The Aftermath of the Dreamland Fire

On May 27, 1911, a huge fire illuminated the sky and sent fire companies from all over Brooklyn rushing to Coney Island. Dreamland Park was ablaze. Unlike Steeplechase Park or the Bowery which were rebuilt after being destroyed by fire, Dreamland would be no more. "The catastrophic fire happened in 1911 but its lingering aftermath still affects Coney Island land use policy a century later," said Charles Denson. "As soon as the ashes cooled, the city took over the site and has been claiming beachfront parcels ever since."

When the Coney Island History Project opens on Memorial Day Weekend, we'll commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Dreamland Fire with an exhibition of photos and a themed walking tour. Historic images of Dreamland before and after the fire will be juxtaposed with the site as it is today and how it developed over the last hundred years. The exhibit will be illuminated by oral history interviews with the 101-year-old son of the Coney Island police chief on duty that night and the granddaughter of the Coney Island fire chief who fought the blaze.

Charles Denson, History Project director and the author of Coney Island: Lost and Found, will lead a walking tour on Friday, May 27. To receive advance info on the tour, which will be by reservation, please sign up for our e-mail list.

posted Mar 30th, 2011 in News and tagged with

John Rea revisits Coney with son Jace
We have several new interviews on our website featuring people who have worked in Coney's amusement-related businesses, often from a very young age. Their families made a living here for decades and Coney left an indelible impression on their lives. You can find and listen online to selected interviews in our Oral History Archive via our searchable database, which is organized by theme, place, period and interviewee.

John Rea, currently an advertising professional and adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts, began his career as a teenage sign painter in Coney Island. He also talks about working for his father in Peluso Machine and Iron Works Shop, which manufactured replacement parts for Coney's rides.

Jimmy McCullough
Jimmy McCullough is a longtime operator of Coney's carousels, including the B & B Carousell, and the current operator of the kiddie park on the Bowery. Working in Coney Island is a family business going back generations for Jimmy, who is a great grandson of Steeplechase founder George C.Tilyou. He has also worked in partnership with his daughters to operate traveling rides starting with the SkyWheel in Toronto.

Michael Onorato is the son of James Onorato, who was the general manager of Steeplechase for 36 years. Michael remembers the park in vivid detail and describes growing up there, including a start-to-finish account of going on the Parachute Jump.

John Dorman
Coney Island's Philip's Candy Store has moved to Staten Island, but owner John Dorman recalls his decades open for business in the Stillwell Avenue terminal. The shop originally opened in 1930 in that location, but Dorman began working there in 1947, when he was 17. He recalls some of the changes he saw over the decades he worked in Coney Island.

During the season and throughout the year, people are invited to record their Coney Island memories for our Oral History Archive. We hope you'll stop by or make an appontment to share your story. You may schedule an interview in advance by emailing info@coneyislandhistory.org.

posted Mar 29th, 2011 in News and tagged with

Screenshot from "Seasons of the Cyclone" Photo © Charles Denson

"Seasons of the Cyclone" by History Project director Charles Denson is a close-up look at the Cyclone roller coaster that takes you inside the motor room and lets you walk the tracks. You can watch the video on Denson's new "Coneyologist" channel on YouTube. Also on view is "Secrets of the Universe," a six-minute short that premiered at last year's Coney Island Film Festival.

If you haven't visited the History Project's Facebook page yet, please drop by and "like" us. You can follow us year round on Facebook, twitter, flickr and our blog Ask Mr Coney Island.

posted Mar 29th, 2011 in News and tagged with

Since the Coney Island History Project's inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk, followed by the opening of the Coney Island Hall of Fame in 2005 and the inaugural season of our exhibition center under the Cyclone in 2007, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and events.

In 2011, the History Project will continue that tradition at a new exhibition center in the heart of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park.

We are grateful to the Vourderis family for inviting us to set up history exhibits in locations around their park, and to the Albert family for their ongoing support as the History Project continues its mission of recording oral histories with people who lived, worked, and played in Coney Island. Come visit us at the Wonder Wheel in 2011!

posted Jan 3rd, 2011 in News and tagged with

Demolished: The Coney Island Bank Building
Demolished: The Coney Island Bank Building

The year 2010 will be remembered as a year of transition for Coney Island. The year began on a high note with the opening of Zamperla's new Luna Park but ended on a sour note when four of the area’s few remaining historic buildings were denied landmark status and slated for demolition. The Coney Island Bank building and Shore Hotel were demolished by mid-December and Henderson’s Music Hall began its date with the wrecking ball soon after. A month earlier, the last of Coney’s old-time Boardwalk eateries were given eviction notices by Zamperla’s Central Amusement International, operators of the new Luna Park. In May, the Coney Island Arcade on West 12th Street and the Bowery was destroyed by fire. Not since the days of Robert Moses’s 1960s urban renewal projects has Coney Island experienced such radical transformation. 2010 will also be remembered for recording the hottest summer in New York’s history, with nearly every weekend bringing warm, clear, sunny weather. Coney Island has always been about the weather and the big question is whether the new businesses proposed for Coney’s Boardwalk will survive the inevitable rainy seasons ahead. We can only hope for the best.

The good news is that two historic buildings nominated for landmark status were approved. The Coney Island (Loews) Theater Building and the Childs Restaurant Building, headquarters of Coney Island USA, have been designated as landmarks.

posted Dec 29th, 2010 in News and tagged with
scott fitlin

Scott Fitlin's gruff exterior often overshadowed his incredibly sharp mind. He was Coney to the core, the third generation of a family that operated on the Bowery for nearly a century, and a wealth of information about Coney Island history. He never backed down from a fight and never compromised when it came to the sound and style of his Eldorado Skooter ride. DJ Scotty was decadent, caring, funny as hell, and in the end, a lost soul. Here is a short excerpt from a series of longer conversations recorded over the years between Scott and History Project director Charles Denson.

Selections from longer interviews will soon be posted in our oral history archive.

posted Oct 22nd, 2010 in News and tagged with


CIHP Flickr photo of Jack & Marybeth Ward

Over the weekend, we were saddened to learn of the death of our friend Jack Ward, who died September 3 at the age of 66. Jack was an advisory board member of the Coney Island History Project and was also our Surf Avenue neighbor, having moved his law practice back to Coney Island in 2000. As the grandson of Coney pioneer William J. Ward, he managed Ward Realty, representing the last of the original land grant families owning property in Coney Island. In 2008, Jack and his wife, Mary Beth, accepted the Coney Island Hall of Fame Award for his grandfather at a ceremony at our exhibit center.


In a 2007 interview for the Coney Island History Project’s Oral History Archive, Jack Ward recounted his family’s long history in Coney Island. He begins with his great grandfather John Ward's purchase of beachfront property at 12th Street and Surf Avenue in 1879 and continues through his grandfather William J. Ward's participation in the development of the Half Moon Hotel and the Wonder Wheel. Jack’s grandfather, William J. Ward, was president of the Bank of Coney Island and a founding member of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. The Wards also built Coney's first boardwalk and operated Ward's Kiddie park for half a century. You can listen to the audio interview with CIHP Director Charles Denson here.

posted Sep 9th, 2010 in News and tagged with Jack Ward, Ward Family, obituary,...

Louis Beard
Louis Beard

During the summer and throughout the year, residents and visitors are invited to record their Coney Island memories for the History Project's oral history archive. Selected interviews are available on our website as part of our Coney Island Voices exhibit, a record of visitors and their stories. Notable additions to our archive include interviews with Coney Island resident Abe Feinstein, who has been photographing his neighborhood for 48 years, and Louis Beard, who maintains Coney Island's arcade games and enjoys coming here on his days off. We have also recorded interviews with contestants in the Sand Sculpting Contest, Mr Cyclone Contest and the Coney Island Talent Show.

Sydney Cozby
Sydney Cozby

Our youngest interviewee was 6-year-old Sydney Cozby, who visited the History Project with her mother before they went to the circus. Among her favorite things in Coney Island are watching fireworks from the beach at night, eating funnel cake (though it makes her teeth hurt a little) and going on the Dragon coaster. The archive is rich with stories of people who live, work or play in Coney Island. You can find and listen to their stories via our searchable online database, which is organized by theme, place, period and name.

If you have a story to share, stop by during exhibition center hours or make an appointment by emailing info@coneyislandhistory.org. Interviews are conducted throughout the year, both in Coney Island and off-site. The Coney Island History Project's exhibition center is located under the Cyclone Roller Coaster at 824 Surf Avenue just east of West 10th Street. We're open weekends from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.Hours are 1 to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.Also open on Labor Day, FREE ADMISSION for One and ALL!

posted Aug 23rd, 2010 in News and tagged with

Did you grow up here? Do you remember going for your first spin on the B & B Carousell? Did you meet your true love in Coney Island? We want to hear your Coney Island stories and see your photos!

The Coney Island History Project announces a series of themed history weekends to pique your interest and jog your memory--from "Childhood Days" and "Romantic Coney Island" to "Thrills & Chills!" and "Under the Boardwalk & On the Beach." Check the schedule below and stop by for an interview with historian Charles Denson or History Project staff.

Natalie Milbrodt Interviews Ron Rossi in CIHP recording studio
under the Cyclone roller coaster on the Cyclone's 83rd birthday

Throughout the summer, visitors are invited to record their Coney Island memories for the History Project's oral history archive. Selected interviews will be made available on our website as part of our Coney Island Voices exhibit, a record of visitors and their stories during the 2010 season. The CIHP's History Archive is rich with stories of people who lived, worked or played in Coney Island. Some of them still do: Williams Candy owner Peter Agrapides, game operator Caesar, and Luna Park visitor Mi Won Kim. You can find and listen to their stories via our searchable online database, which is organized by theme, place, period and interviewee.

Visitors are also encouraged to bring photos and memorabilia we can scan for the CIHP's online collection documenting Coney Island's past. Whoever brings in the best photo in each category will receive a set of historic postcards, vintage tickets, and a signed copy of Charles Denson's Wild Ride! A Coney Island Roller Coaster Family.

Interviews are available at the History Project's free public exhibition center on Surf Avenue under the Cyclone.The center is open on Saturday and Sunday, 1- 6pm, from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, as well as by appointment. You may schedule an interview in advance by emailing info@coneyislandhistory.org.

Themed History Weekends at the Coney Island History Project

July 10 & 11, Romantic Coney Island!... Did you meet your true love in Coney Island, go on your first date or fall in love here? We predict this is going to be a popular theme, so we'll reprise it on July 24 and 25!

July 17 & 18, Childhood Days... Carousel and kiddie ride memories, being tall enough to ride the Cyclone or Parachute Jump for the first time, your very first memory of Coney Island.

July 24 & 25, Romantic Coney Island! Did you meet your true love in Coney Island, go on your first date or fall in love here?

July 31 & Aug 1, Thrills & Chills!... Coney Island's rides, funhouses, games and arcades are world famous, but which ones are your personal favorites?

Aug 7 & 8, Neighborhood Coney Island... Did you grow up here? Have a summer job in the amusement district or work year round in the neighborhood?

Aug 14 & 15, The Taste of Coney Island... Are you a fan of Nathan's hot dogs, Mrs. Stahl's Knishes, Philip's salt water taffy? How about Ruby's Bar & Grille, Totonno's Pizza or Williams Candy?

Aug 21 & 22, Historic Coney Island... Memories, stories or photos of Coney's four NYC landmarks -- the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone, Parachute Jump, and Childs Restaurant on the Boardwalk--as well as vanished attraction like Steeplechase Park, the Thunderbolt and Stauch's Baths.

Aug 28 & 29, Under the Boardwalk and On the Beach... Favorite memories, Outings with family & friends, first trip to Coney Island--even if it's today--because memories are in the making.

posted Jul 9th, 2010 in News and tagged with

On Saturday, June 26, the Coney Island History Project will celebrate the Cyclone Roller Coaster's 83nd birthday with a surprise birthday get-together. SSHHH! Don't tell the Cyclone, but we've invited friends and fans of the legendary roller coaster to join us from 1- 6pm at the Coney Island History Project's free public exhibition center under the Cyclone on Surf Avenue.

At 2 pm, we'll sing Happy Birthday to the Cyclone, blow out the candles, and cut the cake. Throughout the day, visitors are invited to share their Cyclone memories and photos with historian Charles Densonfor the CIHP's History Archive. The Cyclone was "born" on June 26, 1927 and is an official New York City landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

posted Jun 23rd, 2010 in Events and tagged with