Coney Island Blog - Events

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,...

Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge Photo by Jim McDonnell

The fun place to be on New Year’s Day is Coney Island and the best way to welcome 2024 is with a dip in the Atlantic! Join the Coney Island Polar Bear Club for their 121st Annual New Year’s Day Plunge on January 1st from 11 AM until 2 PM. The party starts on the Boardwalk at 10 AM.

In an oral history recorded by the Coney Island History Project, Polar Bear Club president Dennis Thomas recalls the New Year's Day Plunge over the decades: "It's been going on as long as anybody knows and it used to be just kind of an informal gathering of the Polar Bear Club itself. Then more people from the public," says Thomas, who began swimming with the Bears in the 1970s. "When I first started, if there were a hundred people there, we'd say, wow, this was huge. It's a bucket list thing. People want to do it once in their life and New Year's Day is a great day to do that."

Around 4,000 people participated in the 2023 Plunge. There is no fee to participate but all funds raised help support local non-profits offering environmental, educational, and cultural programming including the Alliance for Coney Island, Coney Island History Project, Coney Island USA, Coney Island YMCA, New York Aquarium and more.

Please visit the event website to register in advance for the Coney Island New Year's Day Polar Plunge or make a donation.

Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell

posted Dec 17th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island Polar Bear Club, New Year's Day, Coney Island,...

The Coney Island History Project will celebrate Coney Island’s 200th birthday on October 28th by displaying and honoring Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact: the 200-year-old Coney Island Toll House sign that dates to 1823. Please join us! Our exhibition center at 3059 West 12th Street next to the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park will be open on Saturday, October 28, from 1 PM – 5 PM. The rain date is Sunday, October 29. Admission is free of charge.

Coney Island first opened to the public in the summer of 1823 when a bridge and toll house were constructed at Coney Island Creek and Shell Road. Only one object from Coney Island’s humble origins has survived for two centuries. That relic is the original Coney Island Toll House sign on display at the Coney Island History Project. And for that we thank Carol Albert, co-founder of the Coney Island History Project, who rescued the sign and had it restored. 

In his film shared above and the following essay, History Project director Charles Denson tells the story of “Coney Island’s Oldest Artifact: How the Coney Island Toll House Sign Survived for 200 Years.”

October 28: Join Us to Celebrate Coney Island’s 200th Birthday!

Coney Island first opened to the public in the summer of 1823. A one-paragraph article buried in the August 18, 1823, New York American breezily announced the opening: “The Road and Bridge leading to this delightful island are now complete. It is open the ocean, with the finest and most regular beach we ever saw . . .” From these humble beginnings Coney Island would soon become the most famous resort in the world. 

Until 1823 there was no public access to the island. Coney Island began as “common land” shared by 39 property owners in the village of Gravesend. The island was a pristine environment known for mountainous sand dunes, a vibrant salt marsh, the sparkling beach, juniper forests, and cool ocean breezes. Coney Island Creek was a popular spot for fishing and hunting waterfowl, but before the Shell Road bridge was built, the island could only be accessed by rowboat. The Island’s only resident was Abram Van Sicklen, whose small farm was located on the creek.

In March of 1823 Gravesend formed the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company in order to provide better access to the island. Shell Road was extended one mile through a vast salt marsh to the new bridge. A wooden toll house and gate were constructed on the banks of Coney Island Creek. Gravesend resident James Cropsey was appointed to operate the Road and Bridge Company. In the first days after the road opened, toll-taker Daniel Morell counted 300 horse-drawn vehicles crossing the bridge.

A simple sign at the toll gate listed the fees to enter the island. These ranged from 5 cents for a “horse and rider” to 50 cents for a “coach drawn by horses.” The sign also listed the “Rate of Toll” for a “Coach, Carriage, Pleasure Wagon, or Sulkey.” In 1829 a wood-frame hotel opened near the toll house. Others hotels and roadhouses soon sprang up around it. By the 1830s, Coney Island had become a popular destination.

The entrance to Coney Island was picturesque, with a canopy of weeping willows shading the toll house, and verdant Coney Island Creek beside it. John Lefferts operated the bridge and tollhouse from the 1830s until 1876, when Andrew Culver bought the property for his railroad. Tolls were no longer collected and the toll house was transformed into a private residence. Culver’s Prospect Park & Coney Island Railroad was later consolidated into the New York City transit system. The F-train now follows its former route.

Toll House

The toll house fell on hard times. The wooden toll sign, a curiosity from earlier times, remained attached to the toll house. The neglected creek-side structure was forgotten as it fell into disrepair. In 1929 the century-old historic building was finally demolished when Shell Road was widened and realigned. The toll sign was the only thing that was saved.

The sign’s remarkable history and provenance after the toll house was razed can be accurately traced. In 1928 the sign was removed from the toll house by ride manufacturer William Mangels Jr. and displayed in his father’s amusement museum, located one block away on West 8th Street. 

The museum soon closed for lack of interest, and most of its artifacts were sold off. The sign remained at the factory. In 1964, six years after William Mangels Sr. died, his son sold the sign to folk-art collector Frederick Fried, who was also buying up hundreds of artifacts from Steeplechase Park following the park’s closure. Fried stored his vast Coney Island collection in a barn in Vermont but kept the sign displayed on the wall of his apartment on Riverside Drive. This turned out to be fortunate for the sign. In the early 1980s, the Vermont barn burned to the ground, and Fried’s entire collection of historic Coney Island artifacts went up in flames. Fred Fried died shortly afterward. 

Fried’s estate sold the toll house sign to Nick Zervos, who kept it in his private collection. It was not seen again for decades. In 2003 I was contacted by Brooklyn antique dealer Charlie Shapiro who was a fan of my Coney Island book. He told me he had an important artifact he was selling, and asked if I was interested. He said that Nick Zervos had passed away, and his family was selling the Coney Island Toll House sign. The historic sign had finally resurfaced! I told him that I was VERY interested.

I agreed to meet Shapiro at his apartment. After small talk, we entered his kitchen and he pulled the sign out from a narrow space between his kitchen sink and the refrigerator. It was not in good shape. I asked the price and realized that it was beyond my finances but the sign had to be saved. I hated the thought of this historic object being sold into another private collection, never to be seen again. 

Soon after finding the sign, I met with Carol Albert, owner of Astroland. We were in the early days of forming the Coney Island History Project. I told Carol about the historic sign that was stuck in a dank space next to a kitchen sink and was about to be sold off. What was truly amazing is that the sign was accompanied by detailed documentation showing its removal from the toll house in 1928. Carol asked me briefly about Shapiro. I thought that was the end of the story.

Later in the week Carol told me she had something to show me. I entered her office, and there was the sign, leaning against the wall. Carol had rescued it and said that the Albert Family was donating it to the History Project. 

The fragile sign was in a deteriorated state and needed professional restoration before returning to Coney Island. The wood was severely rotted, crumbling, and insect damaged. The sign was in such poor condition that it could not be safely handled or displayed. Carol arranged for a professional restoration, which included new backing, thermoplastic resin injected into the damaged wood, and highlighting the faded lettering with a reversible transparent wash. Ultraviolet light and infrared photography revealed no hidden lettering.

Following the restoration the Toll House Sign was put on display at the History Project, just a few blocks from where it first greeted travelers 200 years ago. The sign’s importance is symbolic. It represents the endurance, continuity, and resiliency of Coney Island. It is the only object that was there at the beginning, the only link to the origins of the World’s Playground. 

Toll Sign Repair

 

posted Oct 23rd, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Coney Island, two hundred years, 1823,...

Ming Liang Lu Coney Island History Project


On Saturday, June 3rd, the Coney Island History Project is pleased to present Ming Liang Lu, a Shanghai-born artist who creates 3-D paper portraits. From 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM, visitors are invited to have their portrait cut and view portraits as they're being created. Portraits will be available free of charge on a first come, first served basis. 

Master Lu's artwork has been exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History and featured in a New York Times article "Making Faces in the Subway, Using Paper and Scissors." The article describes “his ability to trim facial portraits out of frail paper within minutes, compelling some riders to miss their trains.” He credits his skill to his formative training in stone sculpture and stone stamp-seal carving. Master Lu is a City Artist Corps and Brooklyn Arts Council grantee and a teaching artist at senior centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. He teaches Chinese calligraphy, brush painting and paper cutting art. 

Credit: Poster design by Erin Mathewson.
 

posted May 24th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island History Project, Ming Liang Lu,...

The Riegelmann Boardwalk Coney Island History Project

The Coney Island History Project will open the 2023 season of our exhibition center on Memorial Day Weekend with an exhibit about the one hundred-year-old Riegelmann Boardwalk curated by Charles Denson. 

One hundred years ago, on May 15, 1923, the Coney Island Boardwalk officially opened! It was named for Brooklyn Borough President Edward Riegelmann who said: "Poor people will no longer have to stand with their faces pressed against wire fences looking at the ocean."

The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future is a fascinating exhibit that tells the story of how the Coney Island Boardwalk came into being, how it was constructed, and how it changed Coney Island forever by opening the shoreline to the public. Historic photographs and maps will illustrate the innovative construction techniques that were used for the first time to create Coney Island’s new  “Main Street” in 1923. A century of memorable photographs will be on display!

“As the Boardwalk celebrates its hundredth birthday its future is hard to predict," says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. "Will it remain a boardwalk, or will it become the world’s longest, widest sidewalk?" The exhibit describes the challenges facing this century-old New York City landmark as the City debates whether the deteriorating Boardwalk should be resurfaced with concrete, plastic, or wood.

The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future will be on view from May 27 through September 4, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1:00 PM- 7:00 PM. Admission is free of charge. The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. For additional information, e-mail events@coneyislandhistory.org

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

posted Apr 18th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island Boardwalk, Boardwalk,...

Denos Wonder Wheel History Banner Exhibit

The Coney Island History Project's free outdoor banner exhibits have returned to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park for the 2023 season. The banners will be on view from April 22nd through the end of October during park hours.

The Wonder Wheel and the Immigrant Dream tells the remarkable story of the Wonder Wheel and the family that operates Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The colorful history banners are located on the Wheel's walkway adjacent to the History Project, as well as below Deno's Phoenix Roller Coaster.

An installation of history panels in front of the Astroland Moon Rocket is located in the lower park, across from the Bumper Cars and adjacent to the Wonder Wheel. Installed in 2022, this permanent exhibit honors Coney’s space-age attraction that debuted at the dawn of the space race in 1962 and the 60th anniversary of the opening of Astroland Park.

Admission to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park is free. The Wonder Wheel opens at 12:00 PM on weekends and holidays in the spring. Hours of operation are subject to change depending on weather conditions.

Astroland Rocket Installation
 

April 23: Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour of Coney Island

Join us on Sunday, April 23rd, to learn about the contributions of immigrants to the history and development of Coney Island on our Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour. The Coney Island History Project is offering this special walking tour free of charge as part of Immigrant Heritage Week 2023.

Among the stops on the tour and the stories of struggle, success and achievement are Nathan's Famous, founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker; Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, where the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel was purchased by Greek immigrant Denos D. Vourderis as a wedding ring for his wife Lula; and the B&B Carousell, created in 1919 by German and Russian immigrants and now Coney's last hand-carved wooden carousel. The tour will also highlight businesses operated by immigrants who have recorded their stories for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive.

Coordinated by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Immigrant Heritage Week (IHW) is an annual citywide program of events celebrating the history, traditions and contributions of New York City's diverse immigrant communities. IHW 2023 is scheduled for April 17-23 in recognition of April 17, 1907, the date when more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other date in history.

The April 23rd tour starts at 1:00 PM. Advance registration is required. Please reserve free tickets in advance on our Eventbrite page. Ticket reservations are limited to 2 per person as capacity is limited. Meet at the Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th St (at 12th Street entrance to Wonder Wheel), Brooklyn NY 11224.

The tour takes 1 hour and 30 minutes. Walking tours are held rain or shine. We reserve the right to cancel tours in the event of potentially dangerous weather.

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York City Councilman Ari Kagan.

posted Apr 12th, 2023 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Immigrant Heritage Week, Walking Tour,...

Coney Island History Show and Tell

You're invited to join us for “Coney Island History Show & Tell,” an interactive reminiscence event presented by the Coney Island History Project via Zoom on Thursday, March 16. Do you have historical or personal objects or stories related to Coney Island that you would like to share? Sign up to “show and tell” your story by emailing events@coneyislandhistory.org

This month's theme is Vanished Attractions. Among the attractions we’ll revisit are Steeplechase Park and Astroland, fun houses and dark rides, Fascination parlors, bungalow colonies, and the mechanical Laughing Lady. What made these vanished attractions so beloved, and why did they vanish? Can they be found outside of Coney Island? We’ll explore these and other questions.

Tickets for "Coney Island History Show & Tell" are free of charge. Advance registration is required and capacity is limited. Registrants will be sent the Zoom link two days before the event.

👉 Register via Eventbrite for Thursday, March 16 at 7:00PM - 8:00PM.

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York City Councilman Ari Kagan.

 

New Years Day Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge

The place to be on New Year’s Day is Coney Island and the best way to welcome 2023 is with a splash in the Atlantic. Join the Coney Island Polar Club for their 120th Annual New Year’s Day Plunge on January 1st from 11 AM until 2 PM. The party starts on the Boardwalk at 10 AM.

Polar Bear Club president Dennis Thomas talks about the New Year's Day Plunge over the decades in an oral history he recorded for the Coney Island History Project in 2019: "It's been going on as long as anybody knows and it used to be just kind of an informal gathering of the Polar Bear Club itself. Then more people from the public," says Dennis, who began swimming with the Bears in the 1970s. "When I first started, if there were a hundred people there, we'd say, wow, this was huge. It's a bucket list thing. People want to do it once in their life and New Year's Day is a great day to do that."

There is no fee to participate but all funds raised help support local non-profits offering environmental, educational, and cultural programming including the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island History Project, Coney Island USA, Coney Island YMCA, and more.

Visit polarbearclub.org to register in advance for the New Year's Day Plunge or make a donation.

Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell
 

posted Dec 22nd, 2022 in Events and tagged with Coney Island Polar Bear Club, New Year's Day, Coney Island,...