The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island”

In the early 1900s, the Fort George Amusement Park in Upper Manhattan attracted huge crowds to its three roller coasters (one called the “Rough Rider” and another “The Tickler”), three merry-go-rounds, and two ferris wheels.

There were concessions as well, plus a casino, hotels, skate rink, vaudeville stage, boat ride, and pony racing track for the enjoyment of the park’s mostly working-class visitors.

What started out as a “trolley park” built by the Third Avenue Trolley Line in 1895, according to an article by the Museum of the City of New York, soon became known as Harlem’s Coney Island—thanks to the rides and attractions high above the steep cliffs beside the Harlem River.

By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over. In 1928, the city took the land the park once occupied and turned it into Highbridge Park.

[First image: MCNY F2011.33.1361; second image: MCNY F2011.33.1362]

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13 Responses to “The short life of an amusement park dubbed “Harlem’s Coney Island””

  1. beth Says:

    this is all new to me –

  2. velovixen Says:

    Fascinating. I never knew about the FGAP. But I know about Rockaway Playland (which
    I visited as a kid), Freedomland and Palisades Amusement Park. I wonder how many other now-defunct amusement parks operated in or near NYC.

    Interesting that it was called “Fort George,” which I associate with a neighborhood down the hill from the Cloisters. I lived there (on Fairview Avenue) for seven years.

  3. kathleentreat Says:

    An excellent example of why NYC should not harbor casinos! And – my Mother, who was born in her mother’s bed on Claremont Avenue in 1906 remembered being taken to a restaurant called, she thought, the Casino, somewhere in the Hudson River. Have you anything on that place? Thanks for your wonderful stories, which I read with pleasure. Kathleen McGee Treat

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for enjoying the posts! I’m not aware of a specific restaurant called the Casino, but while researching this amusement park I came across others that existed in the early 1900s on the Bronx and Manhattan sides of the Harlem River. Apparently the area, which was still somewhat undeveloped, hosted several resorts where people could go for cool breezes and refreshment during the hot summer months.

  4. Tom B Says:

    By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George.
    The story of America, Criminals and an offended person can stop things that are fun.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      But now there’s a beautiful woodsy, hilly city park in its place, the only city park with a mountain biking trail. And the park leads to the wonderful High Bridge, which is truly the most beautiful place in New York City, in my opinion. Next time you’re in NYC, take a walk across it and feel the magic!

  5. countrypaul Says:

    “By the 1910s, complaints of crime and noise spelled the beginning of the end for Fort George. In the 1920s, following a fire and strong neighborhood opposition, the park’s days were over.” And this is why we can’t have nice things. Even in these days of intense graffiti policing, it is rare to see an unspoiled wall. How sad….

    Freedomland was a bike ride from my home in New Rochelle when I was a kid. I loved it, although it would probably seem hokey to me now. Still Rye Playland was a treat and the “gold standard” because of its overall cleanliness. And Co-op City, on Freedomland’s real estate, is looking rather used now, not the clean and pristine entity it was when built.

    A postscript: I’m old enough to remember riding my bike on some seriously broken-up pavement (with street signs), before Freedomland, on the same piece of land. I always wondered what was there; was it a failed real estate development, or an area washed away by the 1938 hurricane? I’d be fascinated to read more about it; perhaps, Esther, there’s an article waiting to be written, or maybe someone could connect me to a link about it. Thanks!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Countrypaul; I did a post many years back about Freedomland. I’d never heard of it myself, but I still get comments from readers who do recall it and visited when they were young. I too have heard that Co-op City is looking a little rough around the edges these days. You’ve inspired me to take a trip and check the area out.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    Answering my own question, at least a bit, the following is a broad but short note from https://cooperatornews.com/article/urban-mass, into which I’ve inserted my own footnotes:

    “Prior to Freedomland, the land occupied by Co-op City was reincarnated several times — first as the home of the Siwasnoy Indians [Really? We learned it was “Siwanoy,” which was also the former name of a street in New Rochelle. –Paul], then as a cucumber farm and pickle factory, then as a failed municipal airport [which might account for the laid-out and signed but abandoned streets –Paul]. The planning and building of Co-op City began in 1965 after the demolition of Freedomland, with the first apartment building completed in 1968. While the project was officially completed in 1973, some building continued up till the early 1980s.”

    The “continued building” crossed the Hutchinson River Parkway and was not part of the original Freedomland property, although it may have been part of the farm or airport before the Hutch was built in 1937.

    • Peter Says:

      It was supposed to be the site of an airport called Curtiss Airport, developed by the Curtiss-Wright aircraft manufacturing company. Before it opened the Great Depression struck and no aircraft ever used it.

      • countrypaul Says:

        That piece of land had more lives than a cat, Peter. Here’s the NY Times’ capsule of the airport story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/nyregion/the-bronx-airport-that-never-was.html

        Here’s the Smithsonian’s story from 2017: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/18_aug2017-oo-180963929/ (they say the plane hit a car, not a tree)

        And if you go to http://www.airfields-freeman.com/NY/Airfields_NY_NY_Brooklyn.htm and scroll down about 15% of the way, there’s a series of maps depicting the location of Curtiss Airport. Many of the streets on the Hagstrom map (in color) are “paper” streets, never built, but a few in the southern part are where I’d ride my bike, and a few had street signs erected, so at one time there was definitely activity there. (I wish I’d had my little Bronie camera to take pictures!) In its favor, the airport would have had access from the Baychester Avenue station of the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway (now Dyre Avenue line) and the Hell Gate branch of the New Haven Railroad, but its flight paths would have caused havoc over lower Westchester County and the eastern Bronx.

        A fascinating comment from the latter article: “Freedomland’s short lifespan was apparently planned all along, as a variance issued to the property owners allowed them to eventually build multi-story buildings on the site if they first built smaller buildings which stood safely for 5 years. Once that timespan had elapsed, the amusement park was declared insolvent, and the huge complex of multi-story buildings of Co-Op City were constructed in 1973.”

        A slippery bunch, those developers….

  7. Joanne+Flaster Says:

    Another amusement park I didn’t know about. Grew up in Sheepshead Bay and been going to Coney Island regularly as a child and adult. Remember the Thunderbolt roller coaster that stood tall and proud although defunct..Have great pics.

    Then when it was about to be given landmark designation Mayor Giuliani had it dismantled as he didn’t like it..Well, I didn’t like him but he’s still standing..Except not so tall and proud anymore..lol..

    Then we have Fred Trump (The Donald’s dad) who destroyed Luna Park so he could built housing..That never happened. And many old timers still have bad things to say about him.

    It was Mayor Mike Bloomberg Coney who demanded developers like Joe Sitt and others rehabilitate this place. Or give up their real estate holding via Eminent Domain..That’s what happened to the daughter of the late Kansas Fried Chicken chain who owned the Shore Theater..She refused to upgrade so she lost property..

    And now Coney has coming back…

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