There Was Once An Amusement Park Here: The Long Gone Amusement Parks of New York City
Earlier this year four kiddie rides were added next to the Carousel in Flushing Meadows Park, creating the new amusement park called Fantasy Forest. The press touted this as the first amusement park in Queens in nearly 30 years. That was not exactly true. There was another Playland in Queens that would remain open until the late 90s. Has it really been that long since Rockaway Playland closed? Queens was once the home of many many amusement parks. But then they all disappeared. Two generations grew up without them, having to settle for video games. And not just in Queens. The Bronx has not seen amusements in ages. Staten Island lost it's last amusement park in 2004, now a decade ago. The urban amusement park has become an endangered species. But not because Americans lost their taste for amusements. In fact, even as the urban amusement park went into decline, great big multimillion dollar theme parks built by the likes of Disney and Six Flags turned record profits. People are willing to travel cross state, even cross country, and pay a $30 or higher admittance fee, just to be in an overcrowded theme park with hour long lines on most of the attractions. The urban amusement parks offered something, maybe less thrilling in concept, but far less expensive, far less crowded, just as fun and just a few minutes drive away.
I write this hub for those two generations of New Yorkers who thought that the only local amusement parks were at Coney Island, and for those of you who are old enough to mourn the fun places of the past. These were the amusement parks of New York City. This is how many there were, and how large they were. And ultimately what happened to them.
Lets begin with Coney Island. Sure, there is still a Coney Island left to go to. But it is no secret that it has shrunk a bit in recent years, and for a while there was nearly lost for good so that condominiums could be built. I have written extensively about the events of the past decade which you can read here:
......So there is no need to rehash the story in this hub. Needless to say, in the past decade Coney Island lost Coney Island Batting Range & Go-Kart City, Astroland, and McCullough's Kiddie Park, as well as the individually owned attractions The Spider, The Zipper, Shoot-The-Freak, Cha-Cha's and Fabers Fascination.
But while the Coney Island of recent memory is only a couple of city blocks, it was a lot larger decades ago. At one time the core amusement district was at least 22 blocks along the boardwalk, and went as far as three city blocks inland. Beyond the core district were random independent amusement making a go at a less populated part of the beach. Even what is now the exclusive gated neighborhood of Sea Gate once had it's own amusements before there were residents. Brighton Beach had it's own amusement park, Brighton Pike, with a huge out and back wooden coaster called "A Chase Through The Clouds". But a large scale park all the way out in Brighton could not compete with Coney Island's three big theme parks. When fire damaged the Pike in 1919, those who decided to rebuild did so a mile down the beach in the core amusement district.
They were three theme parks in the core amusement district; Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland. Dreamland bit the dust in 1911 after only 7 seasons when a massive fire burned it to ash. While the biggest and most impressive of the three parks, it was run by a bunch of prudes who only wanted clean wholesome attractions. Once you paid to get in you were bored out of your skull. By the time it burned down barely anyone was visiting it. So the owners never bothered to rebuild. The land was sold to the city, who in turn built a huge municipal bath house, and something called a parking lot for those new fangled cars.
Luna Park opened in 1903 and remained open until 1944 when the 40 year lease on their property ran out. A fire had gutted part of the park a year earlier, and the owners of Luna had hoped to collect on their fire insurance. But the property owners claimed the insurance windfall should go to them instead. This lead to a battle in court, and Luna not getting another 40 year lease out of spite. The property was sold out from under them to a developer. While it was being torn down another fire broke out, causing the tons of uncleared rubble and still standing plywood attractions to turn into the island's second biggest inferno. The site was turned into a housing project.
Steeplechase lasted the longest. It had opened in 1897, and had been so successful that it's founder, George C Tilyou, built more Steeplechase Parks across the country. It even survived a devastating 1907 fire. Within a year Tilyou rebuilt his park, this time within a massive indoor pavilion so that it could remain open even on rainy days. But while the park could survive a blaze, it could not survive Tilyou's own family. After his death the park was passed down to his son, and after his death split between his other siblings. The largest percentage of the park was owned by Marie Tilyou, and after a nasty fight with other family members on the park's future, decided to close the parks, and to sell off the rides and property so that no other family member may control it after her death. Fred Trump, Donald Trump's father, bought the Coney Island property and tore down what was left of Steeplechase Park. He wanted to build high rise luxury apartments. But he would need the city to change the zoning on the property from amusements only to residential. He also needed the city to do a few other things, such as build him a road. But it never happened. Trump ended up selling the property to the city. And after two decades of indecision on what to do with that property, and after nearly allowing a developer to build an actual amusement park on the site, it was turned into the baseball stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones currently play.
Every story deserves a good villain. And this hub has one. Robert Moses. He was a New York bureaucrat who rose to power in the 1920s when close friend, Governor Al Smith, created several state authorities which Moses was appointed head of. Among them control over the building and maintaining of housing, buildings, parks, transportation, bridges and roads in the state. Moses made it clear that he HATED amusement parks, and sought to remove them from the state entirely, replacing them with his idea of wholesome public parks with athletic fields, playgrounds and swimming pools. Moses saw Coney Island as public enemy #1, and vowed to wipe it off the map. However, it seems that with Coney Island he met his match.
Despite the often repeated urban legend that Robert Moses was responsible for the decline of Coney Island, it seems his only victory was an isolated kiddie park in Brighton Beach which he took with eminent domain and turned into a municipal parking lot. In the 1920s he was able to extend city streets past Surf Ave up to the boardwalk, and later move that same boardwalk inland by half a city block to expand the beach. Both projects resulted in the demolition or shaving of buildings, but as far as I can tell, no actual amusements. In fact, the buildings removed along the boardwalk were the bath hoses, and in turn the new boardwalk was within spitting distance of the amusement parks, bringing them more business. The Aquarium he wanted to build in Steeplechase ended up on city property that was formerly the Dreamland parking lot and municipal bath house. He built a pedestrian bridge from the 8th Street elevated subway station directly to the boardwalk, with only one exit ramp to the Aquarium. He thought this new bridge would cause visitors to bypass the amusement district. But most of them continued to use the Stillwell terminal, and later the city added staircases on both sides of Surf Avenue. While being credited for the housing project that replaced Luna Park, that turned out to be the developer who purchased the lot. Moses wanted a public park on that site, not apartment buildings.
Coney Island was just to well loved for any politician to be the one responsible for it's demolition. So Moses never got the permission he needed on any of his schemes that would have demolished or reduced the amusement district. The Parachute Jump outlived Moses like a middle finger. While Coney Island remained untouchable for Robert Moses, that did not stop him from destroying other amusement parks across the state. You will read more about him throughout this hub. Ironically, it was just after his fall in power that the character of Coney Island changed enough that it began to be perceived as dangerous, and city officials began seeking to have the amusements replaced. What saved it was it's immense size. It was just too large an area for any city official to take in one project. And while you may think Coney Island was unique, New York City had six other amusement districts.
Coney Island's biggest rival was The Rockaways, a peninsula just South of Queens. Originally it was only accessible from Nassau County. The first railroad to the Rockaways in the 1860s went through Jamaica, then down to Valley Stream before going onto the branch that hooked West and down the middle of the peninsula to Rockaway Park. In the 1880s a new railroad was built that crossed Queens beginning at Rego Park, crossing Woodhaven and then over a series of trestles and man made islands to cross Jamaica Bay. Once on the Rockaway peninsula the train turned West over an elevated trestle where it terminated at the Rockaway Park depot. Not only did amusement businesses open along the edge of the beach, but along the lanes between the trestle's stations and the beach. There is no exact record of how wide spread the amusements were, but is believed they existed sporadically along the beach between Rockaway Park and The Hammels, and at least one large cluster near the Beach 98 Street Station. In that cluster George Tilyou bult his second Steeplechase Park, William Nunely opened a small amusement park, and in 1901 L.A. Thompson, the inventor of the modern roller coaster, opened his first amusement park.
Long and narrow, Thompson's park originally had a coaster that continued out across the beach, and then over pilings allowing the tracks to continue past the surf line and over the water before turning around. Predictably the pounding surf did a number on the pilings, and the coaster was removed and replaced with a three story out and back coaster called The Atom Smasher. When Thompson died in 1926, the park was sold and became part of a larger park called Rockaway Playland.
In 1935 Robert Moses ( remember him? ) sought to eliminate the amusement district in the Rockaways. By then most of the amusements had settled along the boardwalk as most patrons were now coming from the local bungalow colonies instead of day trippers from the train stations. Deciding that Rockaway Beach needed a parkway, Shore Front Parkway was built on the North side of the boardwalk. Over 30 blocks worth of businesses along the boardwalk were demolished. Half of Rockaway Playland was demolished as well as half of The Atom Smasher which needed to be reconfigured. This pretty much brought an end to the amusement district. Since it was the midst of the Great Depression, there was no money for any of the amusements to relocate and rebuild. besides, now that they could no longer line the boardwalk, they would no longer be near the crowds.
Rockaway Playland and a few other amusements in the Beach 98 Street cluster lucky enough to have property outside of the path of the parkway continued to operate. But the distance from the boardwalk took it's toll on the foot traffic, and gradually only Playland was left standing. In New York all amusement parks are required to carry liability insurance. In 1985 the premiums for Playland's insurance jumped from $50,000 to $408,000. Unable to pay it, they could not open that season. The loss of an entire season's revenue was too much for the company that ran the park, and they went bankrupt, and were forced to put Playland on the market to pay off creditors. Sadly, the winning bid for Playland was by developers looking to tear the park down and build homes on the site. They were granted the required residential zoning, and Rockaway Playland was demolished. And with that amusements were no longer in the Rockaways.
Robert Moses did a number on most of the city's amusement districts. One he left alone was Clason Point in the Bronx, which was privately owned. The point, which was located near the tail end of the East River where it meets the Long Island Sound, was bought by investors who saw it as an ideal place for a beach resort. They opened their own park, Clason Point Park, the same year they leased 20 acres for an independent amusement park called Fairyland. Other independent amusements leased land between the two parks. But by the 1920s the East River began to become too polluted to swim in. Clason Point's large outdoor swimming pool, which use water pumped directly from the sound, became dark and murky. Locals began calling it "The Inkwell". One hates to speculate exactly what was in that ink. The pollution in combination with the Great Depression drove visitors away. Fairyland went out of business in 1935, as did some of the other independent amusements. In 1949 the entire property was sold to developers who removed all the remaining amusements and converted the area into a private country club.
Across the river from Clason Point was another major amusement district. North Beach in Queens. Aside from having many independent amusements along the resort's beach, it had two major amusement parks. Gala Park which opened in 1901, and Stella Park which opened in 1907. North Beach was conceived and created by a beer company with the intention of creating what amounted to the world's largest beer garden. Exclusively selling their beer, of course. It eventually became more known for it's saloons than for it's amusements, and public drunkenness became the norm. As such, families began avoiding the place. North Beach also suffered from the pollution of the East River, but worse, got pollution coming from the Flushing River, and from Riker's Island which was then used as a dump. By the 1920s the sand on it's beach was hidden below two feet of muck made up of any pollutant you can think of. But it still remained a popular drinking destination. That is until the Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919 and the selling of alcoholic beverages was made illegal. North Beach's regulars dispersed to the speakeasies and never returned. When Robert Moses used eminent domain to take the entire resort in 1929, all the amusements were more or less out of business. Moses had intended on razing the entire area and building a city park in it's place, but in 1937 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decided to use the land for an airport instead. The airport baring his name is still there to this day.
Aside from the city having a North Beach, it also had a South Beach, over on Staten Island. The beach is still there, but it's amusements are long gone. In fact, Staten Island had two amusement districts side by side. The amusement district of Midland Beach was right next door. But South Beach was by far larger, and had a major amusement park called Happyland which operated between 1906 and 1927. Independent amusements and small amusement parks continued to flourish on both beaches until 1935 when, you guessed it, Robert Moses decided that Staten Island needed a new parkway. Just as he had done in the Rockaways, Moses constructed the Shore Front Drive adjacent to the boardwalk, demolishing every amusement in it's path. Today that parkway is called Father Capodanno Blvd, and at six lanes wide, you can see how ridiculously unnecessary it was. Only the amusements along Sand Lane, the street between the beach and the closes transportation hub at Hylan Blvd, survived. But they were gradually crowded out by residential buildings. In 2004 only the South Beach Amusement Park remained. Facing increased noise complaints by local residents and skyrocketing land taxes, the owners decided to close the park and sell it to condominium developers. It's arcade across the street remained open for another couple of years, but increasing complaints by locals convinced the owners to sell off that property as well.
That takes care of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. But what of Manhattan? You would probably doubt Manhattan ever had an amusement park, let alone an entire amusement district. As it turns out, Manhattan had two amusement districts. The first was in the upper east side, just East of Third Ave somewhere between 66th and 75th Streets. Jones's Wood was originally a large estate made up of farmland and still virgin woodland that had not been developed by the mid 1800s. There was no Central Park yet, so the only way for poor and middle class Manhattanites to enjoy a picnic was to trespass on private property. The rich became so sick of shooing away trespassers that they began building iron fencing around their lawns. Jones's Wood was not yet fenced off, and soon became a favorite picnic ground for the local German immigrants, even after the city built Central Park.
Prior to the existence of any public park, some developers saw a way to make money by creating private parks and charging admission. These were called pleasure parks. The owners of Jones's Wood decided that if their property was to be used as a picnic area, then they may as well profit from it. So in the 1860s a large section was turned into a pleasure park. As more and more people visited Jones's Wood, space was leased to concessions. Initially just food stands, but eventually games and amusements. By the 1890s so much of Jones's Wood had been leased for amusements and other concessions that there was very little space left for picnicking. For this reason, Jones's Wood is usually credited as America's first amusement park. Meanwhile, the rest of the Jones's Wood estate had been sold off to developers leaving the amusement district as the final section still not developed. If not for the money the property owners were making from leasing to the row after row of shacks, rides, tents and booths that comprised the amusement district, they would have closed the pleasure park and sold off that property as well. In 1894 one of those concessions burst into flames. With so many other concessions packed together, it was not long before the entire amusement district and a few nearby buildings were ablaze. When it was finally put out nothing was left but ash and burned timbers. The owners decided enough was enough, and although most of the concession owners wanted to rebuild their businesses, the pleasure park was closed and the land sold off to developers.
The loss of Jones's Wood displaced all of the amusement concessions. The city flat out refused to allow them to relocate in Central Park. Manhattan had become so developed, that the closest tract of undeveloped land was 100 blocks North, along Amsterdam Ave in Fort George. There, along the cliff that faced the Harlem River, was plenty of virgin real estate that had not yet been developed. The strip of amusements began to grow in size. In 1905 brothers Joseph and Nicholas Schenck, along with businessman Marcus Loew, founded Paradise Park. All three men were fascinated by the potential of the amusement park business. Five years later the Schenck brothers would also purchase New Jersey's Palisades Park. Paradise Park brought prestige to the Fort George amusement district, which was soon called Manhattan's Coney Island. The area saw more and more visitors every year, and the number of independent rides and attractions grew along Amsterdam Avenue.
But while the area near the East River remained undeveloped, there were plenty of brand new apartment buildings and homes built to the West of it, full of neighbors who complained about the crowds and their noise. They petitioned the government to have the amusement district shut down. But it had grown so popular with the rest of Manhattan, no politician would do it. In 1913 and arsonist, perhaps a local resident who had enough, set Paradise Park on fire and burned it to the ground. The Schenck brothers talked about building a bigger and better Paradise Park, but their lease on the property expired in 1914. A group of residents had pooled their money and began buying out leases on the property the amusements sat on, and that included Paradise Park. By this time the Schenck Brothers and Marcus Loew had lost interest in the amusement industry. They were now fascinated by the growing motion picture industry, and a few years later would sell off all their amusement park holdings. Loew would go on to found M.G.M. while Joseph Schenck would become a very successful producer. With Paradise Park and most of the amusements being driven out of the area, attendance dropped. The remaining amusements survived only because they had the foresight to buy their property. But with so few visitors to the amusement district they would all quickly go out of business. The local residents won out. Fort George went from being the new Coney Island, to a dim memory within a couple of years.
There was a reason why most amusement parks opened in amusement districts. They were usually built in areas that were already drawing crowds, like beach resorts. And to be fair, they didn't start as amusement districts. The first amusement built there was built alone. The others showed up because the area proved profitable. If you were going to invest in an amusement park, it was less of a risk to build it at places like Coney Island or North Beach. Still, there were a few early attempts to build outside of the safety of an established amusement zone. Ulmer Park was built in Bath Beach roughly a block South of Lafayette High School. Opening in 1893, the owner, William Ulmer, was a successful beer brewer, and came up with the idea for the park as a way to sell his beer. But it was built too close to Coney Island, which drew away what little patrons he had once Steeplechase Park opened. Ulmer Park went out of business in 1899.
Another park built to close to Coney Island was the Percy Williams Amusement Park in Bergan Beach. In 1890 chewing gum manufacturer Percy Williams and Thomas Adams Jr. purchased property on Bergan Island in Jamaica Bay and built a beach resort. The amusement park was added in 1896. Bergan Beach just barely held it's own against Coney Island, but in 1907 had more competition from the Golden City resort. The failing amusement park was closed in 1918 when a decision was made to build homes on the island. As part of the project, the creek separating the island from the mainland was filled in. But even plans to sell property to residential developers failed to save the resort. The rest of it went bankrupt in 1920.
The same year the Percy Williams Amusement Park closed, another opened in the Bronx along the Bronx River at 177th Street. Starlight Park was conceived as a sort of World Fair exposition. The Bronx International Exposition was organized to celebrate the borough's 300th anniversary. There would be an amusement midway, while the rest was to be the typical pavilions you would expect at a World Fair. But once The United States entered the first World War, the exposition aspect was downplayed. There had always been plans to make the 27 acre exposition a permanent feature, only now it was entirely an amusement park, soon to be called Starlight Park. It thrived through the 1920s, but like most amusement parks, suffered during the depression. In 1932 a fire burned most of the amusements, and there was no money to rebuild them. The remaining rides were phased out as they broke down. It's athletic fields and swimming pool continued to operate well into the 1940s, until the property was taken by eminent domain by, you guessed it, Robert Moses, to build the Bronx River Expressway. While Starlight Park was no longer an amusement park, Moses did not want to give the 27 acre park a chance to bring any amusements back.
The most successful of the stand alone amusement parks was Golden City in Canarsie, just West of where the pier is today. Designed to be more spectacular than Coney Island's amusement parks, it opened in 1907 to much fanfare. Golden City was a success, and even did well during the Great Depression. What finally did the grand park in was, you guessed it, Robert Moses. In 1939 Moses took all the property lining the North shore of Jamaica Bay for his newest highway. Shore Parkway would be part of the Belt Parkway, and would run along Brooklyn's South shore from the Narrows up to Idlewild Airport ( now JFK Airport ). At one point Moses had even wanted to fill in the bays around Coney Island so that the Shore Parkway's route would run along it's boardwalk. Luckily for Coney Island, that end of the project never happened, and today the Shore Parkway runs to the North of it over a viaduct. But Canarsie was not as lucky. The Parkway ran right through Golden City. Moses also made sure the parkway ran through the Bergan Beach resort. The resort had been sold to developers in 1925, and among the things they wanted to do was to reopen the amusement park. But the project stalled for the next decade. Eventually nothing was built, and the island was sub divided into lots that were sold off. When Moses built his Shore Parkway, the site of the former resort and amusement park still existed, and there was still interest in having it reactivated. Moses may have succeeded in demolishing Golden City, but in the process began a chain of events that would usher in a new age of amusement parks. And for that story, along with the story of many other amusement parks that no longer exist, read part two here:
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