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Coney Island: The Dreamland Fire of 1911

Updated on February 25, 2016
All images from Wikimedia Commons
All images from Wikimedia Commons | Source

The great Coney Island fire of 1911

To me, there's a truly sinister side to places such as amusement parks, circuses and fairgrounds. It's something to do with the enforced fun, the artificially generated joviality.

There's also that feeling that nothing is really as it seems to be.

This was particularly true in Victorian times and the early part of the nineteenth century and Dreamland, part of the Coney Island extravaganza was a typical example.

Midget City

Yes, that was the name of one of the most popular attractions. I have no idea what today's politically-correct word is for unusually short people but I really doubt that it's 'midget'.

The miniature city, complete in every way, was styled to be like European town of the sixteenth century and was the home of about three hundred people who went about their daily lives being gawped at by members of the general public who had paid the appropriate fee.

That in itself does sit well with me but what is even more sinister is imagining what went on after the paying public had left. Evidently the inhabitants were encouraged to be 'immoral'.

Freak shows

It seems that our ancestors were fascinated by people who were referred to as 'freaks' ('which included midgets, of course). Some of these were genuine in their unusual physical features, some were artificially enhanced and others were frankly faked. For example, many 'bearded ladies' were actually men. 'Colonel' Ferari, shown in the picture at the top of the page, was born in Leeds, Yorkshire.


The fire

This photograph shows Dreamland as it was when dawn broke on 27th May, 1911. The attraction had been scheduled to open for the summer that day but was nothing more than a pile of charred rubble.

During the early hours of the morning, workers were fixing one of the attractions using tar - a highly flammable material. The inhabitants of Midget City were asleep in their beds. (Or indulging in 'immoral acts' if they were taking the advice of their employers).

The animals were in their cages or safely tethered; some of their keepers and trainers were on the premises, others were enjoying their final evening out before the demanding summer season.

Some performers and sideshow-owners were adding the final touches to their booths or stages. The night was very dark but the whole area was brightly illuminated by the thousands of electric bulbs of which the attraction was so proud.

But suddenly, the light bulbs started to explode.

Now that the whole property was thrust into darkness, a bucket of tar was knocked over and it's assumed this was the cause of the fire.

Although the building looked solid (see the photograph above) they were flimsy. It makes me think of those film sets used in early Hollywood movies - nothing but facades.

The fire soon took hold of the thin board, the papier mache, the gaudily painted canvasses and other light materials. Fire engines soon arrived but it was hopeless.

The people were terrified but worse, so were the animals. Tigers, hyenas, lions and other wild creatures were able to escape from their cages and fled in fear, terrifying the fire-fighters, the workers, the inhabitants and the onlookers who had arrived to see the spectacle.

Women and children from Midget City ran down the street whilst the menfolk tried in vain to fight the fire with their scaled-down fire truck. People screamed as they saw wild animals loose in the streets. Bells rang constantly. Sirens yelled. Alarms blared. 

Unheard of screams were heard as animals were engulfed in flames. Debris and sparks were collected by the wind and thrown up into the air.The smoke was thick and the air almost unbreathable.

The police tried to quell the hysteria but were urged by the animal trainers to use their guns on the suffering animals. The sounds of gunfire and the screams of wounded and dying animals only increased the horrific atmosphere.

No human lives were lost in the fire. Dreamland was under-insured and therefore never rebuilt. 

The following day, the manager of Dreamland set up booth outside the remains of the property and sold pieces of debris to the gullible public as souvenirs.

Recommended reading

I strongly recommend this amazing book.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel
The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel

This is the book I read recently which has the Dreamland Fire as part of the plot.

Although this is novel, it is the result of immaculate research and some of the minor characters really existed and worked at the ill-fated leisure park.

Others are based on real people who lived at the time. It tells the story of a girl whose father runs a freak show close to Dreamland.

He is less than honest about his exhibits and indeed creates a mermaid using his own daughter.


Freaks, midgets and more

I've never come to a definitive decision regarding my opinion of 'freaks' being used in sideshows and other forms of entertainment. My first instinct is that it's horrible - that circus and sideshow owners exploited people who were born looking different.

On the other hand there is the fact, and I do believe it to be fact, that in days gone by these people would have lived in much worse conditions had they not been in the entertainment industry.

Let's take midgets as an example. (I believe, but I'm not sure, that they should be referred to as 'dwarfs'. Not 'dwarves' as that is too Disney / Tolkien). They have worked for centuries as court performers and many today have successful acting careers.

Midget City is also something of a conundrum to me. At first glance, it seems cruel and exploitive. But then people who are very short can be considered to have an 'impairment' when they are in standard society. (Simply reaching something from a supermarket shelf, for example).

In Midget City though, that no longer applies - everything was scaled down - and it was those who considered themselves normal who were impaired, in fact probably completely disabled, when they were in the miniature city.

True, I wouldn't like crowds of people walking through here gawking at me as I sit here typing but what if it was in exchange for a tailor made home? In fact, a tailor made society?

I still don't know where I stand on this. I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below. What do you think?

The history of Coney Island

Coney Island: The People's Playground
Coney Island: The People's Playground

Although the history of this area - its growth and its attractions - is amazingly interesting, this book also shows how it's an important part of American social history and development.

Industry was booming - some would say too fast, with hindsight. The population was booming too with so many immigrants being employed as cheap labour in the cities. Provision had to be made for their entertainment, not for altruistic reasons but to keep them 'controlled'.


See original footage of Dreamland and the fire in the video below.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 3 years ago from Perth UK

      Strange times what! Sometimes I wonder if things have changed at all!

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 3 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Boy, what a terrible thing! So glad no people were killed, but it makes me sick to think of the animals that were. It would be a hard thing to spend your life considering yourself a freak, with people laughing or making fun of you (as they would at a place like that). Difficult anyway. Very interesting read.