Coney Island Dreamland built in 1904 was one of the shortest lived but most astonishing and forward thinking theme parks. By the 1890s, the era of high-concept amusement parks was in full swing. They could hold their own today with the likes of Disneyland, Sea World and Universal Studios.
Located in the southernmost part of Brooklyn New York, Coney Island was once a sanctuary of lagoons and pristine beaches inhabited by the Lenape people. Environmentalists and locals fought its development but by the 1870s it had become a Seaside Resort like those developing in England.
Only five miles long and an average of one-half mile wide, Coney Island became known as “America’s Playground” because it had something for everyone. Some called it “Heaven at the end of a subway ride.” Others called it “Sodom by the Sea.” According to the Library of Congress America at Work, America at Leisure collection, Coney Island reflected profound social and economic changes underway in America.
“The period from 1894 to 1915 was one in which workers in the United States began to have more leisure time than their predecessors. One reason for this was that industrial employers began to decrease working hours and institute a Saturday half-day holiday, which gave workers more free time for leisure activities.”
The time for Coney Island had arrived for a number of reasons. Workers were encouraged to take unpaid vacations from their grueling factory jobs. The Progressive Movement for better health encouraged them to spend time outdoors away from the grime of the city. Many believed sea bathing was the secret to good health. For the first time the working class had a little discretionary income to spend on entertainment.
In addition to changes in working conditions, improvements in affordable transportation and the growing use of electric lighting all contributed to the Coney Island’s success. Not to mention, some record-breaking heat waves in the later 1800s and early 1900s, that triggered an explosion of visitors to the sea.
One of the most important changes in society reflected in amusement parks was the loosening of Victorian decorum with its rigid codes of social conduct and propriety. Although the parks offered family entertainment, they also had attractions that encouraged men and women to intermingle. In 1908, Steeplechase’s Barrel of Fun tossed people on top of each other as they entered the park. The Blow-Hole Theatre blew air up women’s skirts while men watched.
In his book, Coney Island: 150 Years of Rides, Fires, Floods, the Rich, the Poor and Finally Robert Moses, William J. Phalen says that amusement parks became important targets of debate about modern urban culture. For some, the amusement park may have symbolized the democratic ideals of a melting pot society.” Others believed they were a disgrace.
Ultimately, the amusement parks provided all social classes an escape from the drudgery of the daily routine. At the core was the democratic ideal that every person was entitled to have a good time. It became the “Nickel Empire” where travel, food and rides could be bought for five cents apiece.
Dreamland “borrowed” heavily from amusement parks that came before it including Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park and Luna Park.
“They combined popular modernity, mass consumption, and a new collective experience while also offering traditional entertainments such as dioramas, firework spectacles, and music and dance halls, as well as freak and girlie shows.” William J. Phalen
Like its predecessors, it carried its visitors to other places and times. Among its spectacular attractions, people could experience the fall of Pompeii, float in gondolas through the canals of Venice, and witness the Biblical story of creation that greeted people with a 30-foot-tall topless angel. It featured one of the largest ballrooms in the nation, shooting galleries, rides, a Japanese café, “airplane boat” rides, and a high-wire bicycle show over the lagoon.
Following are a few of the most popular attractions.
The majestic 375-foot Tower stood at the heart of the amusement park. It was one of the tallest structures in New York. Visitors could travel to the top via elevator—no doubt a wild ride unto itself for most people at the time. At night, the famous structure set the night sky ablaze with 100,000 electric light bulbs.
Positioned close to the Tower, the rambunctious ride featured flat-bottom boats and two ramps that could handle up to 7,000 riders every hour. The ride was built in the ocean and descended over the beach into the saltwater lagoon adjacent to the park. The Toronto Exhibition also had Chutes open during its end-of-summer to Labor Day fair.
Escapism was key. One of the favorite attractions was a railway that ran through a Swiss Alpine landscape. Blasts of cold air added to the reality.
Well before The Wizard of Oz, The Midget City was also known as a Lilliputian Village.
It had three hundred dwarf inhabitants, a tavern, a circus, theatre, and its own fire department.
Leapfrog Railway: two trains drove towards each other on the same track. Then one would drive up and over the other using custom tracks.
“Fighting Flames” was a popular attraction that pre-dated the lust for disaster movies. This was a set that recreated a crowded New York Street complete with tenements and businesses in a large amphitheater that looked much like a movie set. Performers reenacted what it was like to be a firefighter putting out a blazing six-story building. They slid down poles, readied their horse-drawn fire engines and positioned them in front of a burning building. They made dramatic rescues from the tenements.
The Dicker family owned the hotel next to the park as well as sideshow attractions. They placed premature triplets in a relatively new invention that was not approved for use in hospitals–incubators. Admission fees paid for the incubator sideshow also paid for medical staff to care for the babies. Eventually incubators found their way from sideshow to to hospital environments.
The dreams ended early one morning on May 27 1911 when a fire broke out in the Hell Gate, a ride that carried people in boats through a maze of dark caverns and whirlpools. Most of the structures and exhibits throughout Coney Island Dreamland were not fireproof, so the blaze spread quickly through the park.
The fire was so intense that it sounded “like a volcano erupting.” Tens of thousands of bullets were blasting through the Coney Island air as cartridges in the shooting galleries exploded. The incubator babies were all rescued but many of the animals did not survive.
The fire department arrived in full force. Even the firefighters from Midget City helped.At 3:03am Beacon Tower crashed onto Surf ave. with a pillar of smoke 1that could be seen for miles. Despite all efforts, the park was destroyed.
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