Last Weekends of Exhibition Center Summer Season!

The Coney Island History Project exhibition center will be open for another two weekends on August 26 and 27 and September 2 through 4 (Labor Day Weekend) before we close for the summer season. Stop by and take a selfie with Cy, the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, and Coney’s only original Steeplechase Horse. Also on view is this season’s special exhibition, The Riegelmann Boardwalk: Past, Present, and Future, and Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact, the 1823 Toll House sign. It dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to “the Island” was five cents.

After Labor Day, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and Luna Park remain open weekends and school holidays through the end of October. The History Project’s outdoor exhibitions at Deno’s, including history banners and panels outside the Astroland Rocket, are on display in the lower park adjacent to the Wheel during park hours.

The Coney Island History Project is located next to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park‘s West 12th Street entrance. Hours are 1 – 7 PM on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays through Labor Day.

A Donation of Photos Documenting Coney Island’s Volunteer Lifeguards

The current lifeguard shortage in New York City brings to mind the history of lifeguards at Coney Island and the essential role that they play in public safety.

When ocean bathing gained popularity at the end of the 19th century, waves of New Yorkers began heading for Coney Island to seek relief from sweltering tenements. Few of them knew how to swim. The beach at that time was private property and there were no city lifeguards to protect swimmers.

U.S. Volunteer Life Saving Corps lifeguards at their headquarters on the beach at West Fifth Street, Coney Island, circa 1919.

Safety was provided by bathhouse owners who hired private lifeguards that for the most part were untrained and ineffective. There were no standards. Bathhouses hired men who worked cheap and “looked the part.” Former boxers, longshoremen, and weightlifters fit the bill. These unqualified guardians used primitive methods for resuscitation, such as “barrel-rolling,” (rolling a drowning victim over a barrel on its side to remove water from the lungs), a technique that caused more harm than good. Many private guards were drinkers and poor swimmers.

The United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps soon came to the rescue. Founded in 1872, the service established rescue stations all along New York City’s rivers and shorelines. Coney Island’s Volunteer Service life saving station was headquartered in a sturdily built wood-frame boathouse located on the beach at West Fifth Street.

Visit our blog to read more about the history of the volunteer lifeguards and see additional photos donated to the History Project by Ruth Hroncich. Her grandfather, Ernest Gross, was a volunteer with the Service from 1919 to 1921, before the Coney Island beach became public. These family photos document the last days of the Volunteers before the Boardwalk was built and City lifeguards took over safety operations. – Charles Denson

Ernest and Ruth Gross, the couple third from left, at Weber’s Baths, 1920.

New Oral History: Jeanette Bigelson, 103-year-old Coney Island Resident

Among the recent additions to the Coney Island History Project’s oral history archive is an interview with Jeanette Bigelson. Born in 1920, she grew up at 62 Cannon Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it was a neighborhood of working-class immigrants.

Bigelson remembers going to Coney Island as a child with her mother and later as a young woman with her husband and children. Her memories include a crowded beach that was “my camp”; luncheonettes under the boardwalk; the mirror room and swimming pools at Washington Baths and Annex; and riding the carousel and “drive your own car” bumper cars.

Photo Credit: Anatoli Kardiukov/JASA/Scheuer House of CI OAC & Luna Park Annex.

In 1964, Bigelson and her family moved to Coney Island’s then brand-new Warbasse Houses, where she still lives today. Among her secrets to living a long and happy life are walking on the beach with her feet in the water and listening to the waves. “When the waves roll in, it’s music. They talk to you,” she says in the oral history recorded by Tricia Vita.

In February 2023, JASA celebrated Bigelson’s 103rd birthday with a party at their Luna Park Annex Older Adult Center in Coney Island, which Bigelson calls “her second home.”

Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story via phone or Zoom, sign up here. We record oral histories in English, Chinese, Russian, Spanish and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places.

Last Word: Coney Island’s First Roller Coaster

Last week we celebrated National Roller Coaster Day, which is August 16th, in honor of the date in 1898 that Edwin Prescott was awarded a patent for his Loop the Loop Roller Coaster. It debuted in Coney Island in 1901 at West 10th St. and Surf Avenue where the Cyclone is now.

Coney Island’s first roller coaster, LaMarcus A. Thompson’s Switchback Railway, opened at the same location in 1884. Photographs of the Switchback are extremely rare and most that are said to represent the coaster were usually taken at other locations, such as Atlantic City. This video by Charles Denson of a photograph in the Coney Island History Project collection shows the entire length of the coaster, from the beach to Surf Avenue.

More than a century later, Coney Island is still debuting new coasters — Luna Park’s Tony’s Express and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park’s Phoenix are the two newest — and remains a magnet for coaster enthusiasts. On August 27th, 190 attendees from 25 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada will converge in Coney Island for the 2023 ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) Preservation Conference. Welcome, ACEers! 

Founded in 2004 by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, the Coney Island HIstory Project is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; Humanities New York with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities; The Museum Association of New York (MANY) in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA); and our members and contributors.

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