"'It was the epitome of human nature at its worst seeking its amusement. Its pleasures were those no self-respecting man or woman could possibly enjoy.'"
- Fred Thompson (Register 91)
John McKane’s influence over Coney Island began in 1869 when he was elected to one of the three commissioner spots on the Island. McKane felt that the town was not getting its fair share from leasing contracts on the common lands near the beach and that the commissioners were dishonest and ripping off the farmers. Once in office, he doubled the town’s rental income within the year. He saw that many people were sub-leasing however, keeping profits for themselves, so he looked for a way to further increase the town’s profit—and his own.
Since 1860, when Boss Tweed became the leader of Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine, he and his corrupt friends summered in Coney. Pickpockets and gamblers had followed, mingling with the upper class. The resort area was within McKane’s jurisdiction, but it was more prudent for him to look the other way because despite their bad reputation, the big gamblers and politicians continued to come in droves and increase profits. Word soon got around that West Brighton was the roughest spot on earth. McKane only fueled the fire by naming himself Chief of Police in 1878 and declaring that the laws in Coney should be more lax than in New York or Brooklyn.
When McKane was subpoenaed for allowing prostitution and gambling on Coney, he denied everything, and witnesses supported him because he controlled license sales. George Tilyou, who later founded Steeplechase, was the only one that would blow the whistle on McKane. In 1893, McKane was indicted for padding voter registration lists which he had previously sworn to have personally inspected. Sentenced to six years in prison, he got out two years early for good behavior, and returned to Coney where everything had changed (Stanton).
Manhattan Beach Hotel
August Corbin acquired the title to Manhattan beach on the far eastern shore of Coney Island and decided to build two large, luxury hotels there and a railroad to bring in customers. His New York and Manhattan Beach Railway brought the shore within an hour of uptown New York. The architect, J. Pickering Putnam, built what was considered to be the "most elegant and fashionable hotel in the United States." Opened in 1877, it featured 258 lavish rooms, restaurants, ballrooms, and shops (Stanton).
These hotels reflected the epitome of grandiose style and were decorated with expansive lawns, wide porches, and deep rooms. Visitors felt safe with security patroling nearby, enjoyed formal dinners, listened to live music, and viewed a nightly fireworks display. Many exclusive NYC clubs used the hotels as headquarters as well, thus, even with over 600 rooms, the hotels often set up cots in the corridors to accomodate the influx of people (Stanton).
Brighton Beach Hotel
The Brighton Beach came into existence around the same time as the Manhattan Beach hotel and was built by William A. Engeman's Brighton Beach, located west of Manhattan Beach. Not to be outdone by the Manhattan Beach Hotel, this was built in time for the 1878 season and could accommodate nearly 5000 and feed 20,000 people per day. He also constructed an Iron Pier nearby and the 400 foot wide, two story Brighton Beach Pavilion. The resort was connected to New York by railroad and was frequented by the upper middle class rather than the wealthy because its location in Brighton was too close to Coney Island's seedier section immediately west of it. Unfortunately, the beach was steadily eroding and by 1888 something had to be done. To save the 6000 ton hotel, it was placed on railcars and moved 600ft inland. Not a single window or mirror was cracked in the process, and a month after the move, the hotel reopened.(Stanton)
|In 1892, thousands more flocked to Coney Island to witness the great Elephant Hotel. Built out of wood and tin, and just accomodating a few guests, its spiraling staircases in its legs, shops, and an observatory, made it a sight to behold. With its numerous crooks and crannies, often, "seeing the elephant" became a euphamism for illicit activity in those dark corners (Kasson 33). After the race tracks closed in 1920, large numbers of middle class visitors began vacationing at Coney Island and the exclusivity that the rich once enjoyed vanished. Spending the summer at the beach became unfashionable to them, and the expensive hotels began to lose money and soon closed (Stanton).|
In 1895, Captain Paul Boyton bought 16 acres behind the Elephant Hotel and opened Sea Lion Park. Already famous for paddling to shore from out at sea in a rubber suit, he decided to incorporate water rides into his park; the first outdoor amusement park in the world (Stanton). Boyton made this park attractive to customers because he enclosed it to keep out hoodlums and made himself the headline attraction. Through swimming demonstrations, water races, and 40 sea lions that juggled, his park quickly became a hit.
The park featured numerous water rides including a lagoon, old-mill water ride, and Shoot-the Chutes. Later a toboggan ride was added that plunged downhill, skipping over the water. Labeled the scariest ride in Coney Island, his park also included the Flip Flap Railroad. Two roller coaster cars descended into a 25ft diameter vertical loop where they would spin around, however, the G-forces on it gave rider's whiplash occasionally.
The park failed to attract repeat customers, however, and the nonstop rain during the summer of 1902 brought him to financial ruin. When Thomspon and Dundy, who would later found Luna Park, approached him to lease his land, he eagerly agreed (Stanton).