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Coney’s oldest artifact on display for all to see

See where it all began!

This summer, Coney fanatics are being given the opportunity to see the oldest artifact in existence relating to the beachfront resort area. Not-for-profit organization the Coney Island History Project (CIHP) has put the Toll House sign from 1823 back on display in its exhibition center, much to the delight of visitors and CIHP co-founder, Charles Denson.

“It’s important to me because it represents what Coney is about in my mind,” said Denson of the sign that states that it cost all of five cents for a horse and rider to enter the area. “It’s the essence of Coney and it’s great just thinking of what that sign has witnessed.”

According to Denson, the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company constructed a bridge and toll house on Coney Island Creek, currently Shell Road. The Coney Island toll road – which made the island accessible by land — opened for business in 1824 for horse-drawn carriages.

Two men, James Cropsey and Daniel Morell, operated the Toll House until 1839, Denson explained. It was demolished by the city in 1929 because of a street-widening project.

“People were riding on horses to visit the race courses. Now, millions of people come here on the subway,” he said. “Most focus on the amusement park aspect. This was about its natural environment. During the 19th century, people had to pass through it. It goes back to a very different Coney Island.”

Before demolition, Coney Island ride inventor William Mangels rescued the sign. He then put it on display at the American Museum of Public Recreation. The museum closed over 80 years ago. Since then, the sign has seen many homes.

“I always heard it existed,” said Denson. “About 10 years ago, the owner died and it went up for sale. The widow was selling it. When I went to see it, it was laying in the kitchen near the refrigerator. I knew we had to save it.”

The CIHP did just that and purchased it in 2007. “Some people are more interested in amusement rides of Coney. The real history of how it began, it’s in this sign. It hearkens back to the natural environment,” Denson said of the artifact, which was featured in a book he wrote, Coney Island: Lost and Found.

Once in the possession of the CIHP, the sign was carefully preserved and brought back to a presentable form without altering it.

“We went to an art restorer. They secured the back canvas on it to hold the wood together and scrapped off dirt. The letters were highlighted to see sign. It was done by professional restorers,” he said. “Nothing was added. It was just stabilized. Hopefully, it will last another 100 years.”

The Toll House Sign was first displayed at the CIHP’s original exhibit center located underneath the Cyclone, then moved to a new location. It was removed before Superstorm Sandy to avoid damage.

Throughout all the disasters, natural and otherwise, that have plagued the Coney Island area, Denson remains impressed that the sign is still intact.

“There have been fires, storms, vandalism. Dreamland has been destroyed. So many things have happened and we have the oldest artifact having to do with Coney,” he said, adding that it received much fanfare after it was reintroduced this past Memorial Day. “The response has been amazing.”

CIHP’s exhibition center, at West 12th Street near the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, is free and open every weekend until Monday, September 7 from 1- 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.coneyislandhistory.org.

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