Coney Island, from rabbits, to hucksters to ‘The World’s Largest Playground’

Summer may not officially be here yet, but New York City’s beach season is underway and that means it’s time for a refresher course on one of the city’s most venerable and storied beaches – Coney Island.

This year’s beach-goers will find some old favorites: The newish version of Luna Park, the 99th year of the Wonder Wheel, thrilling rides like the Cyclone and the Thunderbolt, and the 37th edition of the beloved, wild and wacky Mermaid Parade, with Arlo Guthrie as this year’s Neptune King and his sister Nora as Queen Mermaid. And, of course, a new season for the Mets’ minor league team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, at MCU Park (Municipal Credit Union), the former site of the historic Steeplechase Park.

Speaking of Steeplechase Park, this seems like the perfect time to wade into the Municipal Archives for a splash of a history of Coney Island from the days of the original Native American inhabitants, through the Dutch, the British, the rascals, scalawags, hucksters, carny barkers, mobsters and freak shows.

Kieft patent to Lady Deborah Moody and her followers to establish the town of Gravesend, 1645. NYC Municipal Archives.

Our journey begins with a pair of deeds housed in the Archives. The first is from 1645, when the Dutch allowed a group of English settlers led by Lady Deborah Moody to establish the town of Gravesend on land “beginning at the mouth of a creek adjacent to Conyne Island, and being bounded on the westward part thereof with the land appertaining to Anthony Johnson and Robert Pennoyre.” What the English called Conyne Island was an Anglicized version of the Dutch Konijn or Rabbit Island. Along with other barrier islands along Long Island’s South shore, Coney Island had a large rabbit population. The Lenape tribe called the island “Narrioch.”

The second, dated May 1654, memorialized when a Native tribal leader sold the “land from Antonio Johnson’s house south to an island called Conyne Island” to another group of English settlers for “fifteen fathoms of seawant [wampum], two guns, and three pounds of gunpowder.”

Deed for the purchase of the land called “Conyne Island” from Guttaquah and other leaders, May 1654. New York City Municipal Archives.

Much of the story of Coney Island’s early days comes from three books in the Municipal Library – Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island by Oliver Pilat and Jo Ransom; Good Old Coney Island by Edo McCullough, and Amusing the Million, by John Kasson – a pair of reports to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from the late 1930s and a Landmarks Preservation Commission report from 2018.

From the mid- to late-1800s, Coney Island was a playground for the rich who summered there in such once-grand hotels as the Coney Island House, and the “Big Three,” the Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Oriental hotels. Among the first “excursionists,” who traveled to the then hard-to-reach Coney Island by chartered boats, ferries and trollies, were Daniel Webster, P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind, Herman Melville and General Sam Houston.

Map of Coney Island showing beachfront resorts and hotels, including the Elephant. Robinson’s Atlas of Kings County, 1890. NYC Municipal Archives.

The wealthy dined and slept in lavish hotels, swam from private beaches, played the horses at three racetracks in Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend, frolicked in bordellos and took in championship fights at the Coney Island Athletic Club, including one bloody, heavyweight slugfest in which Jim Jeffries pummeled then-champ Bob Fitzsimmons. At that time, they arrived there largely on steamboats and special railroad lines the early hotel owners built. The first subway line to Coney Island did not arrive until 1920.

General view looking east from Ravenhall’s Beach, July 21, 1922. Photo by E.E. Rutter, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Much of the early development was made possible by real estate interests and corrupt politicians like John Y. McKane, who gobbled up plots of land for a song, pumped up prices through self-dealing and shady companies and gave inflated construction contracts to firms he controlled – all while collecting hefty kickbacks. He ended his political career in Sing Sing, convicted of election fraud.

As then- Park Commissioner Robert Moses would note in a 1937 report to Mayor LaGuardia, much of the early construction was undertaken with “little foresight” and poor planning. Even the grand Brighton Beach Hotel, constructed in 1878, had to be hoisted onto railroad cars and moved about 500 feet inland in 1888 because it had been built too close to the eroding beachfront.

The history of Coney Island, Moses wrote, in proposing a massive revamping of the boardwalk and most surrounding properties, “is a sad commentary on the lack of foresight.” He noted that much of the land originally belonging to the old Town of Gravesend” was sold off around 1878 “almost always on the basis of some deal with private interests and always at a preposterously low price.” The city had to eventually buy back some of the privatized land that “it never should have given away.”

Coney Island Bathhouses and Ferris Wheels, May 11, 1922. Photo by E.E. Rutter, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In addition to the wealthy, the early days drew what Sodom by the Sea called a “colony of crooks,” including “thieves, rogues, broken-down confidence men,” hookers with names like “Diamond Maggie” and well-heeled professional gamblers such as “Pittsburgh Phil” and “Bet-a-Million” Gates.

That’s when Coney Island began transforming from a playground for the rich to a wilder, more open one. The most notorious section of Coney Island in those days was called “The Gut,” a stretch from W. 3rd St. to W. 5th St., which one commentator called the “the wickedest place in all America.”

Report on Coney Island Improvements, 1939. NYC Municipal Library.

That transition period spawned a giant amusement park area, ushered in largely by showman George Cornelius Tilyou, who founded Steeplechase Park in 1897 and later built the Surf Theater, the area’s first major showhouse.

Tilyou was born to Coney Island and, before he built Steeplechase Park, published a four-page newsletter which declared in his typical hyperbolic style: “If Paris is France, then Coney Island between June and September, is the world.”

Coney Island Beach, Brooklyn: Typical mob scene, n.d. NYC Municipal Archives Collection.

Fire destroyed Steeplechase Park in 1907, but Tilyou rebuilt and expanded, as he would do again between occasional fires. His park included the “Parachute Jump,” a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, swimming pool, funhouse mirrors, penny arcades and the “Barrel of Fun.” The most famous – and risqué – attraction was the “Blowhole” and later the “Insanitarium,” in which park employees used electric cattle prods to prod women visitors along and over air vents that would blow their dresses upward. It operated until 1964 and was sold to Fred Trump, who tried unsuccessfully to build low-income housing there. Most of the park was later bulldozed; all that remains is the old “Parachute Jump” next to MCU Park.

Coney Island Lifeguards, September 19, 1922. Photo by E.E. Rutter, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Playing off the success of Steeplechase Park, a couple of showy businessmen named Fred Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy opened the original Luna Park nearby. Luna Park, designed in an Oriental style and draped with 250,000 lightbulbs, featured an aerial circus, attractions like “Streets of Delhi,” “Fire and Flames” and the “Laughing Show.” Though flashy and popular, it was plagued by bankruptcies before it burned to the ground in 1946. The current Luna Park opened in 2010, on the site of the old Astroland, “a space-age” park that operated from 1962 to 2008.

Coney Island Boardwalk from Municipal Bath, July 7, 1922. Photo by E.E. Rutter, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Another of the great early amusement parks was Dreamland, which, according to Sodom by the Sea, was the brainchild of a corrupt former politician named William H. Reynolds, who razed several properties, including the old Coney Island Athletic Club, and created such attractions as Lilliputia, a complete tiny, scaled-down town complete with 300 midgets. A raging fire consumed Dreamland in 1911.

This was also the start of the era of freak shows with bearded ladies, midgets, sword-swallowers and 698-pound Jolly Irene – and the advent of Nathan’s Famous, which grew from a tiny hot dog stand to a still-existing empire that sells thousands of hot dogs daily. And that era brought some big-name gangsters to Coney Island, including Frankie Yale, and Al Capone, who was a barman at the Harvard Inn on Seaside Walk in his early, pre-Chicago days.  

Boardwalk Coney Island, Borough President Riegelmann opening the Boardwalk, December 12, 1924. Photo by E.E. Rutter, Borough President Brooklyn Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Much of the once privately-owned beachfront was transferred to the City of New York in 1921. In May of 1923, the Reigelmann Boardwalk, a straightened and widened 2.7-mile-long promenade named for then-Brooklyn Borough President Edward Reigelmann opened after some two years of construction. It sat atop reinforced concrete piles and girders and ran from Ocean Parkway to W. 37th St. Then-Mayor John F. Hyland called the opening, “the happiest day of my life,” and, according to a 2018 Landmark Preservation Commission report, went on to say, poor people will no longer have to stand with their faces pressed against wire fences looking at the ocean.”   

Report on Coney Island Improvements, 1939. NYC Municipal Library.

Report on Coney Island Improvements, 1939. NYC Municipal Library.

The City Charter was changed in the late 1930s to shift control over Coney Island and some other beaches from the borough presidents to the City Parks Department. In a 1937 report to Mayor LaGuardia, then-Parks Commissioner Moses wrote that the city had to take over the beaches because these beaches and boardwalks were never properly planned and operated.” He complained that many of the early “improvements” made to Coney Island benefited property owners rather than the public and resulted in beach erosion that endangered the boardwalk, along with overcrowding, inadequate play areas and a lack of parking.

Steeplechase Pier at Coney Island in Brooklyn , 1958. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Moses wrote that there was “no use in bemoaning the end of the old Coney Island fabled in story and song … The important thing is not to proceed on the mistaken belief that it can be revived.; there must be a new and very different resort established in its place.” In 1939, Moses called for moving the boardwalk inland and both widening and straightening what eventually became another 5,500 feet of boardwalk.

Over the past 80 years, Coney Island went through periods of deterioration and renovation and, for some, was overtaken by other, less seedy and roomier oceanfront getaways like Jones Beach and Riis Park.

Still, tens of thousands of New Yorkers flock to Coney Island each day all summer long to take in the sun, the sea, the remaining freak shows and games of chance, the annual hotdog-eating contest -- and to walk in the footsteps of history-- another time when Coney Island really was “The World’s Largest Playground.”