On National Carousel Day, we pay tribute to Jimmy McCullough (1929-2013), who learned the carousel business from his father and began his career working on Coney Island's Steeplechase and Stubbman carousels. Listen online to his oral history recorded by the Coney Island History Project in 2009.
Working in Coney Island was a family business going back generations for Jimmy, who was a descendent of both the Tilyou and the Stubbman families. He worked on a total of four carousels in Coney Island including the B&B Carousell, which he bought from his cousin Willy Bishoff. Jimmy and his family owned and operated numerous small amusement parks and carousels in Coney Island, including the historic carousels that are now in Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows Park. After McCullough's Kiddie Park was forced to close when its lease was not renewed by Thor Equities, 2013 became the first year since 1862 that there has not been a Tilyou descendant operating in Coney Island.
Photo Credit: Charles Denson
Thanks to the Vourderis family, the Wonder Wheel, constructed in 1920, has continuously operated longer than any other amusement in Coney Island. The Wheel is much more than an amusement ride. It's a work of art and the ultimate survivor in an ephemeral world, a link to Coney's remarkable past. And its origins can be traced to the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
Two years ago the Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family were planning major events for the Wonder Wheel's 100th anniversary, a milestone that no other Coney Island attraction had ever achieved. In late 2018, I began research for a book and an exhibit that would celebrate this momentous occasion, and found a publisher who could fast-track the book's release in time for the centennial.
At the time, very little was known about the origins of the Wheel, the man who designed it, and how it came to be. I began by tracking down the family of Charles Hermann, the idealistic steelworker and inventor of the Wheel whose quest for a perpetual motion machine led to his partnership with businessman Herman Garms. The two immigrant dreamers traveled to Coney Island and proposed their odd project to pioneer landowner William Ward. The unlikely partnership the three formed would finance and build the Wonder Wheel.
I was able to find and interview far-flung members of the Garms family as well as Charles Hermann's 95-year-old daughter, who provided a firsthand account of her father's work. All of the families provided archival material and stories for the book and planned to travel from all over the country to attend the 2020 celebration.
And then COVID hit and the planning came to a screeching halt. My book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, came out in August, but Coney Island’s amusements were closed by state executive order and all celebrations were postponed. Uncertainties continued into 2021 and we were left hanging, wondering if the Wonder Wheel story could be told.
Early this year we realized that an indoor exhibit would be prohibitive and decided to redesign the exhibit as a condensed outdoor display using traditional banners. Finally there's an exhibit that 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 new Phoenix Roller Coaster on West 12th Street. It's a riveting story about families, immigrant initiative, love, and hard work. -- Charles Denson
Celebrating 101 years! See 'The Wonder Wheel and the Immigrant Dream,' the Coney Island History Project's free outdoor exhibition of banners on view from July through the end of October 2021 at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Admission to the park is free. Visit Deno's website for park hours.
Photo Credit: Coney Island History Project
Join us on Saturday, July 10, at Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park to celebrate City of Water Day! The Coney Island Beautification Project is hosting the event from 9AM - 2PM. Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table and say hello. This year's City of Water Day joins the Waterfront Alliance in highlighting a regionwide message of climate change, resiliency, sustainability, sea level rise and green jobs.
On Sunday, July 11, help beautify and preserve the environment by volunteering for the Coney Island Clean-up sponsored by Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus and the Coney Island Advisory Committee, Assembly District 46. The location of the clean-up is Coney Island Creek. For more info visit the event’s Eventbrite page.
"Love and Marriage," the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped! Listen and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 9 shares stories of couples who met, got engaged or married in Coney Island, all taken from the History Project’s Oral History Archive. Visitors to our exhibition center often tell us that they or their parents or grandparents met or had their first date in Coney Island. Over the years, we’ve witnessed marriage proposals on Deno’s Wonder Wheel and weddings and wedding party rides on the Cyclone roller coaster.
Many a Coney Island courtship of the 20th century began on the beach and continued with a stroll on the boardwalk and ride on the Steeplechase horses. Steeplechase Park founder George C. Tilyou famously observed of his mechanical horse race ride that “the young men like it because it gives them a chance to hug the girls; the girls like it, because it gives them a chance to get hugged.”
The oral histories in the podcast are with Ellen Abrams, Michael Liff, Max and Stef, Tara Altebrando, Gina Femia, and The Reverend Cliff Herring. The interviews were conducted by Charles Denson, Katya Kumkova, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita between 2014 and 2021. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita.
Listen to previous episodes about Coney Island's legendary roller coasters, beach, bathhouses, and restaurants and other businesses on Mermaid Avenue and in the amusement area via your fave podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website.
Photo credits: Top right, Engagement photo of Gina and Freddy by Jody Christopherson. Courtesy of Gina Femia. Bottom left and right, Coney Island History Project Collection.
For July 4th Weekend, the Coney Island History Project exhibition center will be open Saturday through Monday, July 3, 4 and 5, from 1-7PM. Visitors can watch movies about Coney Island history and take souvenir photos with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, our original Steeplechase Horse, and other wonders. Admission is free of charge. The exhibition center is located on West 12th Street next to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the new Phoenix roller coaster.
This season, the Coney Island History Project is also presenting a series of outdoor exhibits. The first is a collaboration with PS 90, The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness, which is located up the block from the History Project on West 12th Street, half a block from Coney Island Creek.
"The student artists were asked to illustrate the natural world vs. the built world surrounding Coney Island Creek,” said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. “We decided to use the traditional Coney Island banner medium to display the incredible artwork that the students produced for this project. The banners will be used to initiate a dialogue about the ecology of Coney Island. We’ve enjoyed a years-long partnership with PS 90, and enjoy lending support to our neighbor’s program of environmental studies and community wellness. These young students are the environmental stewards of the future."
A selection of banners will be displayed on July 10 at City of Water Day in Kaiser Park (see news item below) before being installed at PS 90, Maimonides Park, and other locations. The art pictured on the seven colorful 14 foot by 3 foot banners was created by PS 90 students under the guidance of Ms. Luz Morales.
“The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness is committed to learning about climate change and the role our community can play to combat it,” said Greta Hawkins, the school’s principal. “Expressing our appreciation of the natural wonders of our oceans through art is part and parcel of our studies at the school. We have a partnership with Mr. Denson and are grateful to the important work of the Coney Island History Project. The banner is representative of our longstanding collaboration with CIHP, and it is our students' way of connecting the natural environment with their Coney Island community. Aren't they amazing?"
In April, PS 90 was one of 27 schools across the country designated a Green Ribbon School by the US Department of Education. The school was honored for their innovative efforts to reduce environmental impact and utility costs, improve health and wellness, and ensure effective sustainability education.
New on Charles Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube: "Immigrant Heritage and Coney Island" brings together archival and contemporary photos of immigrants, including images of Coney Island Creek, where immigrants come to fish and pray. This is a diverse, multicultural and spiritual envrionment. Unfortunately, the City's planned ferry dock will soon destroy this refuge on Coney Island Creek that provides peace and subsistence for the surrounding community.
The Coney Island History Project's new interactive digital map of Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods features links to our immigrant-themed oral history interviews, podcasts, films and photos, as well as to selected content on the web. The map is a work in progress focused on the cultural heritage of Southern Brooklyn's diverse immigrant community and stories of struggle, success and achievement. Coney Island, Coney Island Creek, Gravesend, Bensonhurst and Brighton Beach are among the location markers.
Originally planned to debut in conjunction with the Fall 2021 release of data from the 2020 Census, we are offering a preview of the map this June. Additional media and census data will be added on a regular basis in the coming months. This program is part of the Cultural Immigrant Initiative supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger.
What's in a name?
Two beloved Coney Island icons have magically reappeared, albeit in name only. The eponymous labels recently showed up in signage on two new high-rise residential developments in the heart of Coney Island: Raven Hall and the Carolina. Although it's nice to have these iconic names immortalized it's just a reminder of how ephemeral Coney Island really is. Will anyone remember that Ravenhall Baths and Carolina Restaurant once operated at these locations? Sadly, there will not be a swimming pool or Italian food to be found at these sites.
The original Ravenhall was one of the oldest attractions in Coney Island. Richard Ravenhall opened a small hotel in the 1860s that later expanded into a sprawling bathhouse resort that covered an entire block at West 19th street between the ocean and Surf Avenue. Ravenhall Baths had Coney Island's largest saltwater pool and dozens of other attractions. After a century of operation the Ravenhall complex was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1963. The Abe Stark Ice Rink and parking lot replaced it in 1969.
Carolina Restaurant on Mermaid Avenue at Stillwell was a popular neighborhood destination for more than 60 years. The restaurant closed 20 years ago and the wood frame building that housed the business was recently demolished to make way for new residential development.
Both of the high-rises that now bear the names of these icons have no relation to the historic Coney Island businesses that once stood nearby. The "Carolina" is a six-story luxury apartment building on Mermaid avenue and West 15th Street that includes the lot where Carolina Restaurant once stood.
The "Raven Hall" high-rise tower, is located on the former site of Washington Baths, not at the site of the Ravenhall resort . The developers must have decided that the name" Washington Baths" didn't sound classy enough.
Will anyone rent apartments in these buildings for nostalgia's sake, or will the origins of the names be lost to the sands of time? You can listen to oral history interviews that tell the stories of Ravenhall and Carolina in the History Project's archive:
– Charles Denson
Coney Island History Project banner being raised while muralist Danielle Mastrion paints our gates in preparation for this weekend's reopening. Photo By Norman Blake.
We’re thrilled to announce the Coney Island History Project is reopening Memorial Day Weekend for the 2021 season after 18 months of virtual programming. In accordance with NY State and City Covid-19 health and safety guidelines, the part of our exhibition center with an open-air front has been reconfigured for socially distanced viewing. Visitors will be able to view movies about Coney Island history, and see and take souvenir photos with Cy, the mesmerizing Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, our original Steeplechase Horse, and other wonders.
In addition, starting in June, we’re presenting a series of outdoor exhibits at Deno’s Wonder Wheel, P.S. 90, and other locations in Coney Island. All exhibitions are offered free of charge. Located on West 12th Street adjacent to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the new, under-construction Phoenix roller coaster, our exhibition center is open Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1:00PM -7:00PM.
Visitors may purchase books, souvenirs, T-shirts and memberships at the History Project's exhibition center. They can also schedule appointments to record an oral history interview for our archive via phone, Zoom or Skype. For the safety of guests and staff, in-person oral history interviews and weekend walking tours remain postponed until further notice. We thank everyone for their understanding and continued support of the Coney Island History Project during these challenging times.