Coney Island has been delighting generations of visitors for almost 200 years. And in those 200 years, it has earned nicknames like “America’s Playground,” “Poor Man’s Paradise,” and “Sodom by the Sea.” Let’s find out why in this quick introduction to the history of Coney Island.
What’s a Coney?
As with many places in NYC, Coney Island gets its name from the Dutch. Although the Lenape native people called the land “Narrioh”, meaning “land without shadows”, Dutch settlers noticed that the place was full of rabbits and called it “Konijn Eylandt” or Rabbit Island. Because that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue for English-speakers, when the British took over the colony they changed it to “Coney” Island.
Coney Island’s Origins
Long before it was the people’s playground, Coney Island was an all-you-can-eat buffet for animals. Up until the 19th century, the people of Gravesend, Brooklyn, used Coney Island as grazing land for their livestock. A couple of developers persuaded the Gravesend residents to build a toll road connecting Coney Island (which at the time was an actual island) to mainland Brooklyn, so people could access the beach. The proceeds from the toll road would go to town. This led the way for Coney Island to become a seaside resort, with various hotels springing up along the beach.
During Coney Island’s resort days, the island was split into three sections. The wealthy and those with more-than-average means took to gathering at Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach at the east end of the island. The working class stuck to West Brighton, the area that makes up the Coney Island neighborhood today.
Fun and Games and Fire
Coney Island’s first amusement park opened in 1895 with other parks following in quick succession. The cheap thrills at these early amusement parks included the first roller coaster, a simulated trip to the moon, and dazzling structures covered in thousands of electric lights. Due to strict social codes, people at the time were especially drawn to attractions that would force them to have physical interactions with the opposite sex. It may seem tame now, but brushing hands or touching shoulders as you tumbled down a twirling tube was a big deal in the early 1900s.
While attractions like roller coasters and animal performances still stand the test of time, there are more than a few attractions from Coney Island’s past that may not amuse most visitors today. Care to see how little people lead their lives in Midget City? Or how about recreations of disasters like the fall of Pompeii or the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane, which took the lives of at least 6,000 people? Yeah… I’d pass on that too.
One popular attraction that drew controversy was Dr. Martin Couney’s sideshow of premature babies. That’s right, Dr. Couney (who actually wasn’t a doctor, but was still extremely knowledgeable on the subject of neonatal technology) put premature babies on display in front of a paying audience. Before you get too outraged, let me explain that Dr. Couney did this to demonstrate the effectiveness of incubators and to promote their use among medical professionals. Up until the 1940s, incubators weren’t commonly found in hospitals, so there wasn’t much doctors could do for babies born preterm. Desperate parents brought their babies to Dr. Couney, who in over thirty years of doing these sideshows, saved 6,000 lives (out of an estimated 8,500).
Here’s another heart-warming Coney Island story: working as a hot dog vendor at Coney Island as a young man, Deno Vourderis often promised his wife, Lula, that he would one day buy the Wonder Wheel ride for her as a wedding present. He saw it as “a ring so big, everyone in the world would see how much he loved her.” It turned out that this wasn’t just sweet talk. After working on Coney Island for decades in various roles, Deno bought the Wonder Wheel in 1983 for $250,000. Today his family operates the whole Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.
It’s remarkable that the Wonder Wheel has lasted as long as it has, because attractions at Coney Island have a history of going up in smoke. From 1896 until now, Coney Island has had at least eight major fires. The kind of fires where flames shoot out of the eyes of a hotel shaped like a giant elephant. The kind of fires that send circus animals running wild through the streets of Brooklyn. The kind of fires where the devastation is so bad, you have to pay ten cents to witness it. (Yes, all of these things did happen.) So far, it’s been ten years since Coney Island has had a major fire. Let’s hope this streak continues.
That was a lot of information, but it’s only the beginning of the roller coaster ride that is Coney Island’s history! If you want to learn more, check out this brilliant video linked here or go down the rabbit hole of The Heart of Coney Island’s website.