Few roller coasters have achieved the legendary status that the Coney Island Cyclone has. Through good and bad times this roller coaster has weathered the storm and is still around to thrill a new generation of New Yorkers that flock to this amazing coaster. The Cyclone in many ways embodies the stereotypical Brooklynite: it is very rough and tumble and can recall the “good old days”. But, this ferocious coaster has a soft side. The story behind America’s most famous coaster is nothing short of awe-inspiring and serves as a constant reminder that, as George Tilyou said, “Coney Island, between June and September, is the world.”
The Tornado (1926) and Thunderbolt (1925) had proven that there was a market for height, speed and intensity in the world of Coney’s coasters. Knowing this, the Rosenthal Brothers, Jack and Irving, bought the tract of land at Surf Avenue and West End St. which was occupied by the Giant Coaster. They tore down the coaster after the end of the 1926 season and planned to build a ride that was the highest, fastest and had the steepest drops in the land. According to roller coaster historian Robert Cartmell the ride was designed by Vernon Keenan, the Harry C. Baker Company directed the construction of the track, the National Bridge Company assisted with the erection of the steel structure, and Bill McKee oversaw the construction of the $146,000 coaster.
The ride debuted on June 26, 1927. Although it opened several weeks late the coaster exceeded expectations. The drop off the 86-foot lift hill was, as George Plimpton wrote, “a vertigo-inducing drop,” at fifty-three degrees. After that the cars flew into a fan turn where the coaster seemed to stop (yet threw people into fellow riders) and the train got yanked down and up into a large airtime hill that ran parallel to the first hill, into another fan turn above Surf Avenue. After that the coaster turned to an out and back layout, flying over the hills and slamming into the curves. Finally, riders screamed into the station as the skid brakes grabbed the trains. The ride was so intense Charles Lindbergh said, “A ride on the Cyclone is greater than flying an airplane at top speed.”
For the 1935 season the Rosenthal Brothers took over the management of New Jersey’s famous Palisades Park (with an option to buy), so they needed someone to take care of their coaster at Coney. They chose Christopher Feucht, who proved to be the perfect man for the job. Feucht had built and maintained the Drop the Dips roller coaster at Coney (the ride that many historians call the first modern roller coaster). For years he had worked on site and refined & reprofiled the Drop the Dips, keeping it as one of the best-maintained coasters ever. The Dips closed in the early thirties. Feucht took over his new job with zeal and went about re-tracking the Cyclone into the ride we know today. In 1948 the Cyclone performed a “miracle” of sorts. Edo McCullough (Tilyou’s nephew) reported in his book, Good Old Coney Island, that Emilio Franco, a coal miner from West Virginia, came to Coney with the disease of aphonia. The illness kept him unable to speak. He boarded the Cyclone, as he went down the first drop he screamed, as the train pulled into the station he said, “I feel sick”…then he fainted, realizing he had just spoken.
The sixties were not kind to the Cyclone and Coney Island in general. The area was not closed off like other parks, so white families often chose to stay in the suburbs than taking the subway through Brooklyn and down to Coney. A fight between 4000 people and the police on May 31, 1966 exemplified the “dangerous” atmosphere that many felt surrounded the island. Many visitors privately told Bernard Weinraub, a reporter for the New York Times, that they were a little nervous to visit the island because of growing African-American attendance and the threat of violence. William Argent, a local, said, “It’s changed, sure it’s changed. People read the papers, right? They read a knifing here and a killing there. So they’re afraid to stay. By 6 o’clock they’re gone, presto, no more.” While Coney Island was not significantly more dangerous than the rest of the city, many saw it that way and felt that Coney was no longer the place to take a family.
The ride was bought by the city of New York in 1965 and four years later a lack of customers hurt profits and the ride was condemned. The fledgling Astroworld Park in Houston, Texas knew that the name of the Cyclone was world famous and that could be a big addition to the park. They sent designer Bill Cobb to look at the Cyclone and examine the feasibility of the move. The deep footers and poor condition of the ride made the projected move cost too much, so the park instead had Cobb build them a mirror image of the coaster called the Texas Cyclone, a ride which many said was as intense as the original. In the spring of 1972 the nearby New York Aquarium announced that the coaster would be destroyed to make room for an expansion. A large “Save the Cyclone” campaign ensued and the ride, leased to Astroland Park in 1975 and amazingly refurbished, reopened on July 3, 1975. The coaster made $125,000 its first weekend operating for the public again and the aquarium was not as much of a threat because of the regular income. The Cyclone benefited from the roller coaster boom of the 1970’s and 80’s. Rides like the Racer and The Great American Scream Machine made the roller coaster an American icon again and people from all over the country came to ride the Cyclone.
The eighties also brought Dick Zigun to the island. He loved the island’s flamboyant history and formed Coney Island U.S.A. in 1981. Two years later he helped start the annual Mermaid Parade and in 1985 Coney Island U.S.A. opened Sideshows by the Seashore, a 10-in-1 act that had not been seen at Coney in years. All of these events brought people to the island and helped put people on the seats of the Cyclone. Real security did not arrive until 1991. On June 13 the coaster was named a New York City historic landmark and on July 26 (the rides 64th birthday) it was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark, helping ensure the coaster’s permanent existence at Coney Island.
With the closing of Astroland and the city opening up the operation to bid, Central Amusements, owners of the new Luna Park were charged with refurbishing and running the ride for the 2010 season. It has been an amazing life, but against all odds the Cyclone is still with us, giving coaster lovers the punishment they love so much and a ride that many call near-perfect.