One hundred years ago yesterday – on May 15, 1923 – the first 9,500-foot section of the Coney Island Boardwalk, between Ocean Parkway and West 37th Street, formally opened. It was named for Brooklyn’s borough president Edward Riegelmann who led its construction. “Poor people will no longer have to stand with their faces pressed against wire fences looking at the ocean,” he said. An article in the opening day program stated that “the Boardwalk can hold 760,000 people at once, although a crowd of 250,000, fairly distributed along its entire length, may parade without a sense of overcrowding.”
The Coney Island History Project will open the 2023 season of our free public exhibition center on Memorial Day Weekend with an exhibit about the one hundred-year-old Riegelmann Boardwalk curated by Charles Denson. The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future is a fascinating exhibit that tells the story of how the Coney Island Boardwalk came into being, how it was constructed, and how it changed Coney Island forever by opening the shoreline to the public. It dives into the history, politics, and current issues surrounding a beloved New York City landmark that has survived a century of challenges.
Historic photographs and maps will illustrate the innovative construction techniques that were used for the first time to create Coney Island’s new “Main Street” in 1923. A century of memorable photographs will be on display! Many photographs of the Boardwalk’s construction in the exhibit were donated to the Coney Island History Project by the family of Hyman Cleon, Civil Engineer for the Borough of Brooklyn,1922-1962. Cleon worked with the Boardwalk’s engineer and designer, Philip P. Farley.
“As the Boardwalk celebrates its hundredth birthday its future is hard to predict,” says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found, Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park, and other books about Coney Island history. “Will it remain a boardwalk, or will it become the world’s longest, widest sidewalk?” The exhibit describes the challenges facing this century-old New York City landmark as the City debates whether the deteriorating Boardwalk should be resurfaced with concrete, plastic, or wood.
The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future will be on view from May 27 through September 4, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 1:00 PM- 7:00 PM. Admission is free of charge. The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is located at 3059 West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. For additional information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fascinating Facts about the Construction of the Coney Island Boardwalk
-Coney Island’s Riegelmann Boardwalk is an engineering marvel. Construction of the first section of the 80-foot-wide Boardwalk, including an expansive new beach, jetties, bulkheads, and connecting streets, took only 18 months. This was a miraculous achievement considering that now it can take longer than that to get a single board replaced.
-The coordination of supplies and labor for the project was extremely complex. Construction took place in all kinds of weather, and over the heads of thousands of summer beachgoers who still swam and sunbathed as the Boardwalk rose above them.
-A total of 1.7 million board-feet of high-grade Douglas fir lumber for surface flooring was shipped from the Pacific Northwest, through the Panama Canal, and up the East Coast to Coney Island Creek. An additional 4 million feet of creosote-treated yellow pine timber were used for the 4 by 14 support girders, and another 75,000 feet were used for jetty pilings and bulkheads.
-Floating hydraulic dredges operated around the clock for over a year pumping 1.7 million cubic yards of sand from offshore to build the new beach. Beach protection would be provided by new jetties that required 120,000 tons of rock, quarried in Maine and shipped to the beach in barges.
-Steam derricks drove 4,000 pre-cast concrete pilings into the shoreline for the Boardwalk’s superstructure. The concrete used in the pilings was a special “rich” blend that has successfully withstood salt corrosion for over a hundred years.
-Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the project was the resistance of the beachfront property owners, including Steeplechase Park, to the construction of the Boardwalk and opening of the beach to the public. Ten years of litigation needed to be settled before the project could begin. Little did they realize how much the project would increase their property values and encourage bold new development at Coney.
-Few visitors realize that the Boardwalk was built at the waterline and that an artificial beach was added as part of the project. When the first section of the promenade officially opened on May 15, 1923, a formerly private beach became public, and Coney Island was rewarded with a stunning new “Main Street.” The Boardwalk was later extended twice, first to Coney Island Avenue and then to the border of Manhattan Beach, bringing its total length to 2.7 miles.
Founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, the Coney Island Project is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger; Humanities New York and the National Endowment for the Humanities; and our members and contributors.
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