‘Fastest, highest, longest and safest’: The Coney Island Cyclone

30 June 2017

Cultural Studies | History

The Cyclone in the mid-1960s, from the Otto Dreschmeyer Brooklyn Slides (1965-68). Image © Brooklyn Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image above.

 

Ninety years ago this week, a rollercoaster called the Cyclone opened in Coney Island, on the Atlantic coast of the New York borough of Brooklyn. I am no particular rollercoaster fan – though not a tall man I’m always convinced I’ll be decapitated in the tunnels; in the merry photos taken at the end I’m the pale one hunched over – but when I found myself in Coney Island a few years ago I felt obliged, since the Cyclone is still there, to toddle along (fortified by a Nathan’s Famous hot dog) and have a go.

The plaque recognising the Cyclone as an ACE Roller Coaster Landmark. Image © Martin Lewison, The Hague. Via Wikimedia Commons.

 

I am, after all, in the history game, and there’s the celebratory plaque presented by the American Coaster Enthusiasts, and who wouldn’t want to entrust their well-being to a wooden frame 85 feet high from which weird scraping and juddering noises constantly emanate? ‘How interesting,’ I thought as the car trundled skywards, ‘the spaces between the slats are all different widths. That must be the… craftsmanship.’ We climbed. ‘Oh, there’s a loose nail.’ Still, nearly a century old and not a single catastrophic collapse to date, and blow me if I didn’t survive just fine. A competent spinal specialist would have been a welcome sight at the exit, but one can’t have everything and this was at the height of the financial crisis.

 

        

The front and back covers of the brochure 'Coney Island', c. 1930. Image © Brooklyn Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the images above.

 

Coney Island (the best guess at the origin of the name seems to be the Dutch for ‘rabbit’, konijn) was home to just a few farms until the 1830s, when entrepreneurs built the first bridge to Long Island and, enticed by the beaches and sea air at the edge of a growing New York, tourists, and so hotels and attractions, followed. Our resource Leisure, Travel and Mass Culture documents the growth and heyday of the resort through photograph albums, guidebooks, travel brochures and other ephemera, largely from the island’s glory years of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in the 1910s three amusement parks, Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, attracted several million visitors annually. A reliably breathless guide from about 1930 assures the tripper that they are in ‘the Bagdad of the west’:

Here, as you step from your train, the bustle, the strange noises, the pungent odors of another world, wash ’round you and enthrall you. […] You make your way through merry-makers, past bazaars, shops, side-shows and attractions the like of nothing else in this world.

Then, perhaps unexpectedly,

You look in at Dr. Martin A. Couney’s spotless incubators where babies weighing as little as two and three-quarters pounds are being kept alive and well in glass compartments fed by oxygen.

The Cyclone in the mid-1960s, from the Otto Dreschmeyer Brooklyn Slides (1965-68). Image © Brooklyn Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image above.

 

However, the smells and the infant displays were not to last. Luna Park burned down in 1944, and New York City’s supremo of urban development, Robert Moses, took the opportunity to rezone the site for housing. Changing tastes and an increasing choice of leisure destinations fuelled by car ownership led to the closure of Steeplechase Park in 1964 – sold to Donald Trump’s father, Fred, it rotted for a decade as Trump Sr tried and failed to gain permission to build houses there too. Otto Dreschmeyer’s slides depict a still colourful but rather scuffed-looking Coney of the mid-1960s, the crowds on the beach and boardwalk thinner and the neon sign of the C CLONE faulty against the night sky.

 

Steeplechase Park in better times. From 'Glimpses of the New Coney Island: America's Most Popular Pleasure Resort' (1904). Image © Brooklyn Historical Society. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. 

 

Happily, since then, the venerable ‘funny place’, as the old adverts had it, has bounced back to an extent, though critics decry increasing property speculation and commercial homogeneity. In 2001 Coney Island acquired a baseball team – the Cyclones, of course – followed ten years later by, at last, two new rollercoasters. The Cyclone itself, though, arcs and plunges on, disquieting British tourists but delighting Coaster Enthusiasts. In 2009, a man by the faultlessly New York name of Howie Lipstein was honoured by the Coney Island History Project for having ridden on the Cyclone for fifty years on the trot. Rather you than me, Howie. Rather you than me.

 

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About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.