The beautifully restored motor yacht Nellie Bly operated by the Coney Island Steamboat Company is ready to give nautical tours.

Coney Island native Gerard Thornton has returned to his roots and launched the Coney Island Steamboat Company, based in Sheepshead Bay. Beginning Saturday, July 13, the Coney Island Steamboat Company will offer narrated history cruises along the Coney Island shoreline, from Sheepshead Bay to Gravesend Bay. 

Captain Thornton grew up in Coney Island’s O’Dwyer Gardens housing project (where I once lived) and spent his childhood watching ships and tugs at sea from his window. This fascination led to SUNY Maritime College and a thirty-year career as a tugboat captain in New York Harbor. After selling his tugboat company, Thornton Towing and Transportation, he has realized his dream of giving nautical history tours of Coney Island and Jamaica Bay. Listen to Gerard Thornton's oral history

The tour boat is a 50-foot wooden motor yacht named the Nellie Bly. The boat can accommodate up to 49 passengers. A ticket for the two-hour tour is $35 for adults and $25 for children. Veterans and seniors are $25. The tours are available Saturday and Sunday at 11 am and 2 pm. Later in the season there will be fireworks cruises on Friday night and following Cyclones games. 

Thornton named the boat Nellie Bly, in tribute to the adventurous muckraking journalist who exposed horrific conditions at the women’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s island. Bly’s 1889 trip around the world in 73 days beat the fictional account of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. The boat’s name is a fitting tribute to an early pioneer of women’s rights.

"Coney Island has a remarkable and rich history," said Captain Thornton. "The Coney Island Steamboat Company (CISCo) was established to bring the sights, sounds, and history of the Brooklyn waterfront to life for passengers looking for something a little bit different. Our tours provide narrated backstory to the geography, politics and personalities that shaped the neighborhoods of Coney Island and the surrounding area. We offer a fun and exciting way to explore the southern Brooklyn shoreline in a whole new way." The Coney Island History Project will be collaborating with the Coney Island Steamboat Company to provide archival materials for the tour.

Tickets and information at:

-- Charles Denson

Captain Gerard (right), deckhand Tyler (left), and Thornton's son Gage (rear), aboard the Nellie Bly.

Coney Island History Project 20th Anniversary

Celebrating our 20th year in 2024, the Coney Island History Project opens for the season on Saturday, May 25th, of Memorial Day Weekend. Since the History Project's inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk and the inaugural season of our exhibition center in 2007, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!” The exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. Our hours are 1:00 PM-7:00 PM. We're located at 3059 West 12th Street, next to the West 12th Street entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk.

Visitors can view historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past. You’re invited to take free souvenir photos with "Cy," the mesmerizing Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, and Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Our rarest treasure on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact from the dawn of the "World's Playground." The 1823 Toll House sign in our collection dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson was recently invited to participate in a fascinating new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society titled Lost New York. The exhibition “explores the landmarks, vistas, pastimes, environments, monuments, communities, and modes of transportation that once defined this city.” Preserving pieces of a vanishing past is the theme, and on display are a treasure trove of artifacts and artworks from the museum’s vast collection. Denson was invited to write a panel relating to the lost natural environment of Coney Island as illustrated by 19th century paintings and photographs. “My panel explains that sometimes what was lost in the past can be restored if there’s public awareness and advocacy." 

According to Denson, “Chief Curator Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto has a unique vision regarding the complexities of New York City history and has paired each object in the exhibit with stories by contemporary New Yorkers.” There are more than 100 objects in the show that define New York’s past, but also show the importance of landmark preservation. Lost New York is on display until September 29, 2024.

posted May 19th, 2024 in Events and tagged with Lost New York, New-York Historical Society, exhibition,...

In a joyful dedication on May 11, the walkway along Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park was officially named Gene Ritter Way. The ceremony took place during Estuary Day, the annual event founded in 2015 by Gene as a way to celebrate, protect, and restore the neglected Coney Island Creek estuary. Coney Island native Gene, who passed away in 2018, was a commercial diver, environmentalist, and educator dedicated to teaching youth about local history and marine environments. He was also the diver who discovered and recovered the historic Dreamland Bell, which was displayed at the Coney Island History Project in 2009. You can listen to Gene's oral history, which he recorded in 2016, on the Coney Island History Project's website at:



posted May 12th, 2024 in News and tagged with


"Watch Her Dance to the End of Love," Benny's storefront on West 12th Street. Photo by Charles Denson.

By Charles Denson

A phone call from Benny always began with a private joke: “Charlie, tell me what’s new in the World’s Playground.” A bit of irony. The amusement world that Benny had known all his life was fast disappearing. He was old-school and didn’t follow Coney Island politics or gossip. Our long conversations took place in the off-season, when things were quiet. During the summer Benny worked his games 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and had no time to talk. He stayed focused on his little world on West 12th Street. 

After years of trading stories, I asked if he wanted to record an oral history. He said, “When I’m gone you can tell my story.” We recorded over several years. No one else could better express the ups and downs, the joy and despair of working and living in Coney Island. He had many lives, a survivor in a sometimes cruel world. You can listen to Benny Harrison's oral history here:

Benny was a quiet, well-read contrarian: shy, elusive, creative, brilliant, a sweetheart who was difficult to pin down and always absorbed in a heavy book about world history, architecture, or philosophy. He liked silly jokes and puns and spoke in riddles. He was a quiet genius always inventing, building, restoring, or repairing mechanical devices in his cramped, tiny shop behind the games. He enjoyed making people smile by providing unusual tableaus, signs, displays, prizes, toys and tricks, things like the dancing marionettes that no one else offered. Objects remembered from childhood.

In 2011 the Coney Island History Project moved to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the following year Benny left Jones Walk when the Vourderis family gave him the space next door to ours. We became twin attractions on 12th Street! His stand was bright and colorful. Next to his Skin-the-Wire game were two of Benny’s idiosyncratic creations: the mechanical Dancing Girl (Miss Coney Island) and the adjacent animated Coney Island diorama portraying a happy miniature world.

The Dancing Girl danced to unusual tunes chosen by Benny: sometimes reggae but usually the Australian bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda” or the sentimental version of “Over the Rainbow,” by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwoʻolei. Both attractions can still be played for a quarter, something unheard of in Coney Island. A small sign says that you can "fall in love" for 25 cents. He later added the cute mechanical kitten and puppy that dance and wiggle below Miss Coney Island’s feet. The Dancing Girl has thousands of friends who come to visit and dance with her each summer. 

The signs above Benny’s games are often a source of bewilderment: “Watch Her Dance to the End of Love” a reference to the Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.” “Coney Island Always” is the optimistic sign that hangs above a lively miniature animated Coney Island window display. And of course, “Don’t Postpone Joy.”

In his final years Benny still came to work while recovering from cancer, heart disease, and a series of strokes. Benny never took the simple path. He was still building, repairing, and restoring his own games while also helping solve mechanical problems for others. Some of his games were overly complicated puzzles. He’d sit back and watch customers try to figure them out. The games were fun, but not big moneymakers, and sometimes it seemed that he was building them just to amuse himself. 

Benny had a hard life. He grew up in Coney Island during the 1940s and 50s, and at the age of 12 began working in his father’s candy factory. His father died young. He was a gambler who lost the family business in a card game, plunging the family into poverty. Benny and his mother wound up living in a one-room apartment in Sea Gate while trying to pay off his father’s debts.

Benny continued in the candy business as a teenager with a stand at Feltmans Restaurant that he and his mother operated. When Feltmans closed, they became Astroland’s first tenant. During the park’s construction, Benny had two cotton candy machines on a plywood box, painted red and white, powered by an extension cord reaching from a nearby restaurant. Business was conducted over the fence.

Benny's hexagonal stand in Astroland, c. 1963. Photo © Coney Island History Project

In 1963 Benny hired an architect and commissioned a new stand, a hexagonal structure just inside the entrance to the park. Benny worked at the new store while studying engineering at Hunter College night school, where he had enrolled at age 17. The following year he was drafted into the Army.

Benny hated the Army and took an exam for Naval Aviation at Floyd Bennett Field and received high scores. The draft board sent him to the Navy Aviation Electrical School in Jacksonville, Florida, for training in building jet plane control systems. This is where he learned the skill for building animated figures and robotics. He learned to build games by working on military fighter jets. Benny remained in the Navy reserves for six years while working in Coney Island and expanding his numerous businesses. 

During the 1960s Benny began buying up Coney Island property. After Astroland expanded, he was forced to demolish his hexagonal stand, but opened two soft ice cream stores in the park. He purchased several distressed properties, including the old Shore Hotel on Henderson Walk at Surf Avenue. On the day that the sale closed on the hotel, the FBI stopped Benny from entering the building as they were arresting a fugitive from their 10 Most Wanted list who was living upstairs in the hotel. A week later the hotel manager had a stroke, and Benny found himself running a hotel. From there it went downhill.

Benny bought and later lost the Shore Hotel on Surf Avenue in the 1960s. It was demolished in 2011. Photo by Charles Denson.

Next, he bought a one-story structure next to the Popper Building (now a shooting gallery) and opened a colorful storefront selling candy apples, popcorn, frozen bananas, ices, and taffy. Benny developed new candy products such as a caramel coconut popcorn that became quite famous. He used antique machines with heavy brass molds to produce all kinds of sweets.

Benny's candy store on Surf Avenue in the late 1960s. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Benny operated successful businesses at both locations only to lose the buildings and businesses due to a failed marriage and brutal divorce. Later, the owners of these properties would make millions by selling them during the Coney Island rezoning.

Benny started over with a variety of games. He teamed up with game builder Charlie Walker and opened a small machine shop. He also ran a printing business and traveled to flea markets and fairs selling lithographs and toys. He built penny pitches, fishing games, shooting galleries, boxing puppets, carnival wheels (one of which wound up in the movie Goodfellas), and every kind of game imaginable, all with a twist, a Benny signature of sorts that made them unique. 

Coney Island became violent in the 1970s, and it was risky to operate open games. Ride booths were attacked, and buildings were vandalized, burned, and burglarized. The Homicides street gang broke into Benny’s Boardwalk store and stole most of his equipment. He also lost several dozen antique mutoscope arcade machines that were in storage, machines that now sell for thousands of dollars each. 

Benny in his shop repairing an antique arcade machine from the 1920s. Photo by Charles Denson.

Eventually Benny wound up on Jones Walk, in a stand that Jack Ward owned. His neighbors were his sister and brother-in-law, Dinah and Wally Roberts. Wally owned the historic Grashorn Building on the Walk and gave Benny a space upstairs to use as a shop. Jones Walk was alive and thriving with all kinds of games until the rezoning of Coney Island in 2009, when all the properties changed hands. Jones Walk would never be the same, and the future became bleak for the small independent businesses that once operated there. 

Benny would have gone out of business if it weren’t for the kindness of the Vourderis family, owners of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. He reopened his games and a small shop in the space below the kiddie park. The store was soon filled with prizes including marionettes, jewel boxes, and a million toys. Everyone who played the games got a prize, win or lose. Benny was able to enjoy another decade of intrigue in the heart of the World’s Playground. 

Benny Harrison died on March 11, 2024. He was cared for and looked after by his friends who worked with him and loved him and put up with his nonsense. With his passing went a way of life that is slowly coming to an end. Benji, you will be missed.

You can listen to Benny Harrison's oral history here:

Benny contemplates the crowd at his stand during the Mermaid Parade. "They don't play the games," he lamented, "they only drink!"  Photo by Charles Denson

posted Mar 15th, 2024 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Benny Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, Coney Island,...

Benny Harrison

Coney Island has lost one of its most creative and beloved souls. Our good friend and neighbor, Benny Harrison, passed away on the morning of March 11 at the age of 83. For more than 60 years Benny Harrison brought fun and smiles to visitors who enjoyed his delightful, artistic creations. For the last ten years Benny’s stands on West 12th Street entertained thousands with his dancing girl, Miss Coney Island; an animated diorama of Coney Island; and a storefront of quirky games. All of these attractions were designed and built by Benny, who also operated several homemade candy stores in Coney Island over many decades. Benny was a one of a kind, witty, soulful, beautiful man who will be missed terribly by all who knew him.

posted Mar 11th, 2024 in News and tagged with In Memoriam, Benny Harrison, Benjamin Harrison,...

Johns Bait and Tackle

Last year, Cynthia Nuara of Queens, New York, sent a query to the Coney Island History Project asking if we had photos or information about her great-grandfather John Polise’s bait and tackle store. John's Bait & Tackle operated from the 1940s through 1974. “I believe it was near the old Thunderbolt roller coaster, perhaps where the Cyclones Stadium is now. I would love to find some prints, if they exist somewhere, to give to my mom and aunts,” she wrote.

By an amazing coincidence, we recorded an oral history interview in 2011 in which the owners of John's Bait & Tackle play a prominent role. In his oral history, Morris Egert, a self-described “greenhorn” from Poland, talks about "Mary and John" of the bait and tackle next door to his brand-new food stand on West 16th Street in Coney Island in 1951. He vividly describes the kindness of Cynthia Nuara’s great-grandparents, who saved the Egert family’s business by teaching them how to make Italian food.

"When we opened up, my mother made a gefilte fish and chopped liver and knishes," Egert recalls. "And this wonderful lady, Mary, came in. She says, you know, this is not the right place here. You want that? You gotta go up 29th Street, 30th Street. You're in the wrong place for this. And this wonderful lady really saved us. She came in and she taught us how to make pizza and sausage and peppers.  And we ate up the chopped liver.“ Morris Egert went on to become a successful caterer.

“I knew my great-grandmother well, she died when I was 12,” wrote Nuara, after listening to Egert's oral history. “She was super opinionated so this interview is making me smile. I can just see her re-doing this guy’s whole business! And before the bait and tackle, they did own a restaurant.”

Nuara's great-aunt Gail Polise, whose late husband Vincent was John and Mary's son, shared the following information, family photos and business cards. They tell the history of the Polise family's businesses in Coney Island, starting with a restaurant with furnished rooms in 1929.

Polise Business Cards

Coney Island business cards in chronological order from 1929 through the 1970s, clockwise from top left. Photo courtesy of the Polise family.

"John Polise was an Italian immigrant from Capri, Italy.  He was proprietor and chef of Santa Lucia, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  There he met and married Mary Scotti, a Williamsburg native.  Their children, Rose and Vincent, were born in Williamsburg. Having grown up on the Isle of Capri, it was only fitting that John was drawn to Coney Island. In 1929 he and Mary moved their family and business to Coney Island.

"John's first venture in Coney Island was the Tre Stelle Restaurant and seasonal rentals on the Bowery.  The restaurant occupied a large ground level area and the rental rooms were above.  John and Mary seasonally accommodated and fed tourists and visitors to the Island.  It was very hard work and their livelihood for almost nine years, until John opted for a restaurant only.  Mary was then relieved of the responsibility of the rental rooms. In 1938 he opened John's Restaurant at West 16th Street and the Boardwalk.  Vinny remembered he and his sister helping to bus dishes and set tables.  The restaurant business, although successful, was labor intensive.  In the 1940s John began to transition to a bait and tackle only venue.  He operated John's Bait & Tackle from then until 1974.  He was located on West 16 Street near the Boardwalk entrance closest to the pier.  John, Mary, Vinny, and Rose worked long hours and happily catered to the needs of the Coney Island fisherman.

John Polise

John Polise with the day's catch. Photo courtesy of the Polise family.

"According to Vinny, Coney Island was a wonderful place to grow up.  He loved the atmosphere and the people. During the season it was bustling with people, excitement and opportunities to earn a few extra pennies by selling soap slices outside the bathhouses or 'barking' at a concession or selling homemade bags of confetti for the end of season Mardi Gras. The winter was desolate for those who lived there year round.  However, the friendships were hard and fast. Both he and Rose had lifelong Coney Island friends. After their years on the Bowery, the family lived in various Coney Island apartments, until they settled into an apartment at 1526 Mermaid Avenue."

Vincent Polise was a public school teacher in New York City and lived in Coney Island until 1961. Rose raised her family (including Mary Celentano, Cynthia’s mom) on West 17th Street until they moved to Staten Island in 1965. If you have any snapshots of John's Bait & Tackle or John's Restaurant, please send to and we'll be happy to forward to the Polise family. --Tricia Vita

posted Feb 4th, 2024 in History and tagged with Oral Histories, oral history, Morris Egert,...

Coney Island History Project

Photo: Jimmy Prince, Charles Denson and John Dorman at Ruby's on the Coney Island Boardwalk in 2011.

We're sad to hear that our friend John Dorman, 93, has passed away. John Dorman and Philips Candy were Coney Island landmarks. His smiling face and bright colorful candy store were the first thing you’d see when entering the Stillwell Terminal in the morning, and again when returning from work at night. You could always depend on a kind word and a smile when stopping by for a cup of coffee.. And of course there was his delicious home-made candy on display in the windows of the business he operated for half a century.

It was a shame that the MTA would not let him return after the station was renovated. Coney’s loss was Staten Island’s gain when he reopened his store at the other side of the Verrazano Bridge. He was a Coney Island original: a caring, hard-working man. He will be missed. You can listen to John Dorman's 2010 oral history interview with Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project here

posted Dec 29th, 2023 in News and tagged with John Dorman, Philips Candy, Coney Island,...

Astroland Star

The Astroland Star was recently featured in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Quarterly! The star, which dates to the early 1960s, will be prominently displayed in the Living in the Space Age gallery scheduled to open at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in 2025. "The aesthetic of the Astroland park at New York's Coney Island was the embodiment of the optimistic futurism in the early Space Age," an article previewing the new exhibit says. "When visitors first enter the gallery they will see the star from the park's actual sign." The photograph seen above, which History Project director Charles Denson took of the star lit up at night, will be on display with it.

The eight-foot-high lighted star from Astroland's entrance gate was donated to the Smithsonian by Carol and Jerry Albert, owners of Astroland Park and founders of the Coney Island History Project, in 2009. Margaret A. Weitekamp, curator in the Museum’s Division of Space History, said at the time: “The National Air and Space Museum is delighted to receive this important popular culture artifact into the national collection. Astroland embodied the widespread excitement about early human spaceflight in the early 1960s. Having a Star from the Astroland gateway, where thousands of people passed to enjoy this entertaining vision of the space age, is a wonderful example of that space craze.”

The Living in the Space Age gallery, depicted in the artist's rendering below, will occupy three levels in the Museum. You can see the Astroland Star at the lower right.

Astroland Star 

posted Dec 21st, 2023 in News and tagged with

Happy Holidays 2024

Happy Holidays from the Coney Island History Project! As 2023 comes to a close, we're grateful for our friends and supporters.

Highlights from this year include:

• Opening our exhibition center season with a special exhibit about the past, present, and future of the 100-year-old Riegelmann Boardwalk

• Presenting outdoor exhibits at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, including an installation of history panels in front of the Astroland Moon Rocket and history banners adjacent to the Wheel and below the Phoenix Roller Coaster

• Celebrating Coney Island’s 200th anniversary by displaying and honoring Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact, the 200-year-old Coney Island Toll House sign that dates to 1823 and is the centerpiece of our collection

• Recording new oral histories for our multilingual online archive, which now has over 460 interviews with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and nearby neighborhoods of Southern Brooklyn or have a special connection to these places

• Publishing Salvation by the Sea: Immigrants, Coney Island, and The Fresh Air Cure, by Charles Denson. A book about the Coney Island "Seaside Homes" built by charities during the late 1800s and early 1900s to provide a summer respite for immigrant mothers and their children

• Producing a special event featuring master paper cutter Ming Liang Lu recalling the tradition of Coney Island's silhouette cutters of the past. In the plaza in front of the History Project, visitors were invited to have their portrait cut free of charge and view portraits as they were being created 

• Connecting with the community by offering free events such as our Coney Island History Show and Tell reminiscence event via Zoom and our Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour of Coney Island as part of Immigrant Heritage Week

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibits, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter our 20th year.

We’re counting the days until we meet again in Coney Island for the 2024 season!

Charles Denson, Executive Director

posted Dec 21st, 2023 in News and tagged with