3. The Lost Amusement Parks of Coney Island

The enclosed Sea Lion Park in 1897. “Shoot the Chutes” is on the right shown by the sign, while the “Flip Flap Railway” is near the entrance on the left. Image from the Coney Island History Project Collection

Though Coney Island was a resort area since the Coney Island Hotel opened in 1829, it had its humble beginnings as an amusement center with Paul Boyton’s creation of Sea-Lion Park in 1895. While amusement parks like Lake Compounce date back to 1846, one main difference set Sea-Lion Park apart: Boyton put a fence around it and charged a single admission fee at the entrance. Attractions included an aquatics show and a water chute (which Boyton moved from Chicago). In 1903, Luna Park replaced Sea-Lion Park.

At its peak, Coney Island was distinctly separated into three separate parks: Steeplechase Park (founded by George Tilyou), Luna Park (which closed in 1944 but reopened in 2010 on the former site of Astroland), and Dreamland, which all sprung up between 1897 and 1904. With all the electric and technological experimentation occurring here, major fires ravaged all three of these parks. In 1907, a fire raged throughout Steeplechase Park for eighteen hours and destroyed thirty-five acres. Another fire occurred in 1939, and the Tilyous used the resulting clear land to build new rides to reverse the negative effects of the Great Depression on the park.

In 1911, another accidental fire started in Dreamland due to the weak woodwork and paper mache structures surrounding the park. This fire only burned for two hours, but wild animals from its safari ran amok throughout Brooklyn and had to be killed, and the Dreamland tower burned to ashes. Unlike Steeplechase Park, no one rebuilt Dreamland.

A 1944 fire destroyed most of Luna Park, causing its tower to start spitting out embers. Yet another fire destroyed what was left of the park a few weeks later. Two decades later, an electrical arcade fire consumed Coney Island’s Ravenhall bathhouses, and yet another arcade fire happened just in 2010. However, the worst of the fires occurred not in one of the parks, but in a residential area of Coney Island in June of 1932, after a group of boys burned garbage they found under the boardwalk. As a result of the garbage’s dryness and strong shore winds, flames engulfed many concession stands before firefighters arrived, and according to Berman, traveled from West 21st to West 24th Street along the boardwalk and to Surf Avenue. Uncover more lost amusement parks of NYC!