Still a relief from everyday life, theme parks are popular now. Rediscover the thrills of the past from the lost amusement parks of New York City.
Coney Island is an iconic symbol of turn-of-the-century New York, but many other amusement parks thrilled the residents of the five boroughs. Strategically placed at the end of trolley lines, railways, public beaches and waterways, these playgrounds for rich and poor alike first appeared in 1767. From humble beginnings, they developed into huge sites like Fort George, Manhattan's massive amusement complex. Each park was influenced by the culture and eclectic tastes of its owners and patrons--from the wooden coasters at Staten Island's Midland Beach to beer gardens on Queens' North Beach and fireworks blasting from the Bronx's Starlight Park. However, as real estate became more valuable, these parks disappeared. Rediscover the thrills of the past from the lost amusement parks of New York City.
About the Author
Wesley Gottlock is a retired educator with a passion for the history of New York City and the Hudson Valley. He and his wife lecture on local history and coordinate tours to Bannerman Island in the Hudson River. This is their fifth book on New York history. Visit GottlockBooks.com to learn more. Barbara Gottlock is a retired educator who now lectures on New York history and coordinates tours to Bannerman Island in the Hudson River with her husband. This is her fifth book authored with her husband devoted to capturing New York's past. Visit their website at GottlockBooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
If one were to list all of Manhattan's varied assets, amusement parks would not be among them. But there was a time, before the island's real estate became so valuable, when a large amusement area flourished for many years.
The Fort George amusement area in the Washington Heights section of northern Manhattan was just a short boat ride away from the confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers at Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The creek separates Manhattan and the Bronx. The amusement area is rarely mentioned along with the likes of Coney Island and Palisades Amusement Park. But at its peak, Fort George competed with both of those historic parks. It remains the largest open-air amusement park in Manhattan's history. Perhaps its abrupt demise in 1913, after only an eighteen-year run, denied the area its proper spot in the canon of the amusement industry giants.
The term "Fort George" refers to a strategic fortification constructed in northern Manhattan during the American Revolution. Revolutionary soldiers bravely engaged the British from the fort shortly after the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, allowing General George Washington and his army an escape route to Westchester and New Jersey. Though Washington escaped successfully, the British continued their stronghold in New York City and eventually rebuilt Fort George. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the British abandoned the fort. It will be remembered as the last colonial position to fall on the island of Manhattan. Today, George Washington High School occupies the site.
In 1895, on land adjacent to the same hallowed grounds, a large and spectacular amusement area began to evolve. The location was ideal — perched atop cliffs along Amsterdam Avenue starting at 190 Street. Its western boundary was Audubon Avenue. The entertainment zone stretched north up to Fort George Avenue, where the Curve Music Hall was located, though most of the amusement rides were situated a few blocks south. At roughly one thousand feet above sea level, the vistas looking across the Harlem River were breathtaking. Some of the rides were designed to take advantage of the location's natural terrain to enhance thrills.
As with most other amusement parks of the era, trolley transportation was crucial. In the case of Fort George, the Third Avenue Railway System, which connected the Bronx to Manhattan, was the conduit. With a terminal near Fort George, the line delivered locals and residents from throughout the city to the park's doorstep for the sum of five cents from most Manhattan locations. The nearby Westinghouse Power and Electric Company provided the electricity for the park using alternating current. Eventually, Con Edison, which used direct current, would buy out Westinghouse.
Initially, the amusement area was an amalgam of hastily assembled structures to house sideshows, fortunetellers, smaller rides, shooting galleries, penny arcades and food concessions. The concessions were individually owned, largely by German businessmen. Many had been concessionaires on the Upper East Side's Jones's Wood, a popular working-class resort featuring beer gardens and many forms of entertainment. When that area was consumed by fire in 1894, many of the displaced entrepreneurs gravitated to the Fort George area along Amsterdam Avenue.
By 1899, a hotel and casino owned by John F. Schultheis was operating on the crest of the hill on Fort George Avenue. It eventually was heavily damaged by fire, the date of which remains unclear. The Great Handicap Race Track just north of Fort George Avenue opened before the turn of the century, as did the Harlem River Speedway. The speedway operated on what is now the Harlem River Drive from 155 Street to Dyckman Street. It featured harness races run by the well-heeled of Manhattan. It helped to attract more people to the nearby growing amusement area. It wasn't until 1919 that the roadway opened for motorists. In 1922, it was paved for the first time.
However, it wasn't until the arrival of the Schenck brothers, Joseph and Nicholas, that the amusement area achieved premier status. Joseph and Nicholas Schenck became, by far, the amusement area's major players. The Schencks emigrated from Russia in 1893, when Nicholas was eleven years old and Joseph was two years older. As very young men, their business acumen grew, yielding several successful small businesses. Joseph bought and operated a pharmacy where he had worked as a lad. While visiting the bustling amusement area one weekend during 1904, the brothers quickly realized that there was money to made at Fort George. They quickly established a modest-sized (fifteen- by twenty-five-foot) drinking establishment called the Old Barrel. They were rewarded with success in more ways than they probably ever imagined.
They soon befriended a customer at the Old Barrel by the name of Marcus Loew. Loew had already achieved some fame and fortune as an owner of penny arcades, nickelodeons and theaters in New Jersey and New York, including the Royal Theater in Brooklyn. The trio built a vaudeville stage adjacent to the Old Barrel in 1905 that garnered even more profit. A cane board and knife board were added in the second season. Loew, also seeing the potential at Fort George, agreed to lend Nicholas and Joseph the funds necessary to construct a separate entertainment complex to be named Paradise Park at the Fort George amusement area in 1905.
The Fort George Amusement Company was organized on February 8, 1905, listing Joseph Schenck as president, Marcus Loew as vice- president, Nicholas Schenck as treasurer and William Mundt as secretary. Initial capital assets were listed as $40,000. These events, along with the contributions of scores of other entrepreneurs, would lead to the amusement area being dubbed "Manhattan's Coney Island."
The thrilling rides and other recreational diversions at Paradise Park became wildly popular and spurred even more growth. Only a power failure on August 9, 1905, marred the first season. The entire park went dark. Passengers in the top cars of the giant Ferris wheel panicked in the darkness on the crowded weekend night. Their screams could be heard throughout the park. Some threatened to jump and had to be restrained by fellow riders. People inside the Old Mill had no means of escape in the dark tunnels. Its boats remained still as water ceased to flow inside the ride. Fortunately, a gunboat and several yachts in the river, realizing the emergency, shone their search lights on the park, alleviating further panic. Power was eventually restored, and there were no casualties.
Around the time Paradise Park was gaining a foothold at Fort George, two hugely successful figures in the amusement industry, Elmer "Skip" Dundy and Frederic Thompson, made a splash with some startling news. Thompson and Dundy were best known for developing and building the sensational Luna Park, Dreamland and the Hippodrome at Coney Island. On March 31, 1906, they announced to the press that they would be building, in their words, an "immense amusement empire unlike anything in existence" and an "uptown wonderland" at Fort George. It would be called Vanity Fair.
Based on the seventeenth-century classic Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, the theme park, as they envisioned it, would be an architectural and amusement colossus with typical marketplaces of that era. The centerpiece would have been an extravagant show featuring decoratively dressed chorus girls, majestic fountains and "modern" lighting effects. They even went so far as to take out a twenty-five-year lease on the Jennings Estate, the equivalent of one hundred city lots. Plans were drawn up to construct an electric railway from the foot of the Dyckman Street station that eventually would wend its way up to Audubon Avenue.
But Skip Dundy died suddenly on February 5, 1907, ending a most colorful life and probably putting the Vanity Fair project to an end. But that did not deter Frederic Thompson from moving forward with other plans at Fort George. He made an announcement to the press on March 26, 1907. Thompson detailed plans for the construction of an airship terminal at Fort George. Airships ninety feet in length would dock at Fort George atop a one-hundred-foot-high platform. Passengers would ascend in an elevator to the loading platform. The ships would float to a terminal atop a building at Broadway and Twenty-ninth Street. From there, the journey would continue to Coney Island, where the passengers would be met by a band atop the "Trip to the Moon" attraction, which he owned. Thompson could cash in on both ends of the airship's journey. It was never built.
But Thompson still was not finished at Fort George. A small park under both Thompson's and Dundy's names opened at Fort George in June 1907. The feature attraction was Bostock's "Rounders," considered to be one of the most elaborate carousels in the world. It is not known if the planned figure-eight toboggan, miniature railroad and circle swing were all in operation in that year.
The pair had made fortunes but had spent a lion's share of it on yachts, enormous restaurant tabs, drinking, other indulgences and extravagances. Skip Dundy's passing left Thompson awash in a sea of lofty ambitions and complicated finances. It is possible that Thompson just gave up on Fort George as finances became more pressing and he missed his partner's relative stability. Thompson never paid rent on the Fort George property and was in arrears to the tune of $150,000 when a list of his creditors was drawn up. Besides, Fort George was beginning to look like a risky investment at this juncture considering its limited space for expansion. His drinking problems worsened, and he eventually lost Luna Park to creditors. Although he subsequently attempted several smaller ventures, he filed for bankruptcy in 1912. He died in 1919. Friends had to take up a collection to purchase a headstone.
But with Paradise Park on its enclosed three-acre site in full swing starting in 1905, the Fort George amusement area had something to please almost every taste judging by the crowds it drew. Up to 100,000 visitors per day, according to a 1907 newspaper account, arrived by trolley or horse and buggy. Local residents merely walked to the midway. Its features included two highly visible Ferris wheels, tunnel boat rides, skating rinks, a toboggan coaster that slithered down the cliff toward the Harlem River, swimming pools and two other world-class roller coasters to please enthusiasts of that genre. Three beautiful carousels entertained young and old. Two of the carousels were built expressly for Fort George by the renowned Philadelphia Toboggan Company. One was commissioned in 1905 and the other in 1908. In addition, countless midway concessions lined Amsterdam Avenue.
One coaster built in 1907 was aptly nicknamed the "Rough Rider." It replaced a tamer coaster that had operated since the opening of Paradise Park. The original coaster was not bereft of problems. During its construction, a worker was killed and several more were seriously injured when some pilings collapsed on March 28, 1905. The Rough Rider's run was checkered as well. The third-rail coaster required a motorman to operate it. In essence, it was akin to a subway ride in open-air cars hurtling down the side of the hill with figure eights and hairpin turns to make it more "interesting." Electric motors hauled the cars back up the hill after their run. It is doubtful even its legendary builder, William F. Mangels of Coney Island fame, realized the thrills he created for the price of ten cents. The ride lasted two and a half minutes on a track seventh-eighths of a mile long. Its maximum height was seventy-five feet.
According to reports, some motormen had a diabolical streak. Instead of coasting or slowing down over or around certain curves and hills as they were instructed to do, some pushed forward on the lever. Riders often got the thrill of their lives. Unfortunately, some were injured as they were thrown from the cars. Lawsuits abounded. After the first fire to strike Fort George Amusement Park in 1911, the Rough Rider was dismantled and reopened as a new attraction at the Schenck Brothers Palisade Park. Interestingly, the ride ran in reverse of its operation at Fort George. The ride began at the base of the cliff until it reached the top, and then the thrills began.
Mangels also designed the "Tickler" at Fort George, a tame ride by comparison. The ride, introduced by Mangels at Coney Island, was "designed to jostle, jolt, and jounce its riders about in their seats when the ride was in motion," according to its originator. The bumping and whirling of the cars down an incline careening off rubber obstacles like a pinball machine created a fair amount of body contact. This action led to it being called "the perfect date ride for couples."
Vaudeville shows and dancing were popular at Fort George. At least four music halls — the Trocadero at 190 Street, the Star at 192 Street (near the rear entrance to Paradise Park), the Paradise Park Music Hall and, at the northern reaches of the entertainment zone, the Curve at 197 Street — offered quality vaudeville and musical acts. The Trocadero's acts were provided by agents Sam and Freeman Bernstein. The Star was operated by C.J. Johne, and its six-piece orchestra was a popular draw. There was no admission charge for the Paradise Park Music Hall. Profits were generated through the sale of food and refreshments. Featured regular performers at Fort George included the popular Professor Ziegler and his German band.
The midway was no less entertaining with its nine saloons, five shooting galleries and the omnipresent freak sideshows. Among the sideshow attractions were the "Human Ostrich" and "Ramses the Giant Killer of the Zambesi." The former amazed patrons by swallowing items ranging from a pack of tacks to curled rancid sandwiches left out on the park's picnic tables. Ramses, a huge man who displayed feats of strength, was said to have escaped unaided from a horde of Italian soldiers. Children were able to enjoy the pony track, the roller rink or the open-air swimming pool. When their parents wished to be alone for a spell, a facility was available for supervision of the tots (for a fee).
Restaurants and other food concessions were kept busy by the influx of visitors, particularly on the weekends. One popcorn and candy (taffy was a specialty) concession at Fort George was owned and operated by Mary Gish, mother of legendary movie queen Lillian Gish. Lillian's father had left the family before she could even form memories of him. Mary Gish went about saving what little money she could from a small business in Brooklyn and some sporadic acting work in order to purchase the space at the park in the summer of 1905. According to her memoirs, Lillian's job at the age of eleven or twelve was to stand on a box and repeat over and over in as plaintive a voice as possible, "Would you like to buy some candy?"
Lillian also reminisced about the day her younger sister, Dorothy, went missing among the hubbub at Fort George. Frantically, the family searched among all the stands and stalls until they spotted her standing high on the snake charmer's platform during a performance. Pushing through the crowd, Mary nearly fainted when she saw a huge snake wrapped around her daughter's body. Little Dorothy was smiling and appeared oblivious to the snake. She was duly punished.
When business at the candy stand was slow, the girls exercised the ponies at Mr. Craemer's pony concession. They rode them bareback and fast. One day, little Dorothy fell off her pony. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was treated for a compound fracture of her arm. Meanwhile, Lillian, left behind at the park, feared the worst had befallen her sister. It was evening before Mary returned from the hospital with Dorothy, but no one could find Lillian. Concerned workers at Fort George had been scouring the area for the better part of the day. Finally, Mary discovered the terrified Lillian crouching in the machinery shed at the center of a carousel. She quickly reassured her daughter that everything was going to be all right. Lillian claimed that her early horseback riding at Fort George spurred a love of that skill that endured throughout her storied life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lost Amusement Parks of New York City"
Copyright © 2013 Barbara H. Gottlock and Wesley Gottlock.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2. STATEN ISLAND,
About the Authors,