Posts Tagged ‘Coney Island 1880s’

The first roller coaster in America was at Coney Island

July 14, 2022

During its golden era around the turn of the last century, Coney Island was a roller coaster pioneer—from the Flip-Flap Railway in the 1890s to the Loop-the-Loop in 1901 to the Giant Racer in 1911. (The Cyclone was a latecomer when it replaced the Giant Racer in 1927, according to

But even before these coasters thrilled visitors, Coney Island was home to a ride that’s considered to be the first roller coaster in the United States: the “Switchback Railway.” How wild was it? By contemporary roller coaster standards, it sounds pretty tame.

“Passengers rode a train on undulating tracks over a wooden structure 600 feet long,” explains “The train started at a height of 50 feet on one end and ran downhill by gravity until its momentum died. Passengers then left the train and attendants pushed the car over a switch to a higher level. The passengers returned to their sideways facing seats and rode back to the original starting point.”

Clearly it doesn’t compare to the Cyclone’s 85-foot plunge. But then again, it wasn’t intended to generate adrenaline-pumping excitement. “It wasn’t supposed to be a thrill ride, just a tour of the beach, with people sitting sideways for the best view,” stated Robert Cartmell, described as an expert of roller coasters and author of “The Roller Coaster Book” in the June 17, 1984 edition of Newsday.

The Switchback Railway was an immediate hit, according to Cartmell, and it made tons of money for La Marcus Thompson, the man who built it. (Thompson charged five cents per ride.) Yet within months, it was closed for good—a victim of its own success.

“Someone got the bright idea of facing the seats forward and turning it into a thrill ride,” stated Cartmell. “They opened better rides down the street, and they built the track in a loop and added an engine to pull the cars back to the top.”

For a brief moment in time, the Switchback was the most exciting ride at Coney.

[Top image: Granger; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY x2011.34.2098; fourth image: MCNY x2011.34.2091]

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel was amazing

July 11, 2016

When the Hotel Brighton opened in the new seaside resort of Brighton Beach in 1878, this three-story, 174-room Victorian-style hotel became an upper middle class paradise.


An elegant pavilion led guests to the sandy beach and rolling surf. The hotel’s restaurants and banquet halls served an incredible array of seafood and shellfish. The Brighton Beach Music Hall hosted famous performers and bands.

Amid all of this seaside fun and frolic, there was one problem.


The hotel was built a little too close to the ocean. Ten years later, the Atlantic Ocean was practically lapping at the Brighton’s fanciful piazzas.

“The sea has steadily encroached upon the land at Brighton Beach for years . . . Old Neptune has gobbled up a nice bit of real estate with a 500-foot sea frontage and a depth of 500 feet, to which the hotel people hold a title deed,” quipped the Evening World in April 1888.

The decision was made to move the hotel. Considering that it weighed an estimated eight million pounds, relocating the massive structure was going to take some thought.


The plan the hotel adopted was to put it on wheels—the wheels of 112 rail cars, that is.

On April 3, after months of preparation, the big move began. “The first step taken was to drive piles under the entire front of the hotel,” stated one architectural publication.


“As already mentioned, the waves had torn away the sand, so that the building literally hung half way over the water.”

Brightonbeachhotelaftermove“It was no small undertaking to build 24 railroad tracks on those piles and to lift the structure, so as to make it rest intact and absolutely level on the flat cars.”

It took 10 days for six locomotives to slowly drag the hotel about 600 feet inland.

In June, the hotel opened for the season. “The contrast between the hotel on its present site and the building resting upon piles with the ocean flowing beneath it, as it did last summer, is decidedly striking,” commented the Evening World on June 27.

[First image: MCNY; second image:; third image: LOC; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image:]

The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island

July 6, 2015

When Coney Island went from remote sandbar resort to the city’s biggest beachfront playground in the 1880s, tawdry amusement attractions began to pop up on the West End: beer halls, roller coasters, and freak shows.


But perhaps the gaudiest addition was the Elephantine Colossus, a nearly 200-foot tall hotel sheathed in blue tin and with a gilded howdah on top.

Encircled by the Shaw Channel Chute roller coaster, the hotel looked like a bizarro version of one of the live pachyderms on exhibit at Coney Island’s amusement parks at the turn of the century.


Completed in 1885 at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, the 12-story elephant was divided into 31 rooms. Visitors could also climb to the observatory and pay 10 cents to get an incredible aerial view of New York City by looking through the elephant’s eyes, which were actually telescopes.

Elephanthotelrollercoaster“The forelegs contained a cigar store and diorama and the hind legs held circular stairways leading to the rooms contained above,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

The developer called the elephant hotel the eighth wonder of the world. Locals soon began calling it a brothel; apparently it wasn’t too popular with regular tourists, so prostitutes took over.

ElephanthoteladIn fact, “seeing the elephant” became a slang term for visiting the hotel and hiring a hooker, according to this clip from the New-York Historical Society.

As a gimmick, the elephant hotel gripped the imagination. But as a business, it lost money, and by the 1890s, the structure had been abandoned.

ElephanthotelfireIts ultimate demise was spectacular. The hotel burned down in 1896 in a blaze so fiery, it reportedly could be seen from Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

The Elephantine Colossus isn’t the only pachyderm to come to a gruesome end at Coney Island.

Topsy the elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct current.

[Photos: top, New-York Historical Society; second, fourth, and fifth:]