Coney Island Blog - History

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

On August 16th, we'd ordinarily say Happy National Roller Coaster Day and propose celebrating with a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone.  Since New York's amusement park rides, including the Cyclone, have been closed this season by state executive order due to the pandemic, the word "happy" is hard to muster.  We're honoring the day with a selection of roller coaster-themed oral history interviews from the Coney Island History Project's Archive which you can listen to online. National Roller Coaster Day commemorates Edwin Prescott's August 16, 1898 patent for a vertical Loop the Loop. The looping coaster was built in 1901 on Surf Avenue in Coney Island where the 1927 Cyclone roller coaster is now.

Don Ferris, who passed away in 2018, was involved with everything that Coney Island had to offer. He was a carpenter, mechanic, and a showman who started his career with the Tilyou and McCullough families, operating roller coasters and road attractions. This recording describes how he started in the amusement business and how he wound up operating and living in an apartment inside the Tornado roller coaster.

Mindy Gress and her family moved to Coney Island when she was 3-1/2 and she has lived here ever since. She looks back on her job developing photos of Cyclone riders in the coaster's darkroom in the summer of 1977. "You had to wait for the ride to stop to develop it because the enlarger would shake and the photo would come out blurry." She also recalls riding the Cyclone for four hours straight with Richard Rodriguez, the roller coaster marathoner who was training for his record-breaking 104-hour Cyclone ride.

Harold J. Kramer shares memories of traveling from Chicago with his family to visit his great-aunt and great-uncle in Coney Island. Molly and George Moran owned and operated the Thunderbolt and lived in the house under the roller coaster, which was later immortalized in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall. Kramer recalls the cousins being given tokens to ride the coaster and play Skee Ball at Playland Arcade.

David Head is a retired NYC Transit worker and former chairman of the Black History Committee for TWU Local 100 who has championed the accomplishments of African-American inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910). Among Woods' many electrical patents was one for the world's first electric roller coaster, which was located in Coney Island a century ago. Head was instrumental in having a Coney Island street across from the Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal renamed "Granville T. Woods Way."

Meg Feeley shares memories of a renegade ride on the Thunderbolt on a February night in the 1980s, a few years after the roller coaster had closed down. Meg is a writer who has written many poems inspired by her experiences in Coney Island.

Kyle Yapching had long awaited being tall enough to ride the Cyclone roller coaster. He visits his aunt and uncle every summer and finally in 2010 he was able to go on the historic roller coaster with his uncle.

Erik Knapp of the rock band Mystical Children arrives in the middle of the night to be the first person in line to ride the Cyclone on opening day. He shows off his fresh tattoo of the ride's top hill.

Avid roller coaster rider Bill Galvin recounts the time he wore a dress to participate in a women's marathon on the Cyclone roller coaster in 1997.

Visiting Coney Island from upstate New York in 2009, Robert Maxwell estimates that he has ridden the Cyclone at least 35-40 times since his first visit in the early 1990's. He describes why he likes riding in the front car best and how he worked with his tattoo artist to design his Cyclone tattoo. Riding the Cyclone is a fond memory Robert shares with his father who rode with him on his first visit to Coney Island.

If you or someone you know would like to share a story via phone, Skype or Zoom, sign up here. We record oral history interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

During these days of social distancing our online oral history archive was featured in the New York TimesTime Out NY, and Curbed New York as a cure for loneliness, a way to lose yourself in fascinating stories from the past, and visit Coney Island from afar. Among the new additions to the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive are the following audio interviews recorded by Kaara Baptiste, Charles Denson, Leila Goldstein, Julia Kanin, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story via phone, Skype or Zoom, sign up here. We record interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

Born and raised in Coney Island, artist Richard Glazer-Danay is of Kahnawake Mohawk and Jewish descent. His family first came to Coney Island with circuses and Wild West shows in the late 1800's and early 1900's and settled on West 16th Street. There were many hard hats around his house, and he became known for using these symbols of Mohawk iron workers as inspiration for his art works.

Charles Guariglia, 77, recalls that from age 9 until he went to college, he accompanied his dad on his bread route in the summer. They delivered Stuhmer's kosher bread to the Jewish delicatessens and shops along Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. "As I look back, it was probably the one experience that helped form me as an adult," he says. "Hard work, honesty, tell the truth at all times."

Lois McLohon posed for a Daily News photographer as a bathing beauty against the backdrop of Coney Island beach and its famous skyline in 1954. When the picture appeared as a "cheesecake photo" in the paper's centerfold, she and her friends thought it was fun. It wasn't till recent years, thanks to it being posted on the web, that the photo became iconic. "I think it captures the spirit of the times," says Lois.

Melody Andorfer recalls entering and winning Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in 1972, the contest’s first year. She beat all competitors, men and women. Her prize was a paper crown. Melody recently contacted the Coney Island History Project with an unusual request: she wanted help getting her victory belt, the massive, jeweled prize that's now given to winners of the Nathan's contest.

Jim Lucarelli describes "the opportunity and the privilege" of working at Coney Island's Steeplechase Park in 1963 and 1964, the last two summers before the park closed, as a teenage ride operator at the Sports Car. He vividly recalls fighting the Ravenhall Fire from the top of a wooden coaster.

Artist Alisa Minyukova emigrated from St Petersburg to New York City with her mother and grandmother in 1981. She recalls childhood memories of St. Petersburg and Coney Island, and the common visceral memory of the Soviet Union in Brighton Beach. 

Richard Termini's earliest memories are of playing under the El on New Utrecht Avenue in Bensonhurst, where his family operated Termini's Bakery, and going to Coney Island’s Ravenhall Baths as a child. In 1962, he rode the Astroland Rocket, an experience that inspired a lifelong interest in designing and building high power rockets.

Born and raised in Coney Island, Marie Navarro says her family came here from Puerto Rico in 1957 and settled in Gravesend Houses in 1970. "Everybody knows each other," says Marie, "When you walk on Mermaid Avenue you run into family and friends and by the time you reach the station, it's 40 minutes, because you stop here, you stop there.”

Pamela Pettyjohn is a longtime Coney Island resident and president of the non-profit environmental advocacy organization the Coney Island Beautification Project. She talks about her involvement with community activities such as gardening and green spaces for public use.

Tapestry artist Leonid Alaverdov, 87, is a resident of O’Dwyer Gardens in Coney Island whose work is inspired by his native Baku, Azerbaijan, and New York City, where he immigrated in 1993. Recorded in Russian with Russian and English transcription.

Philly Tribune columnist Alonzo Kittrels shares memories of bus trips from the 1940s through 1961 to Coney Island with the Good Will Family Club founded by his grandmother. Since the trip to Coney was not limited to family members as many as five buses were required and there was a great deal of preparation and anticipation the night before.

Monica Ghee is a Coney Island native who has operated games at various locations in the amusement district on and off for the past 52 years. She recalls some of the games she has worked in the past, including the dime pitch, glass pitch, goldfish bowl, and her signature game - the high striker.

Actor Emmanuel Elpenord shares memories of growing up in Sea Rise apartments in Coney Island's West End in the 1990s and his unique souvenir of the Wonder Wheel.  He recalls auditioning for Luna Park's Nights of Horror Halloween event in 2012, in which he was cast as the Devil. "I still treasure the experience as like my little badge of carnydom in having worked at Coney Island," says Emmanuel. "I'm one of the freaks too."

Sea Lion Park Coney Island History Project Collection

Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park in 1895. © Coney Island History Project Collection.

One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, on July 4, 1895, Paul Boyton opened Coney Island's and North America's first enclosed amusement park, Sea Lion Park, paving the way for Coney's other great parks, Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Erected on what would later become the original Luna Park, Boyton's park was a small collection of rides featuring the Shoot-the-Chutes water ride and the Flip-Flap looping coaster. Live sea lions entertained visitors. Visit our Oral History Archive to listen to an interview with Craig Boyton Dudley, great-grandson of Paul Boyton.

Sadly, the 125th anniversary year of Coney Island amusement parks and the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel is the first time ever that Coney Island's world famous parks have been closed for the 4th of July holiday. Coney's historic parks, Steeplechase and Luna Park, remained open during World Wars I and II, as well as the 1918 flu pandemic. This year, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and Luna Park, which traditionally open for the season on Palm Sunday, are temporarily closed due to statewide regulations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We're looking forward to the August 3rd publication of Charles Denson's book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park honoring the Wheel's 100th anniversary. Containing hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive, and interviews with the family of the original designer and builder of the Wonder Wheel, the book is part of Arcadia's Images of America series.

Richard Termini's earliest memories are of playing under the El on New Utrecht Avenue in Bensonhurst, where his family operated Termini's Bakery. Founded by his grandfather Giuseppe 'Joe' Termini in Manhattan in the early years of the 20th century, the bakery soon moved to Brooklyn, where it prospered and fed the extended family until closing in 1985. Richard recounts memories of baking with his grandfather and of neighborhood residents lining up to cook their Thanksgiving turkeys in the store's brick oven. His parents Carmella Turturro and Richard Termini met in Coney Island in the 1940s at Ravenhall Baths, where he has fond memories of being taken as a child. As a six-year-old in 1962, he rode the Astroland Rocket, an experience that inspired a lifelong interest in designing and building high power rockets. Now living in Australia, Richard shares his impressions of the last time he visited Coney Island in August 2001.

Coney Island History Project Collection

Throwback Thursday photo of the Rocky Road to Dublin, circa 1909, from the Coney Island History Project Collection. This scenic railway coaster ride, with its dramatic crenelated towers, was located on the current site of Brightwater Towers on Surf Avenue Between West 5th and West 8th Streets, across from the Aquarium. To the left is the arched entrance the Ben Hur Race double-track coaster. To the right is Zellers Drug Store, which competed with Chambers Drug Store across the street. Both were famous for their soda fountains. The street scene shows three forms of transportation: horses, bicycles, and the early automobile.

posted Apr 2nd, 2020 in History and tagged with Rocky Road to Dublin, Scenic Railway, Roller Coaster,...

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

August Wolfinger - Coney Island History Project

Art by August Wolfinger on the rounding boards of Coney Island's B&B Carousell. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Today in history: Artist August Wolfinger, 'The Michelangelo of the Midway,' died on December 1,1950. His pastoral and patriotic scenes grace the rounding boards of Coney Island's historic B&B Carousell. From April through October, when the B&B is open, it's one of the stops on the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. Although the amusement rides are now closed for the season, you can join our weekend tours year round.  After Labor Day through the fall and winter, tours start at 12:30 pm. A tour is confirmed when we have a minimum of 3 reservations. Advance purchase of tickets through our eventbrite page is required since tours are limited to 20 people.

Coney Island History Project Walking Tour at B&B Carousell

Coney Island History Project Walking Tour at B&B Carousell. Photo © Coney Island History Project.


posted Dec 1st, 2019 in History and tagged with B&B Carousell, August Wolfinger, history,...