Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.

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“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?

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“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”

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It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

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15 Responses to “Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    Reblogged this on The Realm Of Olde Brooklyn and commented:
    I agree with what the writer said. Our modern day fascination with disaster films isvery similar to disaster recreations of the past. Though it wouldn’t have been so thrilling to get caught up in the actual Dream Land fires at Coney Island.

  2. wensube Says:

    In the early 60’s, there was a short-lived place called “Freedomland” (a poor version of Disneyland) which had a Chicago Fire recreation every hour or so.

    People don’t change much.

    • pinball29 Says:

      Its funny how many people remember Freedomland even though it was short-lived. The first thing I thought of when I read this post was ‘the Chicago Fire at Freedomland!” It was a HUGE attraction, as was Freedomland itself on a summer day.

      • RALPH LABARBERA Says:

        Thanks for the memories of FREEDOM LAND. I was 7 yrs old and my father had won tickets to FREEDOM LAND in a raffle from work. I remember the fire and the train

  3. wensube Says:

    Freedomland was in The Bronx.

  4. Bella Stander Says:

    My dad took me to Freedomland (now Co-op City) when I was 6 or 7. I was bitterly disappointed when told that we’d just missed the Chicago Fire–started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, according to the display.

  5. Newportcarl Says:

    Loved loved loved this installment. Remind anyone of Ancient Rome?

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Ancient Rome, exactly.

  7. Bob_in_MA Says:

    Another great post! Thanks!

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    […] ushered in the era of bathing pavilions and amusement parks, of cheap food and curiosities like disaster spectacles, exotic animals, and infant […]

  11. countrypaul Says:

    Freedomland should have become an institution like Disneyland, but there was more money to be made for developers by socking 50,000 people into Co-op City. Y’know, developers develop….

  12. Giovanni Punto Says:

    I ended up at this page via a link from an Ephemeral page on Coney Island in the 1870s and it reference to disaster spectacles. I am also one of those with firsthand memories of Freedomland and its Chicago Fire re-enactment. I convinced my dad to take me and some of my friends to Freedomland for my 10th or 11th birthday. For some reason, my most vivid memory is of the Casa Loco which was pitched at a 20 or 30 degree angle so that it created an illusion of gravity being off-kilter when water was poured or a ball was dropped. Strange what is retained for six decades and what is not.

    A shame that the amusement park had such a brief life, though there are some pluses to Co-Op City that occupies the site nowadays.

  13. countrypaul Says:

    One more for Freedomland: a memory of B. Mitchel Reid doing a WMCA remote broadcast in a canopied area when it was 95 degrees and he was sweating through his suit. At the time he was a fast-talking top 40 DJ who could blast out a torrent of words at lightning speed; then the mic went off and he drooped like wilted spinach! The record would end and he instantly, like a bad splice, went back into motor-mouth mode. The man was an incredible broadcast talent. After New York radio, he went to California and was one of the godfathers of progressive album rock there. RIP B. Mitchel Reid and Freedomland.

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