Book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park

We're thrilled to announce the upcoming publication of Charles Denson's book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park on May 18th. This year the landmark Wonder Wheel celebrates its 100th birthday, and to mark the occasion the Coney Island History Project director and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found has written a new book to coincide with this historic event. While researching the fascinating history of the Wonder Wheel he was surprised to discover so much that was lost to history about the Wheel and its origins. "It was a joy to write," Denson said, "the Vourderis family, owners of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, truly represent the essence of Coney Island and are incredible to work with."

Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park is all primary source research, gleaned from numerous interviews with surviving members of all of the families involved in the design, construction, and operation of this venerable ride, from original concept in 1914, construction in 1920, and salvation by the Vourderis family who purchased and restored the ride in 1983. 

The theme of the book is immigrant initiative. Charles Hermann, the Wonder Wheel's designer was Romanian; original owner Herman Garms was German; and Denos Vourderis, who bought the ride in 1983, was Greek. The construction crew was made up of Italian, Irish, and Russian immigrants, who were given stock in the Wheel and made part owners. The book tells the story of a former eel fisherman and cheese maker teaming up with a machinist/building superintendent to finance and build a fantastic ride based on Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century sketch of a perpetual motion machine. The Wonder Wheel is now Coney Island's oldest continuously operating ride; a survivor of urban renewal, hurricanes, and fires; and an official New York City landmark. It has a perfect safety record.

Published by Arcadia's Images of America series, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park contains hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive. The Coney Island History Project exhibition center will have an accompanying Wonder Wheel exhibit curated by Charles Denson.

posted Mar 24th, 2020 in News and tagged with Book, Wonder Wheel, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Due to the COVID-19 emergency, the Coney Island History Project has postponed walking tours, group visits to our exhibition center, events at schools and senior centers, and in-person oral history interviews from March 14, 2020 until further notice. 

In order to maintain social distancing while continuing to engage with our community, our staff is recording oral histories from home via Skype and phone. Our audio interviews are conducted in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who live or work - past or present - in Coney Island and adjacent Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods or have a special connection to the place. Sign up for an appointment or listen to some of the more than 350 interviews in our online archive here

"In the past, phone interviews were done primarily with people who live outside of the New York metro area," said Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Over our nonprofit organization's 16 year history, in-person oral history interviews have been conducted at our exhibition center and recording studio in Coney Island or at the interviewee's home or office in New York. "We started doing interviews via Skype in October and have recorded the stories of people who grew up in Coney Island and Bensonhurst and now live all over the world. We're pleased to be able to offer residents of the five boroughs and metro area the opportunity to share their stories with us via Skype chat or phone call."

Now more than ever we encourage you to browse the Coney Island History Project's website, which in addition to our Oral History Archive includes Ask Mr. Coney Island, selections from our Collection, and Coney News and Hall of Fame. Follow us on Facebook, TwitterInstagram and YouTube to learn about Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and the Coney Island community of today. 

We look forward to welcoming visitors to the Coney Island History Project exhibition center again soon. In the meantime, please stay safe and take care.

posted Mar 14th, 2020 in News and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island History Project, oral history,...

Three years ago today, our friend Cesar Rafael, a Coney Island amusement operator since 1979, passed away. This oral history was recorded by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project in 2005. "My heart will always be in Coney Island," says Cesar who got his start working with the late Jimmy Balloons and Ronnie Guerrero. He talks about running rides in the 1980's and '90s, dealing with gangs, the city's mishandling of crime, owning his own arcade, and being forced out by development.

Norton's Point Lighthouse Photo copyright Charles Denson

Today in Coney Island History: On March 2, 1889, Congressional statute established a lighthouse at Norton's Point on the western end of Coney Island. 2011 photo by Charles Denson from the Coney Island History Project Collection.

Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, has photographed the Coney Island Lighthouse and Sea Gate for over 45 years and this 2013 trailer for his film uses personal photographs, videos, and archival images from his archive.

posted Mar 2nd, 2020 in History and tagged with Lighthouse, Lighthouses, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

In honor of Black History Month, we're sharing interviews recorded for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive.  Check out our online archive, which is catalogued by place, period, theme and language, to discover additional interviews.

Listen to historian Eric K. Washington talk about E.J. Perry, an African-American silhouette cutter who had concessions at Luna Park and Dreamland. Washington's research and writings brought the long forgotten Perry, once known as "America's most famous silhouette cutter," into the public eye once again. Recorded by Kaara Baptiste in 2016.

Longtime resident and community activist Ronald Stewart had lived in Coney Island more than 50 years at the time of this interview. He recounts being forced out by urban renewal aka "urban removal" and the various places he has lived in Coney Island including an Ocean Parkway rooming house, a bungalow on Neptune Terrace, a succession of apartments and eventually his own home. Recorded by Charles Denson in 2007. 

David Head is a retired NYC Transit worker and former chairman of the Black History Committee for TWU Local 100. Head has championed the accomplishments of the inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910). Among Woods' many electrical patents was one for the world's first electric roller coaster, which was demonstrated in Coney Island a century ago.  In 2008, the corner of Stillwell & Mermaid Avenues was named Granville T. Woods Way in his honor and he was inducted into the History Project's Coney Island Hall of Fame. Recorded by Charles Denson in 2016.

posted Feb 4th, 2020 in History and tagged with oral history, Black History Month, Coney Island,...

William F. Mangels Coney Island History Project

In February we honor Coney Island ride inventor and amusement manufacturer William F. Mangels (born February 1,1867- died February 11, 1958). His rides have given pleasure to many generations and continue to do so today.

Remember the Whip? This circa 1920 Mangels Fairy Whip Car in the Coney Island History Project collection is on display at our exhibition center and your kids can ride the circa 1950s Mangels Fire Engines and Pony Carts at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. "The Wizard of 8th Street" is among the pioneers and visionaries in our Coney Island Hall of Fame.

Mangels Kiddie Whip Coney Island History Project

Coney Island History Project

The calligraphy reads from left to right- "Kang Ni Dao" - Chinese for Coney Island. Photo of Lu Zhao and Sylvia Ching Man Wong for the Coney Island History Project.

Happy Lunar New Year 2020! Listen online to stories recorded in Cantonese and Mandarin for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive with Coney Island, Gravesend and Bensonhurst residents who arrived here as immigrants or refugees. The interviews are transcribed in Chinese, translated into English, and available for online listening and reading on our website.

Calligraphy artist Lu Zhao was born in 1942 in Toishan in China’s Guangdong Province. He immigrated to New York in 1989 and lives with his family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Mr. Zhao says that his path to mastering calligraphy began as a five-year-old and he started painting portraits when he was eight. His first teacher was Jinyu Zhao, a member of his extended family who taught him to write on scrolls, choose copybooks, and the relationship between paper, brush and ink. Mr. Zhao's service to the community includes volunteering to create the funeral scrolls for Police Officer Wenjian Liu in 2015.

Thanks to Council Member Mark Treyger, New York City Council and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs for supporting our multilingual programs.

posted Jan 22nd, 2020 in News and tagged with Lunar New Year, Happy Lunar New Year, oral history,...

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project

Happy Holidays and Warm Wishes for the New Year from the Coney Island History Project. We're thrilled to be celebrating our 16th anniversary and Deno's Wonder Wheel's centennial in 2020! 

As we look back on 2019, we're grateful to our members, funders, and friends for your continued enthusiasm and support, and proud of all that we've accomplished during the past 15 years. Special thanks to Carol Albert, who co-founded the Coney Island History Project with Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, for her ongoing support, and to the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a home and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's heritage.

Highlights of our 2019 season include the special exhibition "Salvation by the Sea: Coney Island's 19th Century Fresh Air Cure and Immigrant Aid Societies," which was featured in the Brooklyn Eagle and on WNYC's All Of It. Visitors from the NYC metro area, across the country and around the world took part in themed history weekends at our free exhibition center and snapped souvenir selfies with the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse.

When immigrants sailed into New York Harbor at the turn of the last century, the first thing they saw wasn't the Statue of Liberty, it was the towers and bright lights of Coney Island. Our 8th Annual Coney Island History Day presented with Deno's Wonder Wheel Park celebrated Coney Island's immigrant heritage with performances of Russian classical ballet and Ukrainian folk dance, Afro Haitian drumming, Chinese traditional dance, songs in the Turkish and Rumeli tradition, and a Mariachi band.  You can watch a video recap of Coney Island History Day here.

In 2019, we recorded over 50 oral histories in English, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish with people who have lived, worked or played in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods of Southern Brooklyn. More than 350 oral histories are available for listening in our online archive and at our exhibition center via our new SoundStik audio handset.

Our free Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour of Coney Island was conducted in English and Mandarin for Immigrant Heritage Week, organized by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, and for Jane's Walk, organized by the Municipal Art Society. The Coney Island History Project exhibited at City of Water Day in Kaiser Park sponsored by the Coney Island Beautification Project and the Waterfront Alliance and did presentations about Coney Island Creek at Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies and the City Parks Foundation's Coastal Classroom.

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibition center, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter the new decade. We can't wait to see you again when the Coney Island History Project opens on April 5, 2020, for Coney Island's Opening Day! 

Charles Denson 
Executive Director 

Santa on the Boardwalk

You never know who you'll meet on the Boardwalk, "Coney Island's Fifth Avenue." On last weekend's Coney Island History Project Walking Tour, we were greeted by Santa and his girlfriend! With only 4 days til Christmas, may we suggest our walking tour tickets as stocking stuffers. We'll provide a cheerful gift card and tours are offered year round.

Coney Island Polar Bears in the 1990s. Photo © Tom McGann

Coney Island Polar Bears in the 1990s. Photo © Tom McGann.

New in the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive: Listen to Coney Island Polar Bear president Dennis Thomas recount the history and lore of the 116-yr-old Coney Island Polar Bear Club, the oldest winter bathing club in the United States.  President of the club for the past 12 years, Thomas starting swimming with the Bears in the 1970s and became a member in the '80s. Join the Bears for 2020's Annual New Year's Day Polar Plunge! Info and registration: http://polarbearclub.org. Photo: Tom McGann, Coney Island Polar Bears in the 1990s, with Dennis Thomas on the far right.