Coney Island is a place of entertainers, gamblers, vacationers, thrill-seekers, performers, carnies and freaks. It is a gloriously imperfect playground for the people—detached enough to seem otherworldly, while its indulgences and deep-fried treats remain only a train-ride away from Manhattan.
Despite a history interspersed with floods and fires, and an infestation of wild rabbits, Coney grew into a deliciously notorious amusement. Its constant disrepair and rejuvenation is a striking record of nearly two centuries of physical changes. With the first horse races and roller coasters, prestigious resorts and vaudeville entertainers, contortionists and corn dogs, there has been, and will always be, only one Coney Island.
Here are a handful of moments that have come to define the evolution of this perpetually prominent saltwater attraction…
1609—Coney Island is discovered by Dutch explorer Henry Hudson
1829—The Shell Road links Coney Island with the rest of Brooklyn
1877—The Manhattan Hotel opens, Coney’s first luxury hotel
1879—Coney's first horse racing track opens
1884—The Switchback Railroad, the world's first roller coaster, debuts
1903—Luna Park opens and the Bowery burns
1904—The Dreamland park opens but is ravaged by fire in 1911
1920—The Subway connects Coney Island with Manhattan and Brooklyn
1923—The Boardwalk opens
1927—The Cyclone roller coaster opens
1944—Luna Park burns
1969—Steeplechase Park is purchased by New York City for $4,000,000
A more complete history of Coney Island can be found at
Real estate investors have adopted the phrase “a fast nickel is better than a slow dime,” to connote the effectiveness of accepting a below-market offer instead of holding out for a higher price. When one sells something too cheaply, one takes a fast nickel over a slow dime (less money now, rather than more money later). However, the nickel has been connected to Coney Island since it was know as the “Nickel Empire” in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1920, the subway line to Coney was completed, enabling millions to visit the seaside resort for five cents. During this time, the price of local food and entertainment was kept low (a nickel per game, per ride, or per hotdog). Elsewhere, prices were on the rise (to a dime or more!). Coney Island became an affordable amusement for the middle class; they came to the beach in droves with bathing attire and pockets-full of nickels.
1. Coney Island is now connected to the main part of Brooklyn, but it was formerly an actual island, separated from the main part of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek.
2. In common with other Long Island barrier islands, Coney Island was virtually overrun with rabbits, and rabbit hunting was common until resorts were developed and open space eliminated. Beginning with the period after the Civil War, Coney Island became a resort, as trolleylines began to reach the area in the 1870s.
3. Coney Island’s boardwalk (the world’s longest) was the subject of the famous song "Under the Boardwalk," first popularized in 1964.
4. Coney Island is home to Nathan Famous’ first hotdog stand. Their celebrated annual hotdog-eating contest has been held there since 1916 and has developed very specific rules. Today, roughly 20 contestants stand on a raised platform behind a 30-foot long table with hotdogs and drinks. Condiments are optional and are usually not used. The hotdogs are grilled then allowed to cool slightly so as not to cause any burning when eaten. Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi, who ate 53 1/2 hotdogs, holds the current world record.
5.Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. It was finally eclipsed by Disneyland in California.
6.Coney Island, USA produces the last 10-act Circus/Sideshow in America at their theater on Coney Island. Next door, the one and only Sideshow School will allow any aspiring freak to run away with the circus.
7. Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2002 The Cyclone in Coney Island is without a doubt the world's most famous roller coaster. Built for an initial investment of $100,000, when The Cyclone opened a single ride was only a quarter, and 35 cents on Sundays.
8. Coney Island, though most popular during the summer, is home to the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, which is active during the winter months. These club members swim in the cold Coney water to stay healthy, to keep connected to Coney Island, and above all for the fun of it. The Polar Bear Club starts its season in October when the water temperature averages in the low 60s and continues through the winter season when the temperature sinks to 33 degrees, with an added wind chill.
9. The Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which happens annually on the first Saturday after the Summer Solstice, pays homage to Coney Island’s Mardi Gras, which was celebrated from 1903 to 1954. Each year a King Neptune and Queen Mermaid are chosen to oversee the procession of participants dressed in mermaid and sea costumes. David Byrne, Queen Latifah, and Moby have been crowned in the past.
10.The name “Coney,” according to legend, evolved from the first topological report of the coastland (describing it as “Coney”). Another theory proposes that the name evolved from the Dutch word for rabbit, “Konjn,” sounding vaguely similar to the easier to pronounce and spell “Coney.”
The history and types of coasters:
The Coney Island History Project (www.coneyislandvoices.org) is a new organization that aims to record Coney Island’s past through public programming. They will launch the Coney Island Hall of Fame starting June 11, 2005, and begin an oral history project, drawing on the public’s stories about Coney Island, during History Days this summer.