Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park: North America’s First Amusement Park

Posted by Staff on Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park, Coney Island

Although “amusement areas” were common in the United States by the late 19th century, it is Sea Lion Park that earned the title of first amusement park in North America. Sea Lion Park was opened by Paul Boyton on Coney Island in the summer of 1895. The difference between Sea Lion Park and a park like Lake Compounce, which dates back to 1846, is that Boyton fenced off his park and charged a single admission at the entrance, while Lake Compounce and others were based on a pay-as-you-go model. Instead of renting out space to concessionaires, Boyton featured rides that he owned and thus could collect one admission at the main entrance.

Before he opened Sea Lion Park, Paul Boyton had already attained celebrity status for his aquatic stunts. He was world renown for his long distance swims, often from boats far out at sea to shore. One of his most famous swims took seven hours in stormy waters, from a trans-Atlantic ship still a day from Ireland to Skibbereen in County Cork. None of these swims would have been possible without a vulcanized rubber suit designed by the Pittsburgh manufacturer, C.S. Merriman, for which Boyton acted as spokesman. After a number of other daring swims, including the Seine, Danube, and Mississippi rivers, he began touring with an aquatic road show featuring sea lions he had trained to juggle and race. He first tried his hand at the amusement park business in 1894 when he opened Paul Boyton’s Water Chute in Chicago, but soon decided to move his operation to Coney Island, which was quickly becoming one of the most popular amusement areas in the country. Some sources consider Paul Boyton’s Water Chute the first amusement park because it was also enclosed, but it was with Sea Lion Park that he expanded beyond just one ride.

Paul Boyton in Rubber Suit

Paul Boyton in the rubber suit he wore for many of his famous swims

On July 4th, 1895, he opened Sea Lion Park on 16-acres of land behind the Elephant Hotel. Although there were already other attractions in the area, Boyton was the first to enclose his attractions and charge for admission into the park. The small park was centered around a lagoon and only had two rides when it opened: a Shoot-the-Chutes ride and an old-mill water ride. The Shoot-the-Chutes ride is very much like the early Russian Ice Slides, except that it shoots riders out across the lagoon. Boyton, with help from inventor Thomas Polk, designed his Shoot-the-Chutes with a slight lip at the bottom of the slide that would launch the flat-bottomed boats into the air at the last moment and cause them to skip across the water like a skipping stone. The boats were then guided to land by onboard boatmen and pulled back up the ramp by cable. In 1895, this ride and the novelty of his sea lion show drew large crowds to Sea Lion Park.

Paul Boyton's Sea Lion Park, Coney Island

View from the top of Shoot-The-Chutes

Boyton was keen on bringing the latest thrills to his park and he soon added North America’s first looping roller coaster, the Flip-Flap Railroad designed by Lina Beecher. This terrifying ride attracted more onlookers that riders and soon proved too dangerous to stay in operation. The 25-foot vertical loop introduced such high G-forces that it could easily cause whiplash, if not break the neck of the rider.

Flip Flap Railway, Sea Lion Park, Coney Island

The dangerous Flip Flap Railway

The park did moderately well throughout the rest of the decade, even though Boyton only added a few new features such as a ballroom and a cage of live wolves. However, he had trouble bringing customers back to the park since he wasn’t adding new rides on a yearly basis. A slowly declining interest in the park, along with a rainy summer in 1902, spelled the end for Boyton’s Sea Lion Park. That summer was overcast and rainy for 70 of the 92 days that made up the summer season and the financial strain it caused on Boyton was too great to recover from. In order to escape complete financial ruin, he was forced to lease his property to Thompson and Dundy, owners of the “Trip to the Moon” ride at Steeplechase park.

Although Seal Lion Park was only in operation for under a decade, that was time enough for it to secure a place in amusement park history. Boyton’s business model of charging one admission at the entrance rather that per ride or attraction, is now the standard at today’s permanent amusement and theme parks. Furthermore, Sea Lion Park, with its water rides and shows, is a predecessor to the water parks that would become popular in the 1940s and 50s.

Sources:

International Swimming Hall of Fame

Coney Island – Sea Island Park

Encyclopedia of Chicago

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