February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Today the place is one great migraine headache of noise and neon, and it takes a very observant visitor indeed to pick out the few pathetic remnants of the old glory: a scrap of decorative wrought iron on top of a building, a carved wooden allegory in the clammy depths of an ancient tunnel of love. But in its day Coney Island was the incarnation, in wood lath and plaster, of all that Americans found grandiose, compelling, and titillating. Here they could see more electric lights than some entire midwestern states could claim, admire the graceful complications of the Doge’s Palace (cleverly reconstructed in pressed tin), watch long dresses whisked up around their owners’ calves by giant seesaws and scenic railways, and (in a prescient glimpse at what the new century held in store) take a Trip to Mars by Aeroplane. “If Paris is France,” wrote George C. Tilyou in the 1880’s, “then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.” Tilyou was just seventeen when he made this jaunty assertion in his own newspaper, Tilyou’s Telephone . His father owned a bathing pavilion on the five-mile-long island at the southern end of Brooklyn. By that time Coney had passed from being a windy, scrubby wilderness with superb, empty beaches, through a violent era of gin mills and gambling hells. For a while it had been a sedate spa for the rich, who summered there in big wooden hotels. Now it was on the verge of another spurt of growth, one that would make it the most famous seaside resort in the world, presided over by three huge amusement parks. Tilyou built the first of these parks in 1897, a cluster of amusements ringed round by-iron tracks on which wooden horses swooped and dipped in a simulated race. Steeplechase Park rose from the ashes of a series of fires, grander each time, until finally it covered fifteen acres centering around a five-acre hardwood floor’under a canopy of glass and steel. Steeplechase was an instant success, and for a while the Steeplechase Man with his horrible death-rictus grin was familiar to all Americans. Across Surf Avenue—Coney’s main drag—Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy, two consummate showmen, built Luna Park, a great confection of plaster minarets containing such thrills as a trip to the moon, an undersea ride, and chute-the-chutes that sent riders careering down an incline into an ersatz lagoon. In 1903 a bunch of New York politicians, envious of Luna’s success, decided to go Thompson and Dundy one better. By dint of some diligent graft they got hold of a stretch of oceanfront property, and on it they built Dreamland. The spires of Dreamland were painted virgin white and picked out by one million electric lights. The park, its promoters boasted, was bigger, brighter, and more refined than Luna. But nobody had much use for a refined amusement park. Dreamland might feature a spectacular Biblical tableau entitled “Creation,” but Luna offered seamier diversions (once they even electrocuted an elephant), and the people went there. After Dreamland burned in the great fire of 1911 (opposite, above right), it was never rebuilt. Other attractions flourished in the shadow of the parks. The leafy restaurant on the opposite page was run for years by Charles Feltman, who deserves the tributes of a grateful nation as the true inventor of the hot dog. Balmer’s burned with Dreamland, but the ghastly Flip-Flap died a natural death; people were scared to ride it. L. A. Thompson, owner of the Electric Scenic Railway, built the world’s first roller coaster on Coney in 1884—for years showmen referred to him as “the inventor of gravity.” As the century progressed Americans became accustomed to more violent and exciting diversions than any Luna or Steeplechase could mount. The parks began to decay. During the Depression, Luna was offering cockroach races where a generation before elephants had paraded. A final fire put the park out of its misery in 1949. Steeplechase held on until the 1960'$ before making way for the predictable parking lot. But among the souvenirs of those vanished summers these post cards survive; with their bright, spurious colors and naive sense of excitement they tell the story of Coney Island truly and eloquently.