In the 1820s, when private hotels lined its shore, Coney Island was already being used for fun. George C. Tilyou established Steeplechase Park in 1895, clustering amusements and rides in one central area for easy access.
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Steeplechase, the first of the great Coney Island parks, was established after Tilyou honeymooned in Chicago in 1893. He loved the Ferris Wheel at the Columbian Exposition there, and had one built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company when he found out it had already been sold.
He called his Ferris Wheel the largest in the world, and had his sister, the cashier, wear their mother’s diamond necklace. The two big men standing at her sides to make the exhibit seem more like a treasure. Tilyou’s wheel opened for business in 1894 and paid for itself a few weeks later.
Tilyou had other rides all over Coney Island until 1895, when he responded to Captain Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park by opening Steeplechase Park, with its funnyface logo, on 15 acres of oceanfront land.
Due to the popularity of horse racing, Tilyou established a mechanical race course that became synonymous with Coney Island. Its six horses “ran” all around the outside of the park, the attendants dressed in jockey clothing, and the start of a race was announced by a bugle.
Tilyou asked Frederick Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy to bring their “Trip to the Moon” ride from the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition to Coney Island. Despite their agreement, they soon broke off to develop Luna Park, a bolder Coney Island park.
In 1904, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy opened Luna Park at the behest of Tilyou. For more about Luna Park, click here.
Steeplechase had attractions such as the Barrel of Love, which turned beneath visitors’ feet, and an Earthquake Stairway. Some of his other attractions included a Human Roulette Wheel, a Human Pool Table, and a Human Zoo, in which people were led to a cage that provided peanuts and money talk. One of the more scandalous attractions was the Blowhole Theater, which blasted air up the skirts of women exiting the Steeplechase Ride. If their male companions objected, a clown would give them an electrical shock.
Tilyou’s prowess in the world of amusement was made plain when he used the 1907 Steeplechase Fire to charge visitors to look at the ruins until he had finished rebuilding. The Dreamland Fire of 1911 did not much affect the Steeplechase, George Tilyou died in 1914, and his park began to fall behind the times. Still, it went down in history as the longest running amusement enterprise in Coney Island when it closed in 1964.
Before a ruling could be made about the park’s Pavilion of Fun as a historical landmark, Fred C. Trump destroyed it in his building endeavors. The parachute is the last remnant of Steeplechase Park. It was bought in 1940 from James H. Strong, a retired navy man who used it to train paratroopers.
When the BMT subway connection was completed in 1920, the park’s popularity rose. With much hoopla, the Boardwalk was opened on May 15th, 1923. The beautiful stretch was realigned and rebuilt by the Parks Department between 1938 and 1941.
The pier at West 17th street, which Tilyou built in 1904 as part of his Steeplechase Park, was acquired by NYC in 1921. In 1938, the park was taken over and new refreshment stands were built to help shut down the “honky-tonk” establishments along the boardwalk.
When people nearly lost interest in amusement parks after WWII, NY Aquarium relocated to Battery Park to keep tourists coming to Coney Island. In addition, fireworks were launched in the summer to attract visitors throughout the 1960s.
Although Coney Island’s parachute jump was put up in 1939 for the 1939-40 NY World’s Fair, it moved to the southwest corner of the block between Surf Avenue and Riegelmann Boardwalk, between West 16th street and West 19th street in 1941. The Fair took place in the former Flushing Meadows, Queens, which is now the Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
While it took $5 million to stabilize the Parachute jump in 2002, cosmetic changes were the main focus in 2006, when it was illuminated with changing, festive lights.
Another old attraction, Coney Island’s Cyclone, carries 24 passengers 3000 feet of track in 110 minutes at up to 60 miles per hour. Its largest drop is 85 feet, and its descent angle of 58.1 degrees makes it the 2nd steepest roller coaster in the world. The coaster is a remnant of the old Coney Island that was called “The Nation’s Playground, and it was landmarked by New York City in 1988.