Once an actual island—the most western of the barrier islands off Long Island—Coney Island’s beaches were always a popular destination for New Yorkers escaping the heat of a pre-air conditioning city. Then, between 1887 and 1904, a series of amusement parks were constructed on the Island for the visiting crowds.
Then, as now, a vast range of entertainment was packed into the parks—rides, rollercoasters, Ferris wheels, sideshows, circuses, carnivals, concerts, and fireworks.
There were also some displays that would seem bizarre today, such as premature babies displayed in incubators—then a new technology. For a dime, people could file past the rows of incubators in a reconstruction of a hospital ward, a pane of glass separating them from the babies.
Above all, the emphasis was on spectacle. In the elaborately constructed buildings, people could be taken on a multitude of simulated trips and witness elaborate theatrics. Luna Park took people to the Moon in the spaceship Luna, and to the North Pole in a submarine.
In the “Fighting the Flames” attraction, which simulated a burning hotel, between one and two thousand stuntmen took part as hotel guests and firemen. The “War of the Worlds” created an attack by the Navies of Europe on New York Harbor on a miniature scale.
Coney Island’s architecture was fantastical with domes, minarets, towers, spires and castles, all illuminated at night by millions of electric lights. It was also highly flammable. In 1907, Steeplechase Park was destroyed in 1907 and rebuilt. But when Dreamland was completely destroyed by fire, in 1911, it did not rise from the ashes.