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The Ups and Downs of America's First Amusement Park

A Century of Screams: The History of the Roller Coaster

Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest




Neda checks out some of the rides
On a sunny summer Saturday in 1920, anybody in New York City with a nickel to spare headed to Coney Island. Its fairground attractions, restaurants, amusement parks and beaches lured the young and old, rich and poor. It was the place to see and be seen - a magnet for picnics and excursions, a mecca of all things tacky and gaudy. In short, it was the world's largest and most extravagant playground!


Virgin Megastore Sucks! / While in Times Square, New York, I decided to get crackin' on my Coney Island story in the Virgin Megastore Café...

Sadly, history hasn't been too kind to Coney Island. From its heyday in the early 1900s, it is now abandoned and in disrepair. I'd heard the place was badly in need of a paint job, but when Neda and I got out of the subway, it still hit me hard. Gone were the glamour and wealth - what we saw instead were boarded-up restaurants, broken down amusement rides and littered streets.

To be fair, we were visiting in the middle of winter. Even back in the '20s, Coney Island wasn't very impressive in February. That's when park owners and food vendors readied themselves for "the season" - the fourteen weeks of the summer that could make or break them, depending on the weather. As author Edo McCullough explains, "At Coney the weather has always been a matter of driving urgency…If there are three rainy weekends, the concessionaires may merely break even; they may go bankrupt if there are five."

Thousands of tourists make their way to Coney Island Beach every year
Indeed, the pleasant weather is what first made Coney famous. In the summer of 1876, it became crowded with tourists from the Midwest who, drawn east by the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, had wandered down for their first glimpse of a real, live ocean. Once they got there, though, they didn't know what to do.

"The idea of bathing in an ocean was so strange and unlikely to the first tourists that they sought advice as to how they should behave and what they should wear…from a physician. They were apprehensive, for there were those who warned that sea bathing might 'leach away the essential salts of the body.'"

Eventually, people figured it out - they started swimming, playing and frolicking on the beach. From then on, Coney Island was HOT! Its popularity coincided with the development of railroad networks and new attitudes regarding work. More people earned "leisure time" (in other words, they got weekends off) and disposable income, which enabled them to come to Coney.

The famous Cyclone roller coaster is the world's oldest
And what exactly did they do when they arrived? Well, they visited one of the three giant amusement parks that flanked Surf Avenue, the Island's main drag: Luna Park, Steeplechase and Dreamland. They also frequented the sideshows found at every corner. The most thrilling amusement rides, attractions, shows and performers in the world were found in Coney Island - there was something for everyone! (Did you know that the roller coaster was invented here back in 1884?)

Steeplechase Park, which suffered from a fire in 1907, was rebuilt and reopened with a bang. Its owner, George C. Tilyou, constructed the "Pavilion of Fun," which became the largest steel and glass structure of its time - 2.83 acres of enclosed space! Its sole purpose was to ensure the amusement park would never again have to close early on a rainy day. He also built the world's largest outdoor saltwater swimming pool - 90 feet wide and 270 feet long!

The parachute tower is the only structure that remains from the old Steeplechase Park
Steeplechase's extravaganza, however, was upped by Dreamland, Coney Island's park jewel. It had cost $3.5 million to build and could accommodate 250,000 people! It used more than one million light bulbs at a weekly cost of $4,000. And it even had its own theme song - the waltz "Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland" became a perennial favorite for many generations. Sadly, Dreamland burned down completely in 1911 in a fire that started in one of its rides. It was never rebuilt.

But the demise of Dreamland didn't keep people away. One of the most popular stops was Feltman's Beer Hall and Restaurant, a place where good food was sold at reasonable prices, German bands entertained the diners and those who wished to could try the latest dance moves in the ballroom. The owner, Charles Feltman, had struck gold when he created the hotdog in 1867 (another one of Coney Island's "inventions"), although it wasn't called that until later. Thanks to the hotdog, Feltman's business grew by leaps and bounds. During the first decade of the 1900s, he served 900,000 patrons a year and by the second decade, his customers numbered 2 million a year!

The famous Nathan's hotdogs cost a lot more than 5c nowadays!
Feltman's success inspired others, including a former employee named Nathan Handwerker. In 1916, he opened the now-famous "Nathan's," selling hotdogs for five cents, half the price of Feltman's. Despite the 50% difference in price, Nathan's nearly went broke in its first three years because people were suspicious of his hotdogs - how could something so cheap be safe? On the verge of bankruptcy, a miracle happened. The subway system was extended and the boardwalk was built…and guess which restaurant was located strategically between the two? Nathan's, of course! Throngs of tourists were forced to walk right in front of it on their way to and from the beach, and thousands were tempted to stop.

We're 2 months early, Neda!  Nothing's open 'til April!
Another crowd-pleasing attraction was the Premature Baby Incubators show, started by Dr. Martin Arthur Couney in 1903. In fact, it was the longest running sideshow in the history of Coney Island! As the name suggests, the show consisted of - what else? - live premature babies in incubators! Yes, it sounds crazy, but according to McCullough, it was a reputable show, devoted to developing technology to save premature babies. In fact, until 1943 (when the show closed down), out of 8,500 babies displayed and cared for, 7,500 were saved. Dr. Couney charged 25 cents admissions fee, and he noticed that many of his visitors came back again and again. "One Coney Island resident turned up once a week for 37 seasons."

Although the Premature Baby Incubators show was immensely popular, it lacked one very typical Coney Island feature: the barker. Outside of every sideshow, animal act, carnival ride and game along Surf Avenue stood a man shouting - or barking - anything he could think of to attract customers. Barkers used lungs, megaphones, and later, PA systems. They competed with each other and tried to come up with catchy things to say. In the 1890s, when the famous magician Harry Houdini was performing in Coney, his barker would shout:

Yum!  My first Nathan's hotdog is a Kodak moment!
"The greatest novelty mystery act in the world! How can you believe it, even when you see it happening before your eyes? Just think this over, ladies and gentlemen, the time consumed in making the change from bag to trunk is one! two! only three seconds! We challenge the world to produce an attraction with greater Mystery, Speed or Dexterity!"

How could anyone resist?

Daphne hangs out on Coney's boardwalk
Unfortunately, the Coney Island of today is anything but irresistible. All that is left of the Coney Island depicted in McCullough's book is Nathan's, but even it looks a bit run-down. (The hotdog, however, was really good!)

What happened? Well, for one, people started to drive. After World War II, cars (and gas) became more affordable, so instead of taking the subway to Coney, families preferred to explore Long Island and other areas. The traffic problems and lack of parking in Coney didn't help things one bit. After getting stuck in four-hour jams and paying exorbitant parking fees, New Yorkers decided they'd had enough. As attendance dropped, so did the upkeep of rides and attractions. Businesses sold out or went out of business. Feltman's was sold in 1946, while dual fires in 1944 and 1946 ruined Luna Park. The last park to close, Steeplechase, did so in 1964.

Brrr!  It's not what we wear normally to the beach…but it's so cold!
So that's the story. Perhaps I'm being too hard on poor old Coney Island. Despite the cold wind, the day Neda and I visited was beautiful - the ocean glistened and the sand blew gently across the boardwalk. In fact, walking along the boardwalk, away from the creepy-looking amusement arcades and tacky tourist shops, was really peaceful and nice. The Atlantic beckoned and if the probability of catching hypothermia weren't so high, I would've dived in headfirst.

Perhaps in time tourists will come back to Coney Island, not for the arcades or the hotdogs, but for the same reason they first started coming years and years ago: the ocean. After all, it's priceless, fun, it never goes out of season and most importantly, it will be around long after the neon lights are turned off and the carrousels stop turning.


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


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