Happy Thanksgiving from All of Us at the Coney Island History Project!
Happy Thanksgiving from All of Us at the Coney Island History Project!
Twenty years ago today, Coney Island's original Thunderbolt roller coaster was demolished. "Giuliani Razed Roller Coaster, And the Law" wrote Dan Barry in the NY Times in 2003, when "a federal jury in Manhattan ruled that the city had no justification for tearing down the Thunderbolt, and in doing so had trespassed on Mr. Bullard's property. It also determined that one city official, who was integral in the decision to demolish, had acted with 'deliberate indifference.' '' Photos of the Thunderbolt demolition in the Coney Island History Project Collection may be viewed here.
The Thunderbolt roller coaster was built in 1925 and operated until 1982. Famous as the inspiration for "The House Under the Roller Coaster" in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall, the coaster steadily decayed after its closing. In 2000, with Keyspan Park under construction next door, the city condemned the coaster as structurally unsound. Despite protests from preservationists and coaster enthusiasts, on November 17th, 2000, the Thunderbolt was demolished.
Today's #ThrowbackThursday photo shows the original Stauch’s building on Coney Island's Bowery at Stillwell being demolished in 1940 to make way for the Bobsled. It was a movie theater called Stauch's Old Time Movies in its last days. Photo from the Coney Island History Project Collection.
We were deeply saddened to hear that long time Coney Island resident and advocate Alfie Davis had passed away. She was a stylish, determined woman who cared deeply about her community and the environment, especially Coney Island Creek. Her passing is a heavy loss for Coney Island. We're honored to have recorded the story of three generations of her family for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive. You can listen to her oral history interview here.
The Tornado -- Whirlwind Scenic Ride --Coney Island, NY. Postcard from the Coney Island History Project Collection.
Listen online to the Coney Island History Project's new oral history with Michael Liff. He shares stories of growing up in Coney Island and working in the amusement area as a teen in the 1970's. Working at the Tornado was his favorite job. He got to know the coaster's every dip and turn, and did everything from greasing the tracks, loading riders, and pulling the breaks to collecting money for re-rides by saying "Fifty cents to do it again!" Liff says "my love was for the Tornado" when asked to compare it to Coney Island's other legendary wooden coasters built in the 1920s, the Thunderbolt and the Cyclone. He also worked at Astroland's Diving Bell, kiddie rides, and haunted attractions, as well as the Bowery's water race games, where he learned to call people in. "I'm glad I have these memories," he says of Coney Island, which besides being a fun place to work is where he met his wife of nearly 40 years. "It gave me the opportunity to have a beautiful family. So it's something very close to my heart."
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