they returned their business to Luna and Steeplechase, both of which continued to pursue bigger and better attractions and large-scale thrill rides.

The Coney Island parks continued to grow. Over the years, the thrills were bigger and the rides more imaginative. The lights were brighter, the attractions more varied, and the crowds larger. Today, Coney Island is recognized as the model upon which most other parks were based. Certainly, Mary Elitch Long drew on them. She loved thrill rides and often based her purchases on those she experienced during her annual visit to New York City (where she also selected plays and casts for the Elitch Gardens theatre).

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Please join me next week as I take a deeper look at the animals of the early Elitch Gardens, their antics and special relationship with Mary Elitch Long. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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