The Parachute Jump, located on the southwest corner of the block between Surf Avenue, the Riegelmann Boardwalk, West 16th Street, and West 19th Street, was erected in 1939 for the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 at Flushing Meadows in Queens (now Flushing Meadows-Corona Park). It was moved to its present location soon after, in 1941.
Parachuting methods were first taught solely via airplanes, but with engineering advances, towers were eventually constructed to train parachutists. The first parachuting towers were patented in the mid-1930s by U.S. Naval Commander James H. Strong. After one of Strong’s towers near Hightstown, New Jersey, became a draw for civilians, Strong and his associates turned the device into an amusement attraction.
The 262-foot-high Parachute Jump at Coney Island was created by Strong purely as a ride for the World’s Fair. The six-sided steel tower holds twelve drop points, accessible by six-foot steel arms. Each parachute had a seat for two hanging beneath it; riders were lifted by a cable to the top of the tower, then dropped, floating gently to the ground. Climbing to the top took roughly a minute; the descent lasted between ten and fifteen seconds. Adult riders paid forty cents (a quarter for children) to experience the thrill of parachuting and take in spectacular views of the fairgrounds.
After the Fair ended, the Parachute Jump was bought by the family of George C. Tilyou (1862–1914) and moved to Steeplechase Park. Eager to turn the area into a family-oriented amusement park, Tilyou had opened the park in 1897 and specialized in acquiring mechanical rides for it. Calling the park “Steeplechase - The Funny Place,” Tilyou charged a fee of 25 cents for entry to his 25 attractions. 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.
Following a 1939 fire at the park that destroyed some of the rides, the Tilyou family purchased the Parachute Jump and added it to his list of attractions. One could ride the Parachute Jump along with the rest of the rides for just the cost of admission. The Jump drew as many as a half million riders a year. During World War II, when New York was a hub of the war effort, it was common to see servicemen taking their wives or girlfriends on the ride. The lights on the Jump remained lit for use as a beacon for planes and ships as much of the City adhered to energy-saving mandatory blackouts.
Due to Coney Island’s economic decline, the Tilyou family was forced to sell Steeplechase Park to developer Fred Trump in 1965. Trump had wanted to build high-rise apartments on the land, but was unable to gain the requisite planning permission. In the meantime, the property was subleased to small ride operators and concessionaires, who ran the Parachute Jump until 1968. In 1969, Parks took control of the property after the City acquired Steeplechase Park. In 1971, the 170-ton steel tower was put up for sale and was under threat of being demolished when no buyers were found.
The Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and Gravesend Historical Society organized to save the structure, and in July 1977, it was designated an official landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. That October, the Board of Estimate, doubting the Jump’s structural integrity, rescinded its landmark status. The Jump was eventually put on the National Register of Historical Places in 1980. Finally, in 1989, the Jump was designated a City landmark after its structural soundness was proven, a testament to its solid engineering.
In 1991, a $700,000 two-phase plan was undertaken to clear debris, such as hanging cables, from the Jump and to stabilize the structure. Today, the Jump is the last remnant of the original Steeplechase Park. In 2001 the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets, began playing at a new 6,500-seat minor league baseball stadium at the park. In tribute to the park’s past, the Parachute Jump remains visible from the stadium seats in its present location.