Coney Island and Victorian Culture

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Coney Island at the turn of the century was a bustling and growing place. People of all classes traveled from New York City as well as other parts of the world to take part in the famous amusements that helped to loosen the tight corsets of Victorian gentility. Inspired by the Columbian Exposition in 1893 George Tilyou began to build a park on Coney Island beginning with the Ferris Wheel similar to that featured at the exposition which was designed by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. By 1895 Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park and began to fill it with acts and side shows thus inspired by his travels a few years prior. While concentrating on the appeal to all walks of life Tilyou acquired A Ride to The Moon from Fredric Thompson and Elmer Dundy who built the ride specifically for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A short season later in 1902 Thompson and Dundy left Steeplechase to create Luna Park taking the amusement with them. Playing off the most popular sport on Coney Island, Tilyou obtained a mechanical horse race that took riders on a thirty second ride around a track complete with hills and sharp turns. Other attractions added to the park included the Human Roulette Wheel which threw riders in all directions and Earthquake Stairs which jostled climbers and challenged them to descend a shaking stair case. These attractions as well as the wild side shows caused people to throw off all conventionality and made them rub elbows with other classes while having unrestricted fun. While Steeplechase drew visitors to the peninsula it also increased in the popularity of swimming or bathing as it was referred to in Victorian speak. People on a hot New York day adventured to Steeple Chase and the beach by various means of transportation. Donning the latest in bathing fashions people enjoyed more unrestricted fun regardless of any class system in the water. Although Victorians looked down their noses at the amusements and public bathing, people still flocked to the beaches and splashed in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Ruckus rides and the ability to socialize appealed to the younger generations looking to toss off the oppressive garbs of Victorian gentility and just have plain unrestrictive fun. In 1907 tragedy struck Steeplechase as fire ravaged the park leaving a smoking ruin. In the efforts to still turn a dollar Tilyou charged admission to the ruins of the once great park. During the rebuilding, Luna Park benefited from the loss and treated guests to a modern park with rides to thrill everyone. The “old-fashionedness” of Steeplechase was challenged as Luna Park, the most modern of it’s time dazzled park goers with electric lights and tall white towers bathed in bright bulbs. This enabled the park to operate at night. But still people remained loyal to the original amusement park they knew so well even though built anew from smoldering ruins. George Tilyou sadly passed away in 1914 after seeing his park through another fire in 1911 which claimed Dreamland. Luckily enough the winds shifted and spared his park from a second disaster. By 1914 the amusement park began to fall out of favor. The once well loved and most visited park suffered a loss in the visitors during the hot New York summers. Steeplechase continued to operate and help people socialize and essentially come out of the tight bonds of gentility by offering a carefree time with out restrictions. Then on New Year’s Eve 1964 the last light was turned off for the final time at the ill fated old fashioned park. Luna Park on the other hand was not as popular as the original park but provided new wonders for those curious and daring enough to seek it out. Created after the Beaux-Arts movement of the time Thompson an erratic architect began to design the park as a world where someone could be lost in fantasy. By opening day on May 16th 1903 Luna Park opened its doors to the wonderment of many people seeking out...
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