Monday, May 17, 2010

Coney Island (Part II)

Scott Russo Archive

Dreamland opened in 1904, outdoing all that came before. Political favoritism surrounded the incredible speed in which the $3.5-million, virgin-white park was built.

There were a million lights at Dreamland, compared to Luna Park’s 250,000; two chutes to Luna’s one; a 375-foot tower, which was 200 feet taller than Luna’s tower. Only the Park Row Building in New York stood taller, in this pre-skyscraper age. Dreamland’s central spire tower matched exactly the 22-story height of the Times Tower, completed in Times Square that year. “Everything New, But the Ocean,” ran the ad slogan.

The entrance to Dreamland led to a Biblical spectacular called Creation. Senator Reynolds strove for gentility with his Canals of Venice, and imitation Renaissance palaces. Dreamland’s mock city fire, with some 200 fleeing victims, showed a fire department extinguish flames in a six-story building. Luna had a four-story fire. The miniature steam railroad at Dreamland went electric in 1910. Luna stayed with steam. Electric train travel would later outmode steam in the real world.

The Dreamland railroad ran through Lilliputia, a colony of 300 midgets in a miniature world, with its own midget circus, music hall, police, and a midget fire department dashing to false alarms. Here lived Mrs. General Tom Thumb, widow of the world famous Barnum midget, now remarried to a tiny Italian count.

Untold numbers of Africans, Filipinos and Aborigines were shepherded to Coney Island, living under god knows what kind of slave-labor conditions. Samuel Gumpertz, hired as Dreamland’s manager by Reynolds, often traveled to Africa and Asia, importing freaks and tribesmen. He lured 212 Bantoc tribesmen, alleged headhunters who ate dog casseroles and lived in Hipa huts by the Coney Island sea. Aside from living expenses, they supposedly received $1.50 a week.

While Luna Park had a circus, Dreamland presented Bostock’s Animal Show. One witness described Bostock’s bears, leopards, lions and tigers as having been “tortured into talent.” Most famous among Luna’s elephant herd was Topsy, who helped build the park. Topsy killed three men in three years, one of whom fed the six-ton animal a lighted cigarette. In a shameless public relations move, Luna co-creator Elmer Dundy brought in Edison’s men to utilize Luna Park’s electric plant for something new. With her keeper refusing to take part, Topsy was electrocuted in public.


Coney Island became known throughout the Western world as the City of Fire. Yet much of its fa├žade was built of lathe, burlap and cardboard. Immigrants arriving from Europe saw the Steeplechase Ferris wheel from 38 miles at sea, before the Statue of Liberty. It is inconceivable today to imagine how 19th century townsfolk, newly accustomed to electricity, were dumbstruck by 1.2-million light bulbs. “Enough light to illuminate a city of 500,000 souls,” according to Scientific American magazine, which did yearly profiles on each upcoming season at Coney. People were frightened and dazzled. Sigmund Freud, in his only trip to America, came to ponder Dreamland one day in 1909. The founder of psychoanalysis would have entered the park by way of a tunnel that ran between the thighs of a 30-foot nude female carving with boobs the size of elephants. Freud later called America “a gigantic mistake.”

The exotic route to Coney was by way of steamer, squadrons of which landed on the piers each day. The middle-class came by locomotive, through Brooklyn coal yards and soap factories. The mechanical rides were nothing short of revolutionary, engines used for fun and chaos instead of work. This, in an age before airplanes, cars and lawsuits. Coney was the spawning ground for amusement parks. Tilyou’s Steeplechase racetrack was soon duplicated at a half-dozen other parks.

America’s first roller coaster was the invention of LaMarcus A. Thompson. His 6-mph Switchback Railway, on Coney Island, was a popular success in 1884. Passengers rolled down a track, filed up a stairway while the car was hoisted to a second level of track, reloaded, then rolled back down. The next modification arose when an inventor joined the upper and lower track portions with a loop. A moving chain-lift was installed for a third coaster—a chilling effect still in use today.

Coasters evolved left and right on Coney. The Flip-Flap hurt too many people’s necks, and became obsolete after two years. The Leap Frog of 1904 used two cars coasting toward each other—at the fatal moment of impact, one scuttled over the other’s back. The Virginia Reel used circular cars that revolved during their descent.

Then engineers figured that an ellipse, rather than a perfectly circular loop, could prevent neck injuries. The Loop the Loop, on West 10th Street, perfected the roller coaster philosophy: it must seem at once totally lethal and absolutely safe.

Coasters became the bread-and-butter attractions of amusement parks, with their combination of thrills and intimacy. Jolting couples together on the turns, but with just the right kind of jolt. These nuances, these double dips and drops were varied each year for improvement. But there is no telling how many romantic evenings were soured by vomiting episodes, after a Tornado ride on a belly full of Coney Island red hots.

LaMarcus A. Thompson continued his coaster innovations in Atlantic City. Tilyou brought him back where he built the $40,000 Pikes Peak on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn. Here, the roller coaster tripped switches that illuminated scenes within caves and tunnels. But the most dangerous coaster was the Rough Riders, named after Teddy Roosevelt’s men. Motormen in Spanish-American War uniforms ran full throttle on steep downgrades and sharp curves. In 1910, two cars tore loose, sailing 16 people 60 feet in the air. Four died.

Scott Russo Archive

Next week: Gorky and destruction.

© 1990, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

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