- Historic Sites
The Master Showman Of Coney Island
On the theory that the greatest show is people, George Tilyou turned a rich man’s resort into a playground for the masses
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
In 1893 he married Mary O’Donnell and took oft on his honeymoon to see the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. There, on the Midway Plaisance, he was captivated by the wondrous invention of G. VV. G. Ferris. He looked about, noting how jaws dropped and eyes popped as people looked on this first Ferris Wheel, and he coveted it. The time was propitious; back on Coney, he knew, McKane was in trouble, perhaps at last on the skids. He was too late to buy the monstrous toy; it was already promised to the St. Louis Fair for delivery in 1904. But he could have a more modest wheel built.
The Ferris Wheel was 250 feet in diameter; each of its 36 cars accommodated Go passengers. Tilyou borrowed money and ordered for delivery in the spring of 1894 a wheel 125 feet in diameter, with 12 cars carrying 18 passengers apiece. He rented some land between Surf Avenue and the ocean and put up a sign that unblushingly announced: ON THIS SITE WILL BE ERECTED THE WORLD’S LARGEST’ FERRIS WHEEL . On the strength of this whopper he sold enough concession space to make payment on delivery. FIe studded his plaything with hundreds of incandescent lamps; it was the Island’s first big, glittering attraction, and its owner was making money before it had been in operation half-a-hundred days.
By that time his old enemy McKane was in Sing Sing, Coney Island was part of Brooklyn, and decent folk were once again Hocking to the beach by the scores of thousands on every summer week end. Tilyou decided to branch out. He had his Aerial Slide; he had his Ferris Wheel; he imported a something called the Intramural Bicycle Railway; he built another ride called Double Dip Chutes. But these were scattered all over Coney. It might never have occurred to Tilyou to group them all in one place and assist them to multiply had it not been lor the arrival on Coney of Captain Paul Hoyton, the first frogman and an international celebrity who had swum across the English Channel in an inflated rubber suit. At Coney Hoyton had opened Sea Lion Park—the first outdoor amusement park in the world—in time lor the Fourth of July week end in 1895. Here his stellar attraction was the Shoot-the-Chutes. an aquatic toboggan slide in Hatbottomed boats; but it was the idea of a park enclosed by a fence, with admission charged at the gate, that impressed George Tilvou.
Tilyou cast about for the one sure-fire device that would do for him what the Shoot-the-Chutes had done for Boyton. The most popular sport of the time was, by all odds, horse racing: for six months a year Coney was crowded with people who had spent the afternoon at the races at Gravesend Bay or Sheepshead May or Brighton Beach. When Tilyou heard of a British invention—a mechanical racecourse—he knew he had found what he needed.
He was obliged to tinker with it, to develop and improve it for his own purposes, but in time for the season of 1897 he opened Steeplechase Park on a plot slightly larger than fifteen acres. (Tilyou never said fifteen acres: he preferred to say 655,000 square feet. His sons, or their press agents, have gradually increased the size of the park. In 1922 his oldest son, the late Edward Tilyou, admitted that the daim of twenty-one acres was an exaggeration. “But who,” lie asked reasonably, “would ever think that the number twentyone had been made up?” Today the same plot measures twenty-five acres, at least in the park’s promotion material. As Milton Berger, the park’s current press agent, says: “I inherited the figure, and I never did learn how to count acres.”)
The premier attraction at the park, then as now, was the Steeplechase Horses: an undulant, curving metal track over which wooden (they are now metal) horses ran on wheels, coursing down by gravity and soaring up by momentum, in tolerable imitation of a real horse race.
Nineteen hundred and one was the year of the PanAmerican Exposition at Buffalo, and Tilyou went on a scouting trip. As eight years before the Kerris Wheel had dominated the Chicago Fair, at Buffalo the eyecatcher was a cyclorama, A Trip to the Moon. It was a spectacular illusion, the creation of a young architectural student, Frederic W. Thompson. He had designed it late one night when Inniger kept him awake, lie had subsequently formed a partnership with Elmer (Skip) Dundy, and by 1901 it appeared that he would never be hungry again. At Buffalo he was coining money faster than a machine could have done.
Besides A Trip to the Moon. Thompson and Dundy bad another cyclorama called Darkness and Dawn, a Giant See-Saw, and a half-dozen other lucrative conccessions. If they had a problem, it was how they would fill their time from 1901 in Buffalo to 1904 in St. Louis. Tilyou solved it for them. He offered them a minimum guarantee against 60 per cent of the net if they would bring A Trip to the Moon to Steeplechase. They came, and they brought their Giant See-Saw as well.
The season of 1902 was one of the wettest in Coney’s history. Old-timers claim that of the 92 days in June, July, and August rain fell on 70. Business at Boyton’s Sea Lion Park was macabre. But despite the gruesome weather, Steeplechase, thanks to A Trip to the Moon, did handsomely. It did so well, in fact, that Tilyou’s new partners, Thompson and Dundy, decided to build a park of their own so grand it would drive Steeplechase out of business.