The history of Coney Island from the 1890s and through the first decade of the 20th century is very much the history of three successful amusement parks: Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. The Tilyou family had been influential in developing Coney Island ever since Peter Tilyou established one of the area’s first hotels and taverns in the 1860s, and the first of the three important parks was also a Tilyou creation. In 1897, Peter’s son George combined the family’s many sprawling concessions around the Bowery and opened Steeplechase Park on the beach between West Sixteenth and West Nineteenth streets. He was inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and by an earlier enclosed amusement park at Coney, Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park. Tilyou charged admission and provided affordable entertainment (a roller coaster, a scenic railroad, a Ferris wheel, a funhouse, a bathing pavilion, food, and dancing) for a mass audience inside an enclosure that was supposed to keep crime and violence outside. The main attraction was a mechanical horserace that gave the park its name and reflected the popularity of horseracing at Coney, at this time the country’s horse-racing capital. (Racetracks had been built at Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend to serve the wealthy and fashionable clientele in the 1870s and 1880s.) Tilyou rebuilt Steeplechase after a fire in 1907, and many of the rides, from the Earthquake Stairway to the Human Pool Table, were moved indoors to the Pavilion of Fun, a large steel and glass building. The most long-lived and profitable of Coney’s three historical amusement parks, Steeplechase did not close its doors until 1964, and even today, Tilyou’s emblem, the funny face, is considered Coney Island’s mascot.
Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, with experience of running concessions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and other fairs, had brought their successful simulation of a spaceship ride, “A Trip to the Moon,” to Steeplechase in 1902. Because of the success, they decided, the following year, to open their own amusement venture, Luna Park, on the site of Boyton’s failing Sea Lion Park, on Surf Avenue between West Eighth and West Twelfth streets. Two hundred fifty thousand electric lights turned night into day, with an imaginary architecture of many exotic spires and domes in white, orange, and gold. A two-hundred-foot tower covered in thousands of electric lights which constantly changed colors was Luna Park’s centerpiece and was a fixture of nighttime Coney Island. Luna’s twenty-two acres were dedicated entirely to pleasure and play with concerts, fireworks, and carnivalesque performances, in addition to the many fanciful and creative rides that employed all the technical innovations of the day. The Helter Skelter was a hugely popular, adults-only giant slide. From a fifty-foot tower, people would tumble down the slide on little mats, skirts flying, to the amusement of the masses gathered on the ground. Luna Park also provided otherworldly experiences from far corners of the globe, from gondola rides on the canals of Venice to Eskimo villages, the Swiss Alps, and a Delhi marketplace. Variations of the Tunnels of Love were among the most popular of the early rides in the amusement parks at Coney. Like many other rides, they encouraged informal contact between men and women and provided new opportunities for interaction between young people. We have to remember that when these rides were introduced at the turn of the twentieth century, social etiquette often still made relaxed communication difficult. The Dragon’s Gorge was an enclosed roller coaster, a scenic railroad that brought the passenger on a fantastic trip from the bottom of the sea, through a waterfall, to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and even into Hades, the kingdom of Death, over the river Styx. Two dragons framed the entrance, their eyes glowing with light from globes of green electric light. The ride caught fire in 1944, ultimately leading to the closing of the park two years later.
William H. Reynolds’s Dreamland, constructed in 1904, was the third of the historical amusement parks at Coney Island. In an effort to attract a middle-class audience that otherwise might be deterred by the excesses of Coney, its all-white, more traditional design, in line with the White City of the 1893 Chicago Exposition, signaled purity rather than offering the orientalist exoticism of Luna Park’s imaginary architecture. With biblically inspired spectacles, it was meant to provide an alternative to the evils of dance halls and bars. “Creation,” a moving panorama under a giant blue dome, presented both the creation, according to the book of Genesis, and the end of the world. Its entrance on Surf Avenue was an arched portal supported by an enormous angel with her wings spread out. With taller towers, one million electric lights, and a capacity to accommodate one hundred thousand visitors, Dreamland sought to outshine its neighbors, but never reached the popularity of Luna Park or Steeplechese.
Beside the many different rides, disaster spectacles – both independently operated on Surf Avenue, and at Luna Park and Dreamland – were common at Coney Island. Reenactments of war battles, from Gettysburg to the more contemporary Boer wars, competed for attention with scenes of natural catastrophes such as the Galveston Flood of 1900. Luna Park’s “Fire and Flames” was a popular disaster spectacle in which firemen rescued several hundred actors from a burning six-story hotel, and Dreamland had its own fire-fighting display, “Fighting the Flames,” with even more firemen and actors. Not just spectacles, but real fires were common at Coney Island. Sometimes they engulfed large swaths of the mostly wooden structures in the area: a devastating fire took place on the Bowery in 1903; Steeplechase burned in 1907 (but was completely rebuilt eight months later); Dreamland burned in 1911, never to reopen. With Dreamland gone, many felt that the old Coney Island would soon disappear.
The west end of Coney Island attracted up to five hundred thousand people on weekends and holidays about 1900, and in 1909, perhaps the most successful year ever, about twenty million visitors arrived. Luna Park alone charged thirty-one million admissions between 1903 and 1908. The phenomenon of Coney Island was the epitome of mass culture. Dancing pavilions, concert halls, and restaurants like Stauch’s provided new opportunities for people to meet and contributed to changing the dynamics between the sexes at the turn of the twentieth century. The newly gained recreational time for the working classes was available to most people, and the new forms of mass entertainment and leisure activities created unprecedented possibilities for more informal mingling between the sexes. Public transportation was crucial for the success, and at this time – in addition to multiple ferry and railroad connections – a trolley service was running from Park Row on lower Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge, inaugurated in 1883. This provided another easy and relatively cheap trip for many working-class and immigrant visitors to Coney. The construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 and the Manhattan Bridge in 1909 made the trip even more effortless. The trolley would eventually be replaced by the subway, which was extended to Coney Island in 1920.