There’s no question that New York’s Coney Island is an utterly outrageous place; it’s most known for its freak shows, retro roller coasters, annual hot dog eating contest, and start-of-summer mermaid parade… and that’s all just the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard to believe it, but the wacky Brooklyn neighbourhood today is nothing compared to what it once was. Back at the turn of the century, it was a cloud cuckoo land of bright electric lights, thrilling (and dangerous) rides, flashy shows, and other amusements that were simultaneously enchanting and completely bizarre.
See the enlarged version from the Library of Congress here.
At Coney’s peak, around the early 20th century, three theme parks existed on the island. Steeplechase was the oldest and longest running, built in 1897, and it wasn’t long before Luna Park came along and upped the ante in 1903. The most splendid of the three parks, however, was the shortest lived…
It was called Dreamland, and between 1904 and 1911, it captured the imaginations of thousands of New Yorkers, including many hard-living immigrants looking to escape their gruelling factory jobs and homesickness for an afternoon. The park’s design took inspiration from the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, and its central feature was a 275-foot observation tower adorned with 100,000 lights, which set the park ablaze once night fell.
Dreamland had all of the attractions you’d expect from a vintage theme park: rides like Shoot the Chutes, bathhouses, a ballroom, acrobats, a carousel, shooting galleries, and the like could all be found there, but it also had some totally unique attractions you’d never expect…
It boasted a beach and pleasure pier, a Japanese café, a submarine, “airplane boat” rides, a high-wire bicycle show over the lagoon, and a “Liliputian village” of little people, complete with a tavern, a circus, a theatre, and a fire department. The park’s much-loved animal show featured a pipe-smoking elephant, a singing hyena, polar bears, and rare black lions, trained by Captain Jack Bonavita, who lost an arm during an ill-fated performance.
Then there was the Leapfrog Railway, which featured an insane twist on the classic train car ride at most parks—on the Leapfrog Railway, two trains drove towards each other on the same track, and then one would drive up and over the other using specially-made tracks on the train itself. Another publicity stunt had famous Broadway performers like Marie Dressler peddling popcorn and peanuts to the crowds each day—the performers got to keep a cut of whatever they sold, making it a profitable arrangement. In fact, Dressler was reportedly in love with Bonavita, the one-armed lion tamer.
A lot of the attractions at Dreamland focused on transporting its visitors to another time and place: there was a tram ride through a Swiss alpine village, tours through European landscapes in newfangled cars, canals reminiscent of Venice, chariot races, a recreation of the fall of Pompeii during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and a scenic railway roller coaster.
There was even an attraction that let you experience the biblical story of creation, which drew tourists in with its scandalous 30-foot- tall topless angel statue.
Another one of their more unusual attractions (which, like many other exhibits, Dreamland “borrowed” from nearby Luna Park) were the incubators. Back during the early 20th century, incubators for premature babies weren’t widely accepted by the medical community, and those looking to research the effects of incubation on preemies weren’t able to find funding from any hospital. It turned out, though, that baby incubators made a great sideshow-type attraction at theme parks and boardwalks. Admission to see the preemies was only about 10 cents, and it paid not only for the incubators, but for a full-time staff of nurses and doctors to care for the babies. As people began to realize that the incubators actually worked, they found their way out of parks like Dreamland and into hospitals.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end for Dreamland in 1911—one spring morning, as preparations for the upcoming summer season were being made, a fire broke out. Ironically enough, it originated from a ride called Hell Gate, which took tourists on a boat tour through dark caverns and past raging whirlpools. But, as most of the exhibits and attractions weren’t really fireproof, it didn’t take long for the blaze to tear its way through the park. Trucks and ships were called in, and even the little people firefighters came out to help put down the fire.
Dreamland staff has certainly had plenty of practice fighting fires– the park even had an attraction called “Fighting Flames”, where performers reenacted what it was like to be a firefighter in a large amphitheatre– sliding down poles, positioning their horse-drawn fire engines in front of a burning building and making dramatic rescues.
But for all their experience, the fire of Spring 1911 was one they just couldn’t put out. The damages were too costly to make repairing and reopening Dreamland an option, but Luna Park and Steeplechase were left to thrill and enchant. Sadly, Luna met a similar fate in the 1940s, and Steeplechase was shuttered in the 1960s.
Today at Coney Island, you’ll find a new Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, along with other privately operated rides and attractions. The neighbourhood still has an old-school charm to it, but nothing can ever quite compare to the magic that was Dreamland… not even the completely horrifying and strangely fascinating display of gluttony that is Coney’s world-famous hot dog eating contest.
An article by Anna Hider.