As we near the end of 2023, the Coney Island History Project pays tribute to five Brooklynites that we lost this year who recorded their stories for our oral history archive: Eliot Wofse, Michael Onorato, Ralph Perfetto, Santos Torres, and Sofya Lobova. Their stories captivated, inspired and informed us and they will never be forgotten.

Eliot Wofse

Eliot Wofse (1956 - 2023)

“Well, in the early sixties, my brothers worked for different people in Coney Island and I would visit them. I was a little kid. And how I started was, my brothers worked in the balloon game and I would go into the back of the balloon game and blow up the balloons. There was no machines in those days to blow up the balloons. I spent the whole day blowing up the balloons and I got good money cause in those days, you're lucky if you got paid 50 cents an hour, I was getting paid almost $2.00 an hour. So they were paying me to blow up these balloons in the back of the house, because at my age, which was about eight years old at the time, you couldn't be in front of the house.” – Eliot Wofse

Eliot Wofse grew up in Luna Park Houses across the street from the amusement area and by the time he was a teenager he had learned how to run any game. He recalls the 1960s through the mid- '70s, when he made good money, and the "scary times,” the late 1970s and early '80s, when "the City forgot about Coney Island." After a long hiatus, Wofse returned to Coney and successfully operated the fishbowl game in 2010 and 2011. In his oral history, he reflects on his philosophy of running amusement games and interacting with customers, and the unsustainable cost of private proprietors like himself doing business in the new, corporatized Coney Island.

Michael Onorato

Michael Onorato (1934 - 2023)

“Once I got a little older that I could come down to Coney Island by myself on the subway, I sometimes would stand out on the Parachute Jump's platform. And if someone came along that didn't have anybody, the ride attendant would sort of gimme a 'Hey, Mike! Mike, would you like to ride? Go up with the guy.' Oh yeah, sure, sure. You know? Yeah. And then of course sometimes when I went up on a date they'd stop the ride going up, you know, thinking that that was fun for me. Well, my father spotted that once or twice and he told them, 'Don't you ever do that again. Because no one's gonna understand that he's the boss's son. You're giving him a time to kiss the girl. You know what I mean?' He said, 'That's not fun for me, the manager. Send him up. He goes up and he comes down like anyone else.'”—Michael Onorato

Michael Onorato was the son of James Onorato, who was the general manager of Steeplechase Park from 1928 to 1964, when it closed. He remembers the park in vivid detail and describes growing up there. In his oral history, he gives a start-to-finish account of going on the Parachute Jump and the Steeplechase ride including details long forgotten by most visitors about how the staff operated the rides.

Ralph Perfetto photo by Charles Denson

Ralph Perfetto (1934 – 2023)

“I was born at 2711 West 16th Street. I was delivered by a midwife in a house owned by my maternal grandparents. In fact, it's the house that my mother was born in 22 years to the day before me. And the family story has it, that my mother was in labor. She had her oldest sister with her, who was a nurse in World War I so was familiar with how to take care of her. And my mother had an urge for a Nathan's hot dog. So she said to my father Frank, I feel like having a hot dog. My father said I'll go get it. But on the way to Nathan's, he got involved in a card game. He had a friend who was the father of Lou Salica, the three-time bantamweight champ. Got involved in a card game. And when my aunt finally ran up to him and said, the midwife just delivered you a nice son, he ran up and got the hot dog. At that point my mother wasn't really interested in the hot dog. Basically, so that was my start.” – Ralph Perfetto

In his oral history, Ralph Perfetto describes the diversity of West 16th Street in Coney Island, where he grew up. He talks about the various jobs he had as a young man --picking vegetables at local farms where the Coney Island train yards are located now and tending to the horses at the local stable. In the 1970s, Perfetto led the fight to save Coney Island’s Italian neighborhood from urban renewal, including the house where he was born. He went on to become the area’s Democratic District Leader. In recent years, he found a second career, as an actor named Raffaelo Perfetto, in the movie The Irishman and The Good Wife.

Santos Torres

Santos Torres (1948 – 2023)

“I help everybody in the community, whenever they need any vegetable, I give it to them. I don't sell nothing. I give it to them. Eggs. I give them to the community. I give them everything I grow here, I give it, you know, I give it away. All the neighbors, everybody comes they have a pantry. Santos, can I get some red peppers? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Santo,s can I get some duck eggs? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Take your eggs. Yeah. Yeah. Santos, can I get some collard greens? Can I get the cabbage? Can I get the okra? I give it away. Yeah. I just share with the community. That's what I do here. I share with everybody.” – Santos Torres

Santos Torres lived in Coney Island since 1973, playing music on the Boardwalk and tending the Santos White Community Garden. Located on Mermaid Avenue, the garden was founded in 1995 and is part of the City's GreenThumb network of community gardens. In his oral history, Torres says that he named it Santos White because everything was painted white. He kept roosters, chickens and ducks, and grew a variety of vegetables, sharing the eggs and produce with his neighbors. Torres recalled learning to garden from watching his father as a young boy in Puerto Rico. Picturesque statues dot the garden, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy and was the gardener's "home away from home."

Sofya Lobova

Sofya Lobova (1935 – 2023)

“We went straight to Brooklyn. Then we got an apartment in Coney Island on Surf Avenue. My husband and I promptly went to Haber House Senior Center. Well, they said, “You need to help us." I, of course, loved being helpful with all my heart. That's how I grew up and that's how my parents raised me. There were many events held for the veterans. People wanted to talk, they wanted to talk about their fate. So, I held a series of these evenings when they talked about emigration, when they talked about the Holocaust, or where they had been. Those who were in the concentration camps brought the things that they saved. The mother of the head of the Haber House was in a German camp. And she brought a knitted shawl made of goat down, which she had preserved in the camp. Every person poured out their soul and these evenings became a habit.” – Sofya Lobova

Sofya Lobova was born in Kyiv in 1935 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. In her oral history, Lobova vividly describes her childhood memories of having to evacuate during World War II and her career working in Kyiv's Department of Culture. In Brooklyn, she became one of the leaders of the Russian-speaking community in Coney Island. Lobova was a longtime resident of NYCHA's Haber Houses and was the president of its senior center for many years.

Photo Credits:  Charles Denson (Perfetto), Julia Kanin (Lobova), Dan Pisark (Onorato), Fran Bass Serlin (Wofse), Samira Tazari (Torres)

posted Dec 18th, 2023 in News and tagged with In Memoriam, Eliot Wofse, Michael Onorato,...

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,...

A photograph of the Switchback Railway in Atlantic City that is often falsely attributed to Coney Island. 
Coney Island's first roller coaster was L.A. Thompson's Switchback Railway. The Coaster was a wooden 600-foot-long gently undulating ride that was not exactly a thrill ride although it was pictured as such in engravings of the time. Photos of the ride are extremely rare. One of the photos commonly used to illustrate stories about Coney's first coaster was actually taken in Atlantic City, not Coney Island. The real Coney Island Switchback railway in all its humble glory can be seen in this 1880s view on YouTube:
This is the first article in a series that analyzes common myths about Coney Island.

— Charles Denson




posted Aug 19th, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps lifeguards at their headquarters on the beach at West Fifth Street, Coney Island, c.1919.

The current lifeguard shortage in New York City brings to mind the history of lifeguards at Coney Island and the essential role that they play in public safety.

When ocean bathing gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, waves of New Yorkers began heading for Coney Island to seek relief from sweltering tenements. Few of them knew how to swim. The beach at that time was private property and there were no city lifeguards to protect swimmers.

Safety was provided by bathhouse owners who hired private lifeguards that for the most part were untrained and ineffective. There were no standards. Bathhouses hired men who worked cheap and “looked the part.” Former boxers, longshoremen, and weightlifters fit the bill. These unqualified guardians used primitive methods for resuscitation, such as “barrel-rolling,” (rolling a drowning victim over a barrel on its side to remove water from the lungs), a technique that caused more harm than good. Many private guards were drinkers and poor swimmers.

The United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps soon came to the rescue. Founded in 1872, the service established rescue stations all along New York City’s rivers and shorelines. Coney Island’s Volunteer Service life saving station was headquartered in a sturdily built wood-frame boathouse located on the beach at West Fifth  Street. 

At first the volunteers were met with hostility by the bathhouse lifeguards who saw them as competition and a threat to their jobs. They were finally accepted as swelling beach crowds made it obvious that private guards could no longer monitor the safety of hundreds of thousands of swimmers.

Many of the volunteers were WW I Navy veterans: competent, battle tested, and trained to rescue panicky drowning victims, shipwreck survivors, and even horses. They were also champion long-distance swimmers who participated in local contests. Thousands of Coney Island rescues were carefully documented by hand in logs, with the names, dates, and locations of all incidents. 

Ruth Hroncich’s grandfather, Ernest Gross, was a volunteer with the Service from 1919 to 1921, before the Coney Island beach became public. Ruth recently donated her grandparent’s photos to the Coney Island History Project. Ernest Gross lived on Neptune Avenue and met his wife, Ruth Atkinson in 1920 at Weber’s Baths in the West End. They were married in 1925. These family photos document the last days of the Volunteers before the Boardwalk was built and City lifeguards took over safety operations. 
– Charles Denson

Ernest and Ruth Gross, the couple third from left, at Weber's Baths, 1920.

Navy veteran Ernest Gross is third from left in this picture.  The lifeguards would take the surf boat out every day and practice launching through the waves. 

Volunteer lifeguard surf boat in action at Coney Island.

Volunteer lifeguards on the Coney Island Beach, 1920. Ernest Gross is second from right. (Dog at center was not a lifeguard.) The Municipal Bathhouse can be seen behind them. Lifeguards at the Coney Island boathouse.
A page from the 1909 Volunteer log details rescues at locations ranging from Dreamland to West 32nd Street.





posted Jul 23rd, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with lifeguards, New York City, history,...

Charles Denson made this video, Jimmy Prince Way, to honor Jimmy’s street naming. This interview with Jimmy Prince (1932-2021) was recorded at his home in 2016, seven years after he retired from Major Market. "Mr. Major" remained as busy as ever in the community after the store closed, and also volunteered at the Coney Island History Project exhibit center on weekends.

The corner of Mermaid Avenue and West 15th Street was co-named Jimmy Prince Way on July 8, 2023. Hosted by Coney Island Council Member Ari Kagan, the ceremony was attended by the Prince family and numerous community leaders and friends. Coney Island History Project board members Adele Cohen, Bonnie Kong, and Dan Pisark are pictured below with Charles Denson's photograph of Jimmy, "The Prince of Mermaid Avenue," in the doorway of his store.

Jimmy Prince Way

"Jimmy Prince was the kindest man in the world and the brightest light in Coney Island, a man who personified compassion, love and respect. There was no one else like him. He was born in 1932, the same year that Major Market opened on Mermaid Avenue and he began working at the market in June 1949 at the age of 18. Eventually he owned the store, and kept it open seven days a week, twelve hours a day until 2009. Jimmy became 'Mr. Major,' and his store became the heart of Coney Island, a refuge during hard times, where people came to find warmth and solace and nourishment. He was always positive and believed that Coney Island would survive." -- Charles Denson, "Remembering Jimmy Prince," May 25, 2021.

Photo credits: Council Member Ari Kagan, Bonnie Kong

Jimmy Prince Way

posted Jul 17th, 2023 in News and tagged with Jimmy Prince, Major Market, Mr. Major,...

Ralph Perfetto

Ralph Perfetto was a towering figure in Coney Island. Community-minded, kind, funny, and caring, Ralph was instrumental in saving the Italian residential section of the neighborhood from urban renewal destruction in the 1960s. His confrontations with Borough President Abe Stark, and Planning Commissioner Donald Elliot, led to the City’s reversal of their plan to demolish every block west of Stillwell Avenue. Ralph also was the driving force behind two neighborhood improvement groups including Associated Tenants and Landlords, which later became Astella Development Corporation, a non-profit community-based organization that provided affordable housing and commercial revitalization of the Coney Island neighborhood.

Ralph remained active in politics and became a private investigator, always sharply dressed, resembling a private eye in a Dashiell Hammett novel. “Ralphie from 16th Street,” as he jokingly called himself, was an important part of my book, Coney Island: Lost and Found, and he was also an instrumental voice in my forthcoming documentary about Coney Island Creek. In the oral history that I recorded for the Coney Island History Project in 2007, Ralph begins by telling the story of his birth in Coney Island twenty-two years to the day after his mother in the same house. Coney Island will never be the same without him. He will be missed. -- Charles Denson

Services will be held at Scarpaci Funeral Home, 1401 86th Street, Brooklyn, on Sunday, July 16, from 2-7 PM. Mass at St. Andrew the Apostle Church, 6713 Ridge Blvd, Brooklyn, on Monday, July 17, at 10:45 AM.

Ralph with his granddaughter, Lynda Perfetto, Little Miss Mermaid winner, 1985 Mermaid Parade.

Ralph reminiscing about his childhood on Coney Island creek.
Photo by Charles Denson

posted Jul 13th, 2023 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Ralph Perfetto, Coney Island, In Memoriam,...

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,...

Oral History Archive Coney Island History Project

More than 450 oral histories are available for listening in the Coney Island History Project’s multilingual online archive. Among the additions in May are the following interviews recorded for us by Daniel Gomez and Tricia Vita.

Ronald Kannatt, who is affectionately known as "The Prince of Coney Island," has been singing and dancing at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Karaoke on the Boardwalk for the past 20 years. He shares stories of his Coney Island karaoke "family," the most popular songs over the years, off-season Coney Island, and memories of the Jumbo Jet coaster and Lincoln High School.

Angela Kravtchenko, an architect who is a Coney Island resident and a community activist, describes how she and her family chose to live in Coney Island after emigrating from Ukraine in the 1990s and and how she became active in her community. She is a co-founder of the Friends of Asser Levy Park and a new member of Community Board 13.

JR Lopez shares memories of growing up in the 1990s in Coney's West End in the "Coconuts Building." He recalls playing football on the beach and basketball with block-specific teams, amusement rides such as the Enterprise and the Polar Express that are now history, and a summer job selling cold drinks on the beach as a teen.

Diana Wiener remembers growing up in Sea Gate and Coney Island in the 1940s and '50s, where she first learned to swim as a "water baby" on Beach 2 AKA "The Lagoon." Wiener remembers World War II blackouts, lookout towers for U-boats, artillery turrets, Quonset huts for Army personnel, and the celebration the day the Germans surrendered.

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

Salvation by the Sea Coney Island History Project

Join us on Saturday, June 3rd, during exhibition center hours to celebrate the publication of Salvation by the Sea: Immigrants, Coney Island, and The Fresh Air Cure by Charles Denson.

"This catalog explores a forgotten era of Coney Island's history by examining the role that the beachfront played in saving lives and providing a livelihood for the waves of immigrants who came to America between the 1870s and the 1920s," writes Charles Denson in the book, which is based on a 2019 exhibition at the Coney Island History Project.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, four charities built sprawling seaside facilities at Coney Island supported by donations from the wealthiest of "Gilded Age" New Yorkers. The beachfront "homes" and hospitals provided immigrant mothers and their sick children with a respite from teeming, disease-filled tenements. The amusements and charities were able to coexist for nearly half a century. After the Boardwalk was built in 1923, the era of Seaside Homes came to an end.

On June 3rd, the Coney Island History Project exhibition center is open from 1:00 PM - 7:00 PM. Admission is free of charge. We're located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk.