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Episodes from a Natural and Social History of Coney Island: Primary Sources from the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries, with Historical and Contemporary Images

Before the amusement parks and the attractions, people came to Coney Island for the blueness of its seas. -

gulls on a jetty, Coney Island


"The ocean near Key West is of a milky hue owing to the great banks of white coral at the sea bottom. Yet none of these colors equal the blue of the sea at Coney Island on a rare day in June. Toward nights its tints grow darker and more blue, and the horizon in the light of the setting sun seems just a line of black beaded with burning gold. " - The tourists companion and guide to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton, Bath Beach… edited by J. Perkins Tracy. New York: Austin Publishing Company, 1887. p. 7


The waves were like racehorses -

waves on the beach at Coney Island

 - The tourists companion and guide to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton, Bath Beach… edited by J. Perkins Tracy. New York: Austin Publishing Company, 1887

A western barrier island in the Long Island chain, Coney Island was once separated from the mainland of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek. In 1823, the island was connected to the mainland by a road made of seashells and later by landfill. When the island became popular with those who could only afford the quick trip to the beach, upper class New Yorkers seeking exclusive contact with those of their own class abandoned the island.

Coney Island Beach. June 3, 2012.
In the distance is the elegant remains of the long-shuttered Childs Restaurant, built in 1923, on the Boardwalk.
The building is landmarked.


An article from The Atlantic monthly published in 1874 explains the effects of Coney Island's proximity:

"And among the least aristocratic features of the great suburb, none, perhaps, is more characteristic than Coney Island, the popular watering- place of New York city, to the people of which, the tradesmen, mechanics, and workers generally, it stands in the same relation that Long Branch does to the wealthier and more exclusive classes. The fact that it is within one hour's journey from New York by steamboat, and but little more than that by the horse cars from Brooklyn, renders Coney Island unfashionable since its advantages are attainable by all. " 
view of Coney Island beach, with Parachute Jump, Wonder Wheel, and the Cyclone in the distance.
The Parachute Jump is closed.


The same article provides an intriguing glimpse into the nature of the island in 1874, when "this desolate strip of barren sandhills and shingly beach mainly offers no attraction beyond that of the surging Atlantic upon it shore." An island where the winds beat the sands into "truncated cones of fine sand," the only vegetation the author observed consisted of sharp reedy grasses, bay bushes, and the "ubiquitous ailantus-tree," the latter covered in the summertime with colorful bathing suits. The author noted that the human presence on the island consisted of large families in picnic attire as well as the "flashy men" in velvet coats with diamond pins in their shirts. These were the gamblers, "curled and oiled within an inch of their wild lives."

Many of the guide books to Coney Island from the 1870s commented on the resort's popularity with the lower classes. Coney Island may have the finest beach on the Atlantic coast, they observed, but it was clearly the greatest beach for "less well-to-do classes of New York and Brooklyn." Appletons' illustrated hand-book of American summer resorts: including tours and excursions. 1877.


 

By the late 1880s, Coney Island had developed an enormous summer tourist trade, catering to New York's burgeoning immigrant population and other fun-seekers. Palatial hotels, electric lights, thrilling amusements, theaters, bathing houses, the colossal seven-story Elephant Hotel built in 1885, and regular fireworks transformed Coney Island into a collective fantasy.


 

 - illustration and text from The tourists companion and guide to Coney Island, Fort Hamilton, Bath Beach… edited by J. Perkins Tracy. New York: Austin Publishing Company, pps. 25-26

The social classes sorted themselves out into various sections along the shoreline. Yet, also by the late 1880s, three seasons of powerful storms eroded the beaches and smashed several hotels, laying many in ruins. If not storms, devastating fires became the scourge of the island. The Elephant Hotel perished in flames in 1896. Dreamland, a sprawling amusement park, was destroyed by fire in 1911.

destruction of Dreamland, Coney Island, after a fire. 1911. Click to enlarge.


More attractions were built and later destroyed, many through cycles of economic opportunity. The beach itself is subject to continual battery of storms, and erosion remains a serious threat. A system of jetties at regular intervals help mitigate against the forces of nature, although the construction of the long jetty that separates Coney Island from the western community of Sea Gate worsened erosion there on the Atlantic side. In April of 2012 the city and state funded a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to construct stronger jetties, beginning on the western side of the island.

The ocean is still blue, at least for now.

man fishing on the long jetty that separates Coney Island from the Seagate community.


swimmers on Coney Island. 1912.


A storm with a menacing cloud looms on the horizon. Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk.
Sunday morning, June 3, 2012.


Historical images from the Library of Congress:

Panorama. [Destruction of dreamland, Coney Island]. LC-USZ62-64286 DLC (b&w film copy neg. of left section) LC-USZ62-64287 DLC (b&w film copy neg. of right section). pan 6a11998

Coney Island, bathing in the ocean, 1912, New York, NY. Reproduction Number 117502. Library of Congress.

Related:
Walking on Sand and Boardwalk: Exercises for Coney Island.

Contemporary images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Sunday morning, June 3, 2012. Made with an iPhone 4. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Resources:

• Learn more about Coney Island history at the Coney Island History Project.

Related:

• Read the post, The Long, Wide Beach at Rockaway for similar stories of the beach in Queens.

 
View Walks on Coney Island's Beach & Boardwalk in a larger map

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