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DreamLandPan

Coney Island’s Dreamland before a fire destroyed it in 1911 – Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whoo! The spring semester has ended! As far as I’m concerned, it’s officially summertime, and if it happened to be 1913 instead of 2013, I’d probably be visiting Coney Island.

Coney Island: A Brief History

A century ago, Coney Island was a rising star in the American entertainment circuit. The first establishments appeared on the peninsula in the early nineteenth century during which, Coney Island, situated at a comfortable distance from New York City, Plastic-family-460x276provided a respite from urban life for wealthier Americans. Slowly, as the decades drifted by, the seclusion of Coney Island began to attract much more than wealthy city-slickers; gamblers, prostitutes and other dodgy folk began hanging out, seeking the lurid recreation that could be had away from the city.

The end of the civil war brought further development to the peninsula as businessman tried to profit from the creation of a seaside resort. Encouraging this development was a changing American culture. Stuffy Victorian values were waning fast as America’s capitalist economy developed alongside a working class. These working class Americans sought entertainment and Coney Island delivered. Soon the peninsula was riddled with commercial amusements – theme parks, recreational piers, incubator babies were just a few things visitors could experience. Here are some interesting examples…

Elephantine Colossus (1885-1896)

Coney Island's Elephantine Colossus - Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

Coney Island’s Elephantine Colossus – Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

The Elephantine Colossus aka the Elephant Hotel, was a hotel complete with shops and an observation deck. Nearly 200 feet fall, the elephant was built by architect James Lafferty, who evidently had a soft spot for elephant-shaped architecture — he’s also responsible two other elephant-shaped structures, Lucy the Elephant in Atlantic City and Light of Asia in Cape May. The elephant caught fire in 1896.

Image illustrating several views of the elephant - Courtesy of the NYPL.

Image illustrating several views of the elephant – Courtesy of the NYPL.

"Coney Island's Big Elephant!" New York Times article from May 30, 1885 describing the Elephantine Colossus' debut.

“Coney Island’s Big Elephant!” New York Times article from May 30, 1885 describing the Elephantine Colossus’ debut.

"Coney's Elephant Burned!" New York Times article from September 28, 1896 reporting the elephant's fiery fate.

“Coney’s Elephant Burned!” New York Times article from September 28, 1896 reporting the elephant’s fiery fate.

Galveston Flood Thrill Ride (1904)

Advertisement for the Galveston Flood from the July 1904 issue of Broadway Weekly.

Advertisement for the Galveston Flood from the July 1904 issue of Broadway Weekly. Click to read full magazine.

In 1900 the coastal Texas town of Galveston was struck a hurricane. Nearly 8,000 of the 38,000 residents perished in the storm which became an inspiration for the Coney Island thrill ride, Galveston Flood which debuted for the 1904 season. The ride which Described by The Hampton Magazine as “astonishing in its artistic completeness,” the amusement employed advances in electric devices to create a more riveting experience. In February of 1904, Broadcast Weekly wrote of the ride and its creators, “In presenting their wonderful reproduction of the Galveston Flood, Adams & McKane Amusement Company, while showing in a most thrilling and intensifying manner the terrible destructive power of the elements, have eliminated all of those horrible and gruesome details of death.”

Another advertisement for the Galveston Flood featured in a Coney Island Souvenir book published in 1905. Click image to see the full guide.

Another advertisement for the Galveston Flood featured in a Coney Island Souvenir book published in 1905. Click image to see the full guide.

Dreamland (1904-1911)

Dreamland's majestic tower at night circa 1905 - Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dreamland’s majestic tower at night circa 1905 – Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As the 20th century dawned, Coney Island’s reputation as a destination of ill-repute continued to grow. In order to provide a respectable alternative to Coney Island’s ramshackle amusements (and to no doubt make money), ex-Senator William Reynolds created Dreamland. Modeled after architecture from world expositions, Dreamland was a rectangular metropolis, perched upon the ocean. White, picturesque buildings populated the park, in the center of which stood its iconic 375ft tower. One of the park’s most dazzling spectacles was its wide-spread use of electricity. According to an article from The Electrical magazine and Engineering Monthly, each night, “at the moment when darkness was setting in,” visitors experienced a “brilliant outburst of electrical illuminations.”

Entrance to Coney Island's Dreamland (1907) - Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Entrance to Coney Island’s Dreamland (1907) – Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dreamland adorned the coast of Coney Island until 1911 when an electrical malfunction started a fire which spread quickly throughout the park, quickly destroying the buildings made only of thin wood, plaster and fiber hemp. The park was never rebuilt.

"The Coolest Resort on the Atlantic Coast"  - Advertisement for Dreamland from the July 1904 edition of Broadway Weekly. Click for full issue.

“The Coolest Resort on the Atlantic Coast” – Advertisement for Dreamland from the July 1904 edition of Broadway Weekly. Click for full issue.

Panoramic view of Dreamland after the 1911 fire - Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Panoramic view of Dreamland after the 1911 fire – Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Sources
“Dreamland.” Advertisement. Broadway Weekly, July 28, 1904, 16.
Feilden, Theo. “The Story of the American Tour – Hudson River and Coney Island Trip.”    The Electrical Magazine, January 31, 1905.
Ferree, Barr. “The New Popular Resort Architecture.” Architects’ and Builders’ Magazine, August 1904, 499-513.
“The Galveston Flood.” Advertisement. Broadway Weekly, July 28, 1904, 18.
“The Galveston Flood – A Real Sensation.” Broadway Weekly, August 25, 1904, 17.
Jenks, George C. “The Stage and Its People.” Broadway Magazine, July 1905, 65-79.
Kasson, John E. Amusing the Million. New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1978.
“Majestic Dreamland by the Deep Blue Ocean.” Broadway Weekly, July 28, 1904, 4-5.
Souvenir Guide to Coney Island. New York, NY: Megaphone Press Co., 1905.
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