The opening of George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park in 1897 marked the beginning of Coney Island’s era as “the Nation’s Playground” and the rise of the modern-day amusement park. Named in honor of Coney Island’s horseracing tradition, initiated by the Brighton Beach Racetrack in 1879, this site would lure crowds of up to an estimated ninety thousand people on a hot summer day during its peak years.
George C. Tilyou (1862-1914) came from a family of Coney Island realtors and merchants. He demonstrated early entrepreneurial promise when, at the age of fourteen, he made a profit selling salt water and sand to Midwestern tourists. In 1894 on this site, he introduced the Ferris Wheel, a steel wheel 150 feet in diameter, inspired by the original at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. In 1897, after acquiring more mechanical rides, Tilyou enclosed them and charged a fee of twenty-five cents for twenty-five attractions. He called his park “Steeplechase - The Funny Place.” Popular rides at Steeplechase Park included the Steeplechase Race, in which visitors raced gravity-powered wooden horses around a circular steel track, and Trip to the Moon, a simulated rocket ride.
In 1907, Steeplechase Park suffered an eighteen-hour fire that destroyed thirty-five acres. The park underwent major renovations, including the construction in 1910 of the Pavilion of Fun, a five-acre wooden floor covered by a glass and steel dome. Following a second fire in 1939, the Tilyous used the land cleared by the blaze to build new, updated rides to combat the effects of the Depression on ticket sales.
The 262-foot-high, 170-ton tower of steel known as the Parachute Jump is the only remnant of Steeplechase Park left today. Designed by US Naval Air Force Commander James H. Strong in 1936 to simulate a jump for trainee troops, it debuted as an amusement at the 1939 Worlds’ Fair in Meadow Park, Flushing, Queens. The Tilyou family bought it and transferred it to its present site near the boardwalk, where it thrilled beach-goers for twenty-seven years, drawing as many as a half million riders a year.
In 1965, due to Coney Island’s economic decline, the Tilyou family sold Steeplechase Park to developer Fred Trump. The property was subleased to small ride operators and concessionaires, who operated the Parachute Jump until 1968. Because Trump was unable to overturn the lot’s “amusement-only” zoning status, Parks acquired the property the following year.
In April 2000 the City Council approved a plan for the construction of a 6,500-seat minor league baseball stadium, to be located roughly on the same site as the old Pavilion of Fun. The construction proposal also includes plans for neighborhood renewal projects to help infuse the boardwalk area with life and economic opportunity. In tribute to the park’s past, the Parachute Jump, which was granted historical landmark status in 1977, will remain visible from the stadium seats in its present location.
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