A century ago, Brooklyn had the largest and most popular resort in the world. Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island attracted millions every summer. Coney Island boasted three amusement parks, Dreamland (1904–1911), Luna Park (1903–1944) and Steeplechase Park (1897–1964). Astroland opened in 1962 and closed after the 2009 season.
While vacationing in England in 1896, George C. Tilyou witnessed a horse race called “The Steeplechase.” This gave him a bright idea. He came to Brooklyn, bought land in Coney Island, and in 1897 opened Steeplechase Park, where the main attraction was the famous, mechanical horse race ride. Steeplechase became one of the most famous amusement parks in the world.
One of the major attractions of the 1939 World’s fair in Queens was the Parachute Jump. When the fair closed in 1940, the attraction was purchased, disassembled and transported to Steeplechase Park. It was rebuilt and ready for the 1941 season.
For the next two decades, the Parachute Jump was one of the top attractions in Coney Island. It got to be known as Brooklyn’s “Eiffel Tower.” However, during the early 1960s there was a decline in the amusement area. After 67 years of amusing the millions, Steeplechase Park closed its doors at the end of the 1964 season. The Parachute Jump had dropped its last parachute.
The Parachute Jump had become a rusted tower of steel. Many believed it was going to collapse, and thought it should be demolished. But in 1988, the Parachute Jump was designated a New York City Landmark. It underwent a restoration and painting in 1993, and again in the early 2000s.
For many years there was talk of a “new Coney Island.” In 2001, a ballpark was built on the site of Steeplechase Park. It is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets farm team. The Cyclones fill the ballpark for their 38 home games. The Parachute Jump stands just beyond the right-field fence. In 2010, the resurgence continued with the opening of a new Luna Park on the site Astroland. More than 400,000 flocked to this new park during its first season. In 2011, it added a new “Scream Zone” with new rides and attractions.
In 2013, the historic 1919 B&B Carousel, which graced Surf Avenue for nearly a century, will be returning to Coney Island, following a major restoration. It will be relocated along the boardwalk, in the shadow of the Parachute Jump, as part of a new entertainment center.
Developers are investing in Coney Island. Tourists are coming in record numbers, having a hot dog at Nathan’s, going on the Cyclone, taking in a ball game at MCU Park and riding the Wonder Wheel. Coney Island has a “bright” future, and the Parachute Jump should light the way.
Ron Schweiger is the Brooklyn Borough Historian.