Eight years ago today Hurricane Sandy devastated Sea Gate and Coney Island. This film was shot on October 29, 2012 by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project.
Happy International Podcast Day! Listen to the Coney Island History Project's new oral history podcast. The first episodes feature immigrant stories from our archive, including oral histories of restaurants and food stand owners and operators, artists and sign painters, and Mermaid Avenue's mom and pop businesses, past and present.
Happy 100th Patent-Versary to Deno's Wonder Wheel! Filed in January, Charles Hermann's patent for his invention, which he said combined the thrills of a Ferris wheel with a gravity railway or roller coaster, was approved on September 28, 1920. An earlier design for what would one day become the Wonder Wheel was patented in 1915, writes Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, in his new book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park. Published by Arcadia's Images of America series, the book contains 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.
We look forward to seeing everyone in 2021 at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park on the Boardwalk in Coney Island for the long awaited celebration of the Wheel's 100th season.
We were sad to learn of the passing of Frank Gurrera, 95, who worked at the MTA's Coney Island Overhaul Shop for 50 years and was TWU Local 100's oldest active member. The Coney Island History Project sends our sincere condolences to his co-workers and friends.
Last year Katya Kumkova recorded his oral history for our archive. "Sometimes they come up with the big parts, sometimes the small parts. Make this, fix that," Gurrera says in the oral history. "It's all part of the job. Keeps your mind going, keeps your hands active, keeps your body going. Let's see, I have to fix that." Excerpts from his oral history were included in this moving tribute by ABC7NY's Josh Einiger. You can listen to the full interview here.
Charles Denson at the silenced Wonder Wheel, 2020, "a season like no other."
For the first time in history, Coney Island has lost an entire season. As Labor Day weekend arrived and faded, amusements remained shuttered and people began wondering aloud if the neighborhood can recover. The pandemic is testing the will and finances of even the most dedicated businesses and residents. This year was expected to be the greatest of this century, with important anniversaries, exciting events, and new attractions. None of this happened. But Coney Island has been tested before. Pestilence, war, crime, and weather have challenged the island, and each time it has clawed its way back.
Coney had barely begun life as a resort in the early 1800s when its remote location made it a prime candidate for New York's quarantine station. Yellow fever and cholera epidemics had swept through New York, and the city sought to build a massive facility that would house immigrants with infectious diseases for 40 days. Coney was on the short list in the 1850s but it turned out that the location was not remote enough. Instead, the station opened on two smaller islands, Hoffman and Swinburne, built from landfill in the waters just west of Coney Island.
In the 1870s, long before amusement parks arrived, Coney Island became a refuge for poor children suffering from tuberculosis and other diseases. The Coney Island History Project's 2019 exhibit "Salvation by the Sea" documented and highlighted the work of the Children's Aid Societies and the other shorefront summer homes built along the beach. These charitable homes and hospitals, supported by New York's wealthiest residents, became the island's largest landowners and operated until construction of the Boardwalk forced them out. The societies saved thousands of young lives with the "Fresh Air Cure," and trained generations of immigrant mothers in proper hygiene and child rearing that prevented disease in New York's tenements.
Malaria was the culprit at Coney Island in 1903, when disease-carrying mosquitos were found in foul standing water caused by the illegal filling and dumping along Coney Island Creek and the Brighton race track. The entire island was doused and sprayed with noxious oils, from one end to the other, in an attempt eradicate the problem. This created an ugly landscape and did little to solve the problem.
A polio epidemic hit New York hard in 1916, and parents with children were told to avoid amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches. But the disease was already widespread, and many children suffered the horrifying effects of infantile paralysis before a vaccine was found. Coney Island remained open to the public throughout 1916, but few children were seen at the beach and amusements that year.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 followed the polio epidemic, hitting its peak during the fall and winter of 1919, the off-season, when Coney Island's rides and amusements were already closed and crowds were absent. Coney Island escaped the worst effects of the deadly 1918 flu.
Rationing of oil, metal, and rubber during Word War II made ride maintenance difficult, but Coney Island operators were recyclers and experts at repurposing. Nothing was ever discarded, and the rides continued full blast during the war. The Island's bright lights were "blued out," dimmed, or covered with curtains that faced the ocean side. Luna Park was lit with dim but colorful Japanese lanterns. Coney was considered important for the morale of soldiers on leave, or who were heading overseas and needed a last celebration. The "Underwood Hotel" below the boardwalk was livelier than ever during the war years, filled with romantic couples saying a last goodbye.
Social distancing in Coney Island has a more recent precedent. Street crime was out of control in the mid 1960s, and robbing the exposed ticket booths at rides became the rage for gangs of young thugs. Plexiglas shields and elaborate wire cages soon surrounded all booths and entrances to rides, keeping the public at a distance and protecting operators and patrons from harm.
Super Storm Sandy arrived in late 2012 as the season ended. It dealt a devastating blow, but Coney Island's amusements had five months to make repairs before reopening in March 2013. This recovery led to a belief that all obstacles could be overcome.
But this year is unlike any other. Coney Island is being tested as never before. The Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family of the Wonder Wheel had planned to make this centennial season unforgettable, and it turned out that it was, but for reasons that no one could ever have imagined.
Plans for the Centennial celebration of Deno's Wonder Wheel included special events like Broadway musical performers on the park's newly purchased property and our 9th annual Coney Island History Day on the Boardwalk; new and renovated rides, attractions, signage, and murals; and a splendidly refurbished Wonder Wheel. My new book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, and an accompanying exhibit at the History Project would pay tribute to the history of Coney Island's greatest and oldest continuously operating attraction.
I spent the summer of 2019 researching the history of the Wonder Wheel on a tight publishing deadline so that it would come out in time for Memorial Day. The research was all primary source and I tracked down family members of the Wheel's original designers and operators whose stories had never been told. Many were planning to come to the Memorial Day celebration, including the 95-year-old daughter of Charles Hermann, the Wheel's creator.
The reality of how this season would turn out began to sink in during early spring. "No opening for Palm Sunday? Maybe by Easter Sunday? Delayed until Memorial Day? Of course we'll open by July 4!" The season quietly disintegrated into despair and confusion. A Labor Day Weekend like no other in history came and went.
Due to the pandemic, the Coney Island History Project suspended walking tours, events at schools and senior centers, in-person oral history interviews and the exhibition center season. Starting in March, our staff transitioned to recording oral histories via phone and Skype and creating new virtual programming including podcasts and videos. Our online oral history archive was featured in the NY Times, Time 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 from afar.
Amusement parks don’t have the option of transitioning to virtual programming but Deno’s Wonder Wheel is an outdoor ride with 24 open-air cars spaced 15 feet apart. It was designed for social distancing and park owners made every effort to provide a safe space for visitors. Masks, Plexiglas, distancing markers, sanitizer stations were all in place, yet the Wheel and the park's other rides remained silent and still due to New York State executive order. And now, as the season comes to a close, we can just hope for a better, safer, and much happier 2021. We will survive.
-- Charles Denson
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.
We're excited to announce the August 3rd publication of Charles Denson's book Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, which was originally scheduled for May 18. This year the landmark Wonder Wheel celebrates its 100th birthday, and to mark the occasion the Coney Island History Project director, and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found, has written a new book to coincide with this historic event. Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park contains hundreds of never-before-seen photographs, plans, and ephemera, including rare images from the Vourderis family archive and the Coney Island History Project archive.
Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project exhibition center remain closed due to state executive order during the pandemic. Copies of the book, presigned by the author, will be available for purchase at the boardwalk stand in front of Deno's, where you can also buy 100th anniversary souvenirs. The souvenir stand and Deno's Sweet Shoppe and Famiglia Pizzeria are open 12-7pm on Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting. The History Project's online bookstore has temporarily suspended shipments. The book may be pre-ordered from the publisher, online retailers such as Barnes & Noble, and independent retailers.
"Historical research is really detective work and many times leads to dead ends,” writes Charles Denson about his new book. “When I began writing the Wonder Wheel's history I had to cut through the usual myths and anecdotes that surround much of Coney Island. The primary sources and records were spread out across the country. As I traced down leads I was surprised to find so many family members of the original designer and past owners who had fascinating stories and materials that they were willing to share. "
"I wrote the book on an extremely short deadline to coincide with anniversary and was designing an accompanying exhibit for the History Project when the pandemic hit, and everything ground to a halt. The book is just the first step in celebrating the centennial of Deno's Wonder Wheel, which will now take place sometime in the future. I’ve always enjoyed working with the Vourderis family, and now realize more than ever the importance of the family's resurrection and preservation of the historic landmark. Writing the book confirmed my belief that the Wonder Wheel is, and always has been, Coney Island's most remarkable attraction."
"Inside Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park is a 1920's song celebrating the joys of the Wonder Wheel," says Denson. "It's written to the tune of the old favorite Sidewalks of New York. We planned to invite everyone to sing the song at the Memorial Day celebration of the Wheel's 100th Birthday. Since there's been a change of plans and we couldn't be together, I'm inviting everyone to sing along and wish the Wheel some love during these difficult times. If I can do it, so can you."
You can hear the song and sing along in Charles Denson's film Deno's Wonder Wheel Turns 100.
During these days of social distancing our online oral history archive was featured in the New York Times, Time 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."
These robotic chipmunks once sang their songs at the Bowery entrance to Spook-a-Rama. A 1980s fire on Jones Walk forced the closure of that section of the ride and the chipmunks were removed and placed in storage. In 2016, Steve Vourderis decided to bring them back to life for the annual History Day event sponsored by the Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project. A film by Charles Denson.
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.