Dreamland: The Fire

A panoramic view from across Surf Avenue. Working left to right we see:
1: “Bauer Sisters- Burned out but still doing Business”
2: “Living Freaks”
3: The remnants of the Dreamland Tower
4: “Dreamland’s Animal Arena”
5: The Giant Racer Roller Coaster, untouched by the fire
(Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)

At two in the morning on May 27, 1911 workers worked in Dreamland’s Hell Gate attraction, preparing it for opening day only a few hours away.  A few light bulbs burst, buckets of tar were tipped over and shortly Hell Gate was engulfed in flames.  The fire spread quickly to the rest of the park.  Dreamland burned through the next day.  Fire companies came to the scene, but the wind’s direction calmed a fire that could have otherwise engulfed the island.  Coney Island icons like Thompson’s Scenic Railway, the Iron Tower and all of Dreamland were destroyed.  The park burned for 18 hours.  The lathe & plaster structures were very flammable and the Dreamland tower was so bright it was seen in Manhattan (and that was in a period when the city’s buildings averaged around only ten stories tall).  Ironically, William H. Reynold’s greed could have been the undoing of the park.  He set down Dreamland so fast that the city did not have time to pull up their fire hydrants.  The firemen reported serious issues of low pressure, which could have come from the dozens of hydrants leaking water amongst the ruins.

According to Richard Snow & Ric Burns’ documentary film, “Fred Thompson found Dreamland’s manager, Sam Gumpertz, staring at acres of smoking rubble and wordlessly shook his hand.”  Very little came after Dreamland.  Samuel Gumpertz opened a freak show in a large tent and William H. Reynolds decided not to rebuild the park that had been such a colossal failure.  Today the New York aquarium sits where the “white ramparts” of Dreamland stood for seven years.