The Beaches of Coney Island
“Coney Island has one of the most beautiful natural settings in the entire city of New York and has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It has a perfect southern exposure. It gets sunlight all day long and that’s what keeps people coming back.”
Charles Denson, Coney Island: America’s Dreamland
If you go to Coney Island today to ride the Cyclone or grab a bite at Gregory & Paul’s, you might forget that less than a block away is what first drew people to the area – the beach. The ocean constantly roars, and with the current renaissance, a new generation of New Yorkers is discovering what people have known for over 170 years- that the beaches of Coney Island are a great place to enjoy a Brooklyn summer day. It is one of the most famous beaches in the world. In fact, ABC’s “Nightline” called it the “Best known beach in America.” The story of the area has been told many times, but often it seems that after Tilyou, Thompson, and Dundy came on the scene, that the beach and boardwalk only serve as a backdrop to the action occurring nearby. This work will examine the beach and its partner, the boardwalk, since people started playing in the surf of Coney Island.
There were a few people living at Coney in the 1820’s, but the first step in transforming the tiny seaside town into a destination was the Shell Road. It was built under the supervision of John Terhune in 1824. Only a few wealthy New Yorkers made the trek over the following decades. The beaches they saw were long stretches of sand dotted by a few small stands. Twenty-three years later, steamships from Manhattan started tying up and unloading guests for a relaxing day. In 1850 the Plank Road was completed, which made the trek easier for carriages to move south through Brooklyn to Coney. Walt Whitman was a fan of the area and often sprinted down the shoreline naked. He said, “long bare unfrequented shore…Where I loved after bathing to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and seagulls by the hour.” The beach was littered with driftwood through the Civil War, and at the west end, which had developed a rough reputation, dead bodies were found bobbing in the surf. By the end of the war a year-round group of “crooks and scoundrels” could be found at Coney, particularly on the western tip, called Norton’s Point. This center of thievery was named after Mike “Thunderbolt” Norton, whose nickname came from the fact that his punch was one of the most powerful on the island. In the area that would shortly develop as West Brighton (located east of Norton’s Point) there were around a dozen hotels with ramshackle bathhouses, chowder stands and a few places of drink on the beach.
As early as 1860 the New York Times reported, “There is one cool spot to which New-Yorkers can resort, and that is Coney Island.” The city’s well-to-do citizenry thought it best to follow their doctor’s orders, many of whom prescribed sea bathing as healthy and invigorating, but cautioned guests to make sure they had the appropriate attire. For women this meant an outfit roughly the size of a large dress made of wool that weighed fifteen pounds once it got wet. Seeing the revenue potential, Peter Ravenhall opened a “bathing palace” in 1863 to sell swimming suits and champagne. Two years later Peter Tilyou opened a bathing house and restaurant that served those who could not afford the extravagance of Ravenhall’s. Tilyou’s was soon known for its oceanside location and the delicious roasted clams, which were plentiful in nearby Sheepshead Bay. He gave everyone that rented a bathing suit from his Surf House a free bowl of clam chowder. Because of the immense cost and lack of free time, a high percentage of lower class citizens could not visit Coney. However, urged on by businessmen (and possibly kickbacks), journalists were soon praising the great proletarian atmosphere to entice families to visit. The first large hotel in the area was the Coney Island House, which had opened five years after the Shell Road. It soon paled in comparison with the massive resorts erected on the island.
Coney started out as a genteel resort, but as time wore on there were more ways to get to the area, and increased transportation competition caused prices to drop. This slowly ushered in more working-class families. The most popular day during this period was Sunday, because Saturday was still a whole or half-day in the workplace. In addition, it often took between one to two hours to get from Manhattan to the beach. However, the word of Coney’s beaches, food and atmosphere created enough of a stir that by 1873 a reporter talked of flags advertising clams along the beach, and that people dancing in the surf stretched as far as the eye could see. On the beach everyone frolicked in the surf. Despite their heavy attire, many women were seen out enjoying the waves with their family or a group of family friends. An 1866 story in the New York Times said that, “The ladies enjoy this [being tossed by the waves] immensely, as they testify by their laughter and halt-trightened shrieks and their frantic splashings.”
The change into a resort began with the arrival of Austin Corbin in 1873. He was there because his son had fallen ill, and doctors had advised the family that the sea air would help him recover. While spending time at the Coney Island House, Corbin explored the undeveloped areas east of the crude bathing houses and found an empty expanse of sand. He felt that the area would be a perfect resort center, much like Newport, Rhode Island. Corbin’s Manhattan Beach Hotel opened on May 4, 1877 with an introduction by Ulysses S. Grant. It had 258 rooms, used water transported from the mainland and featured a bathing pavilion that stood two stories tall, 520 feet long and could hold up to 220 guests. A Times reporter said that, “Yesterday one of largest and best appointed appearing hotels in the country uprose out of the salt grass and sand, and so densely populated were its acres of piazzas and diningrooms that locomotion through them was a matter of slow and tedious difficulty.” As Corbin’s fortunes grew, he re-invested and built the Oriental Hotel in 1880, which faced Sheepshead Bay. Both of his hotels had police that patrolled their private boardwalks to ensure that none of the riff-raff managed to sneak in. However, because Corbin built his hotels far away from the rest of the island’s amusements, this was rarely a problem.
The owners of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railroads were impressed with the immediate success of the Manhattan Beach Hotel and erected the Brighton Beach Hotel in 1874. They bought the land from William A. Engeman, who had been instrumental in starting the growth of the Brighton area, named after the famous British resort of the same name. The grand hotel featured all the splendor found at Corbin’s resorts, but also had a few selling points of its own. The Brighton Beach advertised two hundred rooms with gas and water as well as champagne on draft. The most amazing spectacle the hotel put on was a move. In 1888 the beach in front of the resort was quickly being eaten away by erosion. The owners felt the simplest solution was to move the entire structure back from the water. The project began on April 3rd and after moving it on 120 railroad cars, the hotel was again hosting guests in June. Four years after it opened, the resort built a large bathing pavilion for use by its guests. While not as magnificent as the one found at Manhattan Beach, it must have looked impressive when contrasted with the working class structures at nearby West Brighton.
The heavy investments in Coney that brought Manhattan’s upper crust to visit was one more key that accelerated the island’s momentum and economic growth. The area now had something for everyone. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, authors of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, broke Coney Island down into four distinct areas- growing wealthier the further west one ventured on the island. They were: Norton’s Point on the West End, still the rough & tumble area; West Brighton, where many of the working class crowded to do their bathing; Brighton Beach, where those with some means were found; and the exclusive area was Manhattan Beach. Growing demand for access to Coney helped railroad expansion, so that by 1878 five railroad lines ran to the Island from Brooklyn, and two ran east/west across it. That year an average of fifty to sixty thousand people visited the area on any given weekend, and most headed straight for West Brighton. Now workers had a twinkle in their eyes when they talked about Coney Island. While there was still plenty of vice on one end of the island and snobbery on the other, West Brighton Beach had evolved into a place for city-dwellers to escape to for a day. For people who worked 5.5 or 6 days per-week, the ability to forget the backbreaking work at places like the Fulton Fish Market and the Garment District was new. This was the first time in the industrialized America that people started to receive notable amounts of leisure time.
Some of the largest changes in the Island’s beaches came from the construction of the Old Iron Pier and New Iron Pier, which were built in 1878 and 1880 respectively. Because the piers were creating a new series of water currents when the waves moved toward shore, sandbars formed west of each pier. The larger beach was just one more benefit for Coney, where the rules of society were beginning to change. Swimming in the ocean had an effect on many that worried reformers and seemed to defy explanation. While the swimming suit of the day wasn’t revealing by today’s standards, it was the smallest thing a man or woman was allowed to wear in public. It gave bathers a new feeling of liberation to wear the “skimpy” suits on a warm summer day. Although as a whole, the nation had developed a fascination with sea bathing, only a small percentage of working class people around the country had access and were able to swim in the ocean. West Brighton not only allowed folks from the city to go swimming, but it also allowed groups of people to do it en-masse. The jubilation was easily seen on one of the first films the Edison Company produced after it completed work on a motion picture camera in 1896. “Cakewalk on the Beach” had people forming what was essentially a dance line to show off for the camera. Burrows and Wallace concluded that this was not just goofing off; it was the development of a “New York sensibility.” When they got outside at Coney, people were very relaxed, while most settings during this time called for a stricter public decorum. Many reporters going to the beach said that they noticed that people of all classes were outwardly happy when spending time at the island.
While the citizens of New York were enjoying liberation on the beaches of Coney Island, they were also paying for them. To create revenue, businessmen established bathhouses, which often had beachfront, rental facilities, showers and a pool. Almost every property owner built up to the beach, which meant that the square feet of sunbathing territory was a commodity. Area businesspeople had some claim to each grain of sand that stretched along most of the amusement district. They divided the beach and water with barbed wire, fending and jetties made of stone and wood. In addition, they employed guards to ensure everyone on the beach was a paying customer. It is difficult to comprehend today, but there was often little beach space available to “the public.” By the 1890’s, bathhouses lined the beach and the only way to the water was through one of them. There were bathhouses of all sizes to cater to the many different socio-economic classes that visited Coney. Tilyou’s, Ravenhall’s and Ward’s were some of the most powerful and longest-running bathhouse establishments in the area.
Like many places in America during this time, there was a second class to Coney based upon ethnic makeup. While many from Europe could melt into a crowd, some beach-goers from the five boroughs were turned away. Two of the peoples that faced this prejudice were those from the Jewish and African-American communities. Before the island exploded with the addition of the subway, there was less overall business to go around and many bathhouses appealed to white clientele of all classes by using exclusionary business practices. Jon Sterngrass, author of First Seasons: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, noted that Austin Corbin, owner of the Manhattan Beach and Oriental Hotels, said that, “If this is a free country, why can’t we be free of the Jews?” Corbin was a member of the American Society for the Suppression of Jews and barred them from his resorts. However, the Brighton Beach Hotel allowed them to reside at their business. After the turn of the century the Jewish population living year-round at Coney Island grew. They encountered some problems getting onto the beaches only a few blocks from home or had fights with people from other ethnic groups once on the beach. African-Americans had a hard time assimilating into the Coney Island culture for some time. As Sterngrass noted, mistakes could be made with people being Jewish, but race took only a second to deduce in most cases concerning African Americans. While the beaches of Coney Island were open to the white working classes, they were not always open to African-Americans that toiled in similarly miserable conditions. Sterngrass has little on the style of segregation used at Coney, outside of the fact that there were some “Jim Crow” beaches & bathhouses. While segregation slowly ebbed away- which was surely helped by the creation of a public beach after the construction of the boardwalk in 1922- it remained at some places at Coney. Even the famed Steeplechase Park welcomed African-Americans to the park but barred them from using the swimming pool. In addition, titles of articles in the Times such as “Coney Island Negro Hunt,” (which described the response to a white couple who were attacked by two African-Americans) – described the round up of every black person on the island, and demonstrated that problems did flare up. However, it is hard to get a full idea of how consistent policies were and how often they were bent since Coney Island entrepreneurs answered chiefly to the dollar. Hopefully further research will paint a better picture as to how certain minorities were treated at Coney. ABC Nightline, 22 minutes, ABC Home Video, 1994, Videocassette.  Michael Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002, 12-13. Ierardi, Eric J, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, Mt. Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001, 48.  Jon Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001, 78.  Edo McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past, NewYork, NY: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1957, 23.  Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, 77. Coney Island: a documentary film, Produced by Ric Burns & Buddy Squires, 66 minutes, Direct Cinema Limited, Videocassette.  Oliver Pilat & Jo Ranson, Sodom By the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island, New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1941, 57.  Ierardi, Gravesend: The Home of Coney Island, 59.  Richard Snow, Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, New York, NY: Brightwaters Press, 1989, 11.  “A Cool Resort in Hot Weather,” The New York Times, July 10, 1866, 5.  McCullough, Good Old Coney Island: A Sentimental Journey Into the Past, 8-9, 238. 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<http://naid.sppsr.ucla.edu/coneyisland/articles/earlyhistory.htm > (February 23, 2004). Charles Denson, Coney Island: Lost and Found, Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2002, 17.  John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1978, 44.  Coney Island: a documentary film. Burrows & Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, 1136.  Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century, 102-103.  Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, 100.  Snow, Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, 31.  Snow, Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire, 31. Pilat & Ranson, Sodom by the Sea: An Affectionate History of Coney Island 312. Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 125.  Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, 108.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 108.  Sterngrass, First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport & Coney Island, 107.  Immerso, Coney Island: The People’s Playground, 168.  “Coney Island Negro Hunt,” The New York Times, September 3, 1900, 2.