Coney Island: Dreamland by the Sea

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

The place that gave Mr. and Mrs. Joe Schmoe the crazy idea that happiness was just a few subway stops away.

Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the United States. But back in 1609, when Dutch explorer Henry Hudson became the first European to arrive on the premises, he found nothing more than barren sand dunes and very unfriendly Native Americans. After his petty officer was killed in a skirmish, Hudson moved on to a much calmer and peaceful island later known as Manhattan.

At some point the island (which is five miles long and up to a mile wide) was named Konijn Eiland, which is Dutch for "Rabbit Island." Konijn became "Coney," possibly during the days of Lady Deborah Moody, a London widow in her mid-50s, who brought a group of religious dissenters to the island during a lull in the Indian Wars. It was rough going -the local Native Americans still weren't all that friendly- but the plucky group stayed on.


Coney Island remained an island until 1829, when it was connected to mainland Long Island by Shell Road, a road made of -you guessed it- shells. It's been a peninsula ever since. But linguistically, it's still an island: one is said to be "on" Coney Island, not "in" it.

Hotel Brighton


Five years after Shell Road was built, a large hotel, Coney Island House, opened for business in hopes of drawing a summer crowd to the seaside. The hotel's success encouraged builders of even more elegant hotels. What started as a genteel resort recommended by doctors (sea bathing was considered to be healthy and invigorating), quickly became a hot spot with the upper classes. Before long, hotels along the seashores welcomed such distinguished guests as P.T. Barnum, Daniel Webster, and Washington Irving. Visitors lingered on the the hotels' long porches, ate their meals in posh dining rooms, and took dips in the Atlantic.


The completion of Plank Road (made of planks, we assume) in 1850 made access easier and encouraged entrepreneurs like Peter Tilyou to set up shop: Tilyou not only sold beer for a nickel, but he also built bathhouses, so that visitors could change into their swimsuits right there on the beach -or, in those days of casual hygiene, rent them for the day.

Women's bathing costumes of the day were about the size of a modern-day conservative dress and, stockings included, weighed 15 pounds when wet. (A dress code was strictly enforced for 100 years. For instance, in 1918 a hundred women were arrested for not wearing stockings on the beach. And in the early 1930s, men who exposed their chests on the beach could get a $50 fine and spend 10 days in jail.)


Frankfurters came to the United States via German immigrants. But they didn't really become popular until the 1880s, when Charles Feltman, a German banker, settled in Coney Island and decided to sell boiled frankfurters on heated buns from a cart. Each frankfurter sandwich was sold for a dime and was loaded with traditional German toppings -mustard and sauerkraut.

Feltman was so successful that after a few years he opened his own restaurant, Feltman's German Beer Garden. In 1913, he hired Nathan Handwerker as a part-time delivery boy. But for $11 a week, Nathan wasn't too happy with his earnings. He began to plan for his own concession stand. In 1916, when he had saved $300, he made his dream a reality.

Nathan's stand offered a unique spiced meat frankfurter made from a recipe his wife, Ida, created. As a way to market his product, he promised free franks to the local doctors. His only condition was that they had to eat them in front of his stand wearing their white lab coats and stethoscopes. So when people saw the esteemed doctors eating Nathan's frankfurters, they automatically assumed his franks must be of much better quality than his competitors. And they were cheaper than Feltman's, since Nathan only charged a nickel apiece.

By the time Nathan opened his concession stand, frankfurters were commonly known as hot dogs -all because of an American cartoonist who couldn't spell. The story goes that one night in 1906, with a deadline looming, Tad Dorgan sketched a drawing of a dachshund smeared with mustard and squished in a bun. When it was time to caption the picture, poor Tad didn't know how to spell "dachshund," so he wrote, "Get your hot dogs!" instead.


But it was back in the late 1870s that island business really started booming: Five railroad lines ran to and from the island by then, bringing 50,000 to 60,000 visitors in 1878. For the first time in industrialized America, people were taking advantage of leisure time. Wearing their comparatively skimpy bathing suits and splashing in the surf was somehow liberating. Reporters of the day mention (and an early Edison Company film shows) the "jubilation" on the faces of Coney Islanders. The poor, working-class slob was learning how to have fun!


Gamblers, hookers, and card sharks were soon giving Coney Island a dubious reputation. Local residents were outraged. In hopes of cleaning up the place, they elected John Y. McKane as their police chief in 1868. But McKane ignored the misconduct (for a fee) and ended up behind bars himself when he was convicted of fixing elections.


In 1884, MaMarcus Adna Thompson opened the world's first roller coaster, the Switchback Railroad. It had 600 feet of wooden tracks, but unlike roller coasters of today, workers had to push it up to its highest point to get it going. Passengers paid a dime for a ride.


Captain Paul Boyton had an even better idea. In 1895, he opened Sea Lion Park, the world's first enclosed amusement park. It featured a colony of sea lions and the ever-popular Shoot-the-Chutes, a waterslide that landed its riders in a man-made lagoon.

Sea Lion Park was redesigned in 1903 and transformed into Luna Park, the Las Vegas of its time. Besides the elephant rides, camel rides, and a circus, the park featured the Dragon's Gorge, a tunnel ride that included a waterfall and scenes from the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and the River Styx.

There was a simulated trip to the Moon. A live-action show, Fire and Flames, had the New York City fire department rescuing trapped residents of burning tenements, some of whom had to jump into nets to escape. This was an attraction that New Yorkers could identify with since a lot of them lived in real tenements. A real fire claimed Luna Park during the 1940s, and the site was eventually turned into a parking lot.


Coney Island's most famous park, the completely white Dreamland, opened in 1904, and it duplicated a lot of Luna Park's ideas. Fighting the Flames was copied directly from Fire and Flames. There was a ride called Maxim's Flying Machine, a miniature railroad, a ballroom, and a Japanese teahouse. All watched over by the Dreamland Tower which stood 375 feet high and was covered with 100,000 lights.

Dreamland's most unusual attraction was the fully functional Incubator Hospital, which displayed actual premature babies in their incubators. This sounds a little less freaky when it's revealed that real doctors and nurses provided round-the-clock care for the little newborns. That's a relief, huh?

In 1911, a fire leveled Dreamland and all its spectacles in a matter of hours. The babies in the hospital were saved.


By 1910 or so, the big hotels were closing, and the guests who used to come for weeks and months now only visited on weekends. And then they did not come at all. The island now belonged to the masses. The subway station built in 1918 cemented it. By the 1920s, one million people crowded the island on a single sunny day and walked the two-mile boardwalk, which had been completed in 1923.

During the Great depression, Coney was the perfect escape; crowds averaging 35 million came each summer, but now the beaches were the primary draw because the masses couldn't afford the fifty cents it took to by a ride. Eventually the prices dropped to a nickel -for a hot dog, a ride, and the subway. But without an infusion of cash, the island started to decay.


On July 3, 1947, 1,300,000 people -one fifth of the population of New York City- spent the day enjoying not just the beach and the rides, but also a fireworks show and an air show put on by the New York Daily Mirror and the U.S. Air Force. It's estimated that one in one hundred Americans visited Coney Island that weekend.

But that couldn't keep the decay away. By the 1950s, it looked like the island was doomed. Even while modern-day entrepreneurs were trying their hand at revitalizing the amusement parks at Coney, the island continued to decline. New amusement parks were going up around New York and the rest of the country, including Coney's biggest competitor: Disneyland in faraway California.

Image from the 1979 film The Warriors.

Some historians describe Coney as a ghost town in the 1970s. All of New York seemed a dangerous place then. On Coney Island, the bathhouses closed, and the big hotels were torn down.


But you can't keep a good Coney Island down. In 1980, the New York Parks Department reported that concession revenues at the beach had been steadily rising for several seasons in a row.

(Image credit: Flickr user André)

Today, the rides and amusements are run by Astroland Amusement Park. The attractions include the Cyclone roller coaster, Go-Karts, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Water Flume (a waterslide), and Dante's Inferno (with Spook-A-Rama, one of the park's two "dark" rides).

And let's not forget Astroland's Sideshows by the Seashore, featuring Insectavora, Serpentina, Bambi the Mermaid, Eak (the Illustrated Man), Scott Baker (the Twisted Shockmeister), Ravi (the Scorpion Mystic), Ula (the Rainproof Rubber Girl), and Todd Robbins (Amazement Is His Business).


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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"Coney" has been a British dialect word for Rabbit forever. It's related to the Dutch word, but it's doubtful they woudl have re-derived it just to rename the island. Chances are there were still rabbits there.
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