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CONEY ISLAND: Forty Years as the Carnival Capital

By Laurence Aurbach Jr.
April 2, 1999

Coney Island was blessed by a happy accident of geography. It was close enough to Manhattan to afford easy access. Yet it was far enough away to function as an escape from urban routines, regimentation, and unpleasant physical environments. Walt Whitman, who wrote the ode to urban excitement Manahatta, enjoyed "the long bare unfrequented shore I had all to myself…and where I loved after bathing to race up and down."(1)

Coney Island became a vacation destination in 1829 when a crushed-shell road was constructed along with the Coney Island House hotel. Through the 1830s and 40s up to 300 visitors per day arrived by carriage. Churchgoers in Brooklyn and Coney Island condemned the vacationers’ Sunday activities as impious. The offending activities included travel for leisure and the eating of hot meals (local steamed clams were a popular delicacy). Patronage increased in 1847 when steamer service to the west point cut the travel time from half a day to two hours. The steamer fare was fifty cents, accessible to the middle class.

Along with respectable day-trippers, the area attracted political gangs that had a penchant for drinking, gambling and brawling. The lawlessness ballooned when Mike "Thunderbolt" Norton, a New York ward heeler, opened his hotel during the Civil War. Norton catered to the white-collar swindlers and politicians who sustained Tammany Hall’s corruption. Prostitutes, con artists and thugs added to the rough crowd and soon reports of bodies washed up in the surf became common.

Although Norton and his confederates prospered from Tammany’s graft, the reputation of west Coney Island (now called Norton Point) sank to an all-time low. Respectable people avoided the area and headed instead to the burgeoning collection of attractions at the island’s center. This center area near the original Coney Island House was known as West Brighton Beach. It was here that developer Andrew Culver installed the 300-ft. Iron Tower and the Government Building (used as a rail depot) in 1877. Both had been acquired from the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, beginning a tradition of shipping remnants from World’s Fairs to Coney Island.

Other entrepreneurs were cashing in on the big crowds with food and attractions. A successful example was Charles Feltman, who in 1867 invented the hot dog to sell from his vending cart. By 1878 he had expanded his operations to a hotel, ballroom, pier, games and 1,200 bath lockers. At that point Coney Island was experiencing peak crowds of 60,000 per day; 50,000 recreated at West Brighton.(2) Whitman’s "long bare unfrequented shore" was no longer, but the unrestrained exuberance he felt there continued unabated.

The wealthier elite stayed at the large self-contained hotel complexes that were constructed at the east end of the island in the 1870s. Each hotel complex had its own rail line or steamship connection, so class segregation could be maintained to a degree. While the number of guests patronizing these hotels was small, their influence was large. The wealthy tourists had capital, business experience and political connections that allowed them to develop projects if a big profit seemed likely.

Enter John McKane, Coney’s homegrown boss. McKane embodied the moral ambiguity which was to characterize Coney Island. He began as a carpenter and a cop, and was a teetotaler, Episcopal Sunday school teacher and leader in his Oddfellows Lodge. He rose through the ranks of political influence by skimming funds from crooked land deals and cultivating relationships with Norton’s gang. After Norton died and Tammany was disbanded, McKane gained control of the police force and consolidated his power over the island in 1881.

As an elected Supervisor, McKane was able to eliminate the worst of Coney’s violent crime. He kept the streets reasonably safe, and tracked pickpockets with zeal. However, he believed that anyone who entered a gambling joint or cathouse deserved whatever treatment they received. Customers were routinely cheated, conned or simply knocked out and robbed. McKane took no salary but instead gathered protection fees from vendors and hotels. Most Coney businessmen appreciated the blind eye McKane turned to blue laws, prostitution and gambling. It was the freedom to gamble that allowed the rise of horse racing, which in turn launched Coney into national prominence.

Several wealthy vacationers noticed the popularity of impromptu horse races along the main street that lay between West Brighton and the exclusive hotels. Three tracks were built in the 1880s and with continuous racing throughout the summer, the island became a paradise for fans. Major races drawing national competitors were organized, including the Futurity and the Preakness. Instant results were telegraphed to Manhattan saloons. For thirty years, Coney remained the horse racing capital of the country.(3)

With renown came increasing protests and moral censure. Preachers and social reformers focused on specific practices they held responsible for the island’s debauchery. Gambling was the target of numerous suits in the 1880s, but prosecutors never could find a jury willing to convict. In the 1890s attention turned to Coney’s tremendous alcohol business. Temperance crusaders and legislative efforts had little effect. Businesses subverted the rules and tourists shrugged them off in pursuit of a good time. The police were simply outnumbered and overwhelmed: on a peak day in 1900, half of all intoxication arrests in the New York metro area were made at Coney Island.(4)

Groups like the Law and Order Society and the Salvation Army also decried the prevalence of prostitution at the resort. They brought pressure to bear, but again no juries willing to convict could be found. A small settlement house was established in the late 1890’s to help the most wayward and amateur of "fallen women," who often were luckless or confused runaways. The reformers’ lurid condemnations generated greater curiosity: "If this advertising goes on, Coney Island won’t be big enough to hold the crowds that want to go there," said the Mayor of Brooklyn.(5)

Americans have always been a restless, mobile people, but at Coney the fascination with speed and movement truly flowered. America’s first (and very tame) roller coaster was built in 1884, modeled on coal mining cars. An 1887 variation introduced the "tunnel of love" concept: darkened grottoes where young couples could sneak a hug or kiss free from chaperonage. The notion of rides as a mechanical aid to courtship was an enduring one at Coney Island.

Just eight years later, the state of the art in thrill rides was a loop-the-loop coaster called the Flip-Flap. A real daredevil attraction, it was not too successful. It whiplashed riders’ necks, and most tourists were scared to try it. People wanted unusual thrills that were safe enough to be fun. One newspaper commented, "The thing that is furthest from reason, that laughs loudest at the laws of gravitation, is the thing that takes with the Coney Island crowd…"(6)

The year 1893 was a watershed. Supervisor McKane was convicted of vote tampering and sentenced to six years in Sing-Sing. Probably the poor economic climate contributed to his removal; some speculated that a more wholesome social environment would draw bigger crowds. Following his departure gambling continued but swindles and prostitution were discouraged. Additionally, control of real estate deals was loosened, clearing the way for a wave of entrepreneurs.

New York received an enormous influx of immigrants at the turn of the century. Between 1880 and 1910, population increased 250%. The metropolis became a city of the young, with 60% of the population under age thirty.(7) There were massive profits to be made by those with the wiles to exploit this new market.

George Tilyou was a thirty-one year old real estate broker when he visited the Chicago Fair’s Midway Plaisance. He was a born salesman, son of a Coney restaurateur and founder of Tilyou’s Surf vaudeville theater. The Fair had numerous innovations that were applicable to the amusement business such as electric boats, blazing spotlights and a moving sidewalk. Of particular import was the Fair’s well-planned, efficient circulation and infrastructure for handling huge crowds. The Midway inspired Tilyou; he attempted to buy the Ferris Wheel on the spot. Failing that, he erected a smaller wheel which became Coney’s top-grossing attraction in the 1890s.

Sea Lion Park opened in 1895 and was the first of its kind. Its walls kept out the most objectionable characters who roamed Coney’s streets. Middle-class vacationers with spending money were able to play with a greater sense of ease and safety inside the gated zone. Tilyou thought this was a winning concept. He constructed his own enclosed park and named it Steeplechase in honor of Coney’s most famous industry.

Fred Thompson was another whose World Fair experiences would alter Coney Island. He was a draftsman who caught the Fair mania while running a machinery exhibit at the Chicago Fair. Over the next eight years, he toured the circuit of Fairs and Expositions, designing ever more elaborate and successful attractions. From the Blue Grotto to the Trip to the Moon, Thompson used new technologies in innovative ways. Edison talking cylinders, electric dynamos, lights, fans and fountains helped to materialize fantasies of adventurous travel. In 1901, Tilyou hired Thompson and his business partner to reconstruct Trip to the Moon at Steeplechase Park.

Steeplechase had ticket pricing that made it affordable for the working class. Factory laborers saved all summer to go on Coney excursions arranged by their unions or clubs. The park specialized in funhouse attractions where disorientation produced gaiety. For example, the Barrel of Love was a 15-ft. revolving cylinder that toppled strangers of the opposite sex into each other. The Wedding Ring was a giant circular swing that made riders hang on to each other to stay aboard. Such rides were advertised as courtship devices, creating abrupt human contact in violation of Victorian etiquette.

Other attractions were more like participatory vaudeville. In the Human Zoo, patrons descended a spiral staircase and found themselves in a cage, where they were offered peanuts and monkey talk. After being released, they could join the audience and laugh at the next rube. Tilyou’s most outrageous practical joke was the California Red Bats. Visitors climbed a flight of steps to find a box containing broken bricks, known as brickbats. A sign asked visitors not to reveal the secret; the attraction earned $30,000 in one season.

Fred Thompson and his partner soon split from Tilyou and formed Luna Park in 1903. The very name evoked otherworldly realms, and the architecture buttressed the illusion like a vast stage set. At the park’s creative height in 1907, twelve hundred Turkish-looking towers were outlined by 1.3 million lights. Rejecting Beaux-Arts, Thompson said:

I have eliminated all classical conventional forms…and taken a sort of free renaissance and Oriental type for my model, using spires and minarets wherever I could, in order to get the restive, joyous effect to be derived always from the graceful lines given in this style of architecture…[it] is wonderfully pleasing to thousands of eyes heartily tired of the brick, mortar and stone of the Great City.(8)

Luna’s thrill rides brought to life the "scientific romances" of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea visitors traveled by submarine to the North Pole where real polar bears walked on icebergs created by a refrigeration plant. Dragon’s Gorge was the island’s fastest indoor ride. Trip to the Moon alone had 4.25 million customers over its five-year run.

Disaster and battle shows were a specialty of Luna Park and over a dozen different ones premiered between 1903-10. A common theme was the assaulting of ports and cities. The War of the Worlds had an allied European navy attacking New York harbor and an American fleet mounting the defense. In The Kansas Cyclone a twister decimated a town (it is unknown if Toto was included). In order to purge cities of their social ills, many contemporary utopian stories and schemes insisted that cities be rebuilt entirely.(9) Thompson may have been tapping into this Zeitgeist with his disaster theater, modeling the thrill of destruction within his zone of technological fantasy.

Luna Park was fabulously successful and a group of politician-speculators was quick to organize competition. Led by former State Senator William Reynolds, this group built Dreamland in 1904. The park’s orderly, Neoclassical design signaled its underlying purpose: to meld the grandiosity and reform impulse of the White City with the profitability and amusement orientation of Coney’s attractions.

Although Dreamland copied many of its competitors’ features, it had unique morality plays. The Orient Theater reenacted "The Feast of Belshazzar and the Destruction of Babylon." The End of the World dramatized the Book of Revelation and featured the angel Gabriel blowing the Trumpet of Doom as sinners fell into a red pit. "Creation" took its riders to the birth of the universe in 4,000 BC. The park’s ticket-takers were dressed in college gowns and mortarboard caps.

Dreamland was never as successful as the other parks; its owners had little feel for popular taste. Interest picked up when the park expanded its displays of midgets, freaks and exotic foreigners. These oddities made the diverse crowd of European-American fairgoers look normal by comparison. Technology exhibits were also well attended. Baby incubators, a research dirigible, and the park’s own electricity generator (resplendent in colored enamel and gold, attended by a white-gloved college graduate) drew crowds.

When Dreamland was destroyed by fire in 1911 the owners declined to rebuild, leaving others to fill the space. Coney Island regularly experienced major fires, and at least a few acres were rebuilt about once every three years. In addition, roads and property boundaries changed frequently, forcing businesses to relocate. In 1888, the Brighton Beach Hotel was moved by 120 flatcars to a spot 600 feet inland of the advancing beachfront. The Drop the Dips ride, built in 1907, was the first modern high-speed roller coaster. It was relocated in 1915 because of a rent increase, and again in 1924.

Coney was a remarkably resilient institution. Numerous deaths by drowning and by malfunctioning rides failed to dampen demand. However, social reformers finally made inroads to the island’s guilty pleasures. In 1910 the racetracks folded, after owners decided not to battle the state legislature. Gambling and prostitution fell off but reformers began attacking public indecency on the beaches, such as topless male bathers. Coney was also hurt by the rise of movies, which were cheaper and more convincing spectacles than any ride. The island’s most creative era ended as its name passed into worldwide legend. A Captain of the U.S. Army investigating drunkenness remarked, "Day and night you’ll see men in uniform on the beach and taking in the varied amusements of the place, for you know Coney Island’s fame is not only country-wide but international."(10)

Even as Coney’s attractions sank into routinized formula, attendance increased dramatically. Peak daily visits rose from 100,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in the teens; after the subway opened in 1919 peak visits topped one million. The nickel subway brought working class crowds who were no longer limited to group excursions. Since the new set of customers spent far less money, five-cent hot dogs and penny arcades became popular while the major attractions suffered. Only the biggest, fastest roller coasters could maintain their prices. When the Depression hit, desperate concessionaires gave out crackers and sugar as prizes. Unable to raise capital for renovation, Coney spun into a lingering decline.

The physical Coney is diminished but its influence on mass culture endures. Various park owners transferred their fondness for gargantuan fantasies to Manhattan settings. The owners of Luna Park built the Hippodrome, a block-sized technological circus-theater; Dreamland’s William Reynolds insisted on a silver apex when he built the Chrysler Building.

The success of Coney’s enclosed parks inspired a host of imitators across the country. Amusement parks like the White City chain and the piers of Los Angeles demonstrated that Coney was no localized aberration. Las Vegas assumed the mantle of Sin City, adapting Coney Island’s overstimulating, many-ringed circus atmosphere to an automobile strip. Disneyland emulated, perhaps unknowingly, the enforced wholesomeness of Dreamland and the elaborate electro-mechanical rides of Luna Park. Building on Coney’s Flip-Flap and Drop the Dips, numerous modern parks are engaged in an arms race to subject passengers to the maximum amount of acceleration and disorientation.

The blend of entertainment and marketing that was nurtured at Coney has become a staple of modern commerce. Today, the reuse of American downtowns as sport/theater districts is common. The Mall of America is an amusement park enclosed by a vast shopping mall; it is the nation’s most visited destination with 42 million annual visitors.(11)

Coney’s environment has become an archetype of commercialized play. Its features are the overstimulating ballyhoo, the slightly grotesque and tawdry, the realm of utopian techno-fantasy, the wholesome thrill, the titillating and the exotic. It was driven by a youthful, popular appeal which reveled in the loosening of prevailing cultural standards and the flaunting of 19th century propriety. Unprecedented social mixing in a protected atmosphere of sensual gratification made Coney Island a perennially favorite destination for the American heart.


1. Quoted in Oliver Pilat and Jo Ranson, Sodom by the Sea (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1941), 19.

2. John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million (New York: Hill & Wand, 1978), 33.

3. Edo McCullough, Good Old Coney Island (New York: Scribner’s, 1957), 119, 131.

4. Pilat and Ranson, 113.

5. Ibid., 117.

6. New York Herald, Feb. 22, 1909; quoted in Rem Koolhaus, Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994) 34.

7. Judith Adams, The American Amusement Park Industry (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 54-55.

8. Quoted in Koolhaus, 39.

9. Brian Stableford, "Cities" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nichols (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993), 226.

10. Quoted in Pilat and Ranson, 115.

11. Mall of America Media Kit: Tourism, Mall of America, 25 Mar. 1999 <>


Adams, Judith A., The American Amusement Park Industry. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Clute, John and Peter Nichols, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Gilbert, James. Perfect Cities. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Kasson, John F. Amusing the Million. New York: Hill & Wand, 1978.

Koolhaus, Rem. Delirious New York. The New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994.

Mall of America "Mall of America Media Kit." 25 March, 1999 <>.

McCullough, Edo. Good Old Coney Island. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Pilat, Oliver and Jo Ranson. Sodom by the Sea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1941.

Stanton, Jeffery. "Coney Island History Web Site." 26 March, 1999 <>.

Stanton, Jeffery. "Venice, California History Web Site." 25 March, 1999 <>.

Weinstein, Raymond M., "Disneyland and Coney Island: Reflections on the Evolution of the Modern Amusement Park," Journal of Popular Culture 26, no. 1 (1992): 131-164.

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