At Hell’s Gate: The Rise and Fall of Coney Island’s Dreamland
Posted by Staff on Saturday, February 4th, 2012
Dreamland was only a short-lived dream for the New York senator who poured millions of dollars into the doomed amusement park on Coney Island. In 1904, it was one of the most ambitious amusement parks ever built, rivaling the nearby Luna Park in attractions and easily surpassing it in investment dollars. However, in 1911, just seven years after the extravagant park opened, it was all burned to the ground in a dramatic nighttime fire.
The park’s founder, former New York senator William H. Reynolds, set out to build Dreamland with the intention of one-upping Luna Park, which opened in 1903. In contrast to Luna Park’s chaotic assemblage of attractions and rides, Dreamland was to be refined and elegant in its design and architecture. The land on which Dreamland was built, a 15-acre parcel at Surf Avenue and West 8th Street, was obtained by Reynolds through somewhat devious means. Reynolds had others bid on the property for him, in order to conceal his intentions of building an amusement park, and once he won the bid, he used his political clout to take control of West 8th which ran right through the middle of the parcel.
Dreamland opened on May 15th, 1904 at 4 P.M.: three hours later than the announced 1 o’clock opening. Everything at Dreamland was undeniably bigger and more grandiose than Luna Park, but this didn’t necessarily convince visitors that it was better than the neighboring park. Instead, the ornate architecture and overabundance of white paint came across as contrived. Nevertheless, there was plenty to admire at Dreamland. In particular, one couldn’t help but be impressed by the one million light bulbs that lined the buildings and rides: especially compared to Luna Park’s measly 250,000 bulbs.
As far as rides went, they were all quite similar to, if not directly copied from, Luna Park’s rides. There were two Shoot-the-Chutes, a scenic railway called Coasting Through Switzerland, gondola rides through a nighttime model of Venice, a miniature railroad, and a simulated submarine ride. The Shoot-the-Chutes ride was the largest ever built at the time, with two ramps that could accommodate up to 7000 people per hour.
Rides were only a small fraction of the entertainment available at Dreamland. The primary attractions were various exhibits, demonstrations, freak shows, and an animal circus. Dreamland adapted a firefighting demonstration from Luna Park, but not surprisingly, at a much larger scale. Fighting the Flames, as the show was called, featured a cast of 2000 actors and fireman saving a six-story hotel in front of 1500 spectators. Exotic animal shows were also a big draw for Dreamland. Famed lion-tamer, Captain Jack Bonavita, commanded lions in the Bostock animal arena until his hand was severely clawed by one of the lions. Although the injury was only to his hand, a blood-infection spread throughout his arm requiring that it be amputated.
On the freak show side of things, there was Lilliputia, also known as “Midget City.” Three hundred midgets pretended to live in a half-scale replica of 15th century Nuremburg. These midgets would perform every day activities for onlookers, including a team of Midget City firefighters who would respond to a false alarm every hour. Over by the Surf Avenue entrance, there was a building that showcased premature babies in incubators. At the time, incubators were rare in hospitals, so parents would send their premature child to Dreamland where they could be cared for. An admission price of ten cents covered expenses such as heating the incubators and employing wet nurses.
Although millions of dollars were poured into Dreamland, it still found stiff competition in nearby Luna Park. It was on the eve of Memorial Day, 1911, that Dreamland hosted its final spectacle: a real fire that engulfed every last structure. The fire started around 1:30 A.M. in a ride called Hell Gate (just one of the ironies surrounding this tragic event). Workers were putting last minute touches on the ride when light bulbs began to explode all around them. In the ensuing darkness, a bucket of hot pitch was knocked over and the structure quickly went up in flames. Uncooperative winds spread sparks across the park, igniting other buildings with ease. In addition, a recently installed high-pressure water system failed, preventing fireman from immediately containing the fire (unlike in Fighting the Flames, where a fire was heroically tamed daily). By morning, nothing but a field of charred wood was left. All of the incubator babies were rescued, but the animals were less fortunate; sixty of Joseph G. Ferari’s wild trained animals died in the fire that night.
After the entire park was destroyed, there was no talk of rebuilding. However, consistent with Dreamland business practice, the stock holders managed to sell the property to the city for 1.8 million even though it had only been assessed at 1.5 million.