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Before its rich neon amusement culture, Coney Island was part of the town of Gravesend when it was founded in 1643 by an Englishwoman, Lady Deborah Moody.

It was primarily used for grazing animals until the early 1800s when the Terhune brothers built the somewhat exclusive resort, Coney Island House in 1824 to entertain wealthy vacationers.

Between 1840 and 1870, it became a popular summer attraction but few year-round residents settled until after the rail roads connected the area to the rest of the city.

Increased summer crowds led to the openings of three new amusement parks along Surf Avenue. 

Steeplechase Park, opened in 1897, was in possession of the landmarked Parachute Jump that was built for the World’s Fair in 1939. It remained in use until the park closed in 1964.

Luna Park, which a version of stands today at the foot of the boardwalk, was opened in 1903 to resemble the fabled city of Baghdad. Its popularity was of no question, drawing a daily attendance of 90,000 in 1904 until it burned down in the 1940s.

And Dreamland opened in 1904 with even more bright lights than Luna Park, making it visible by immigrants sailing into New York before they caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. Dreamland also burned down though and the Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation now occupies its site.

With Coney Island’s increased popularity, reaching 1 million daily visitors by 1920, the city built the current Riegelmann Boardwalk. Large apartment buildings then popped up after World War II and close to 900 single-family homes were built in the 1990s.

  • Coney Island is filled with large housing developments such as the Luna Park Homes, which house around 6,000 people.
  • The original Nathan's hot dog stand opened in 1916 and since, Coney Island has become synonymous with the famous frankfurters. The restaurant hosts an annual hot dog eating contest each Fourth of July.
  • Coney Island's new rides blend with the old. The landmarked Parachute Jump, built for the World’s Fair in 1939 and moved from the New York City World's Fair site to Coney Island, is framed by the Thunderbolt rollercoaster.
  • A weekday flea market operates outside St. Paul's Church.
  • The famous and landmarked Cyclone rollercoaster built in 1927 is on the site of the world’s first rollercoaster, which was constructed in 1884. The bumpy wooden coaster is still frequented by daring visitors.
  • Coney Island Creek, filled in in about 1920, transformed Coney Island from an island to a peninsula.
  • Deno’s Wonder Wheel, a staple in the Coney Island skyline, was designated a city landmark in 1989. Originally called the "Dip-the-Dip" when it opened in 1920, the wheel has given over 35 million rides since it was built.
  • Mostly vacant of brownstones, Coney Island residential streets are often lined with brick and wooden homes.
  • With the bustle of the carnival rides behind them, beach-goers enjoy the sand and the ocean on a summer night.
  • MCU Park has been the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team since it opened in 2001. Originally named Keyspan Park, it was renamed in 2010.
  • Two women set up their space on the beach.
  • The corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues, one of the first views of Coney Island after stepping out from the subway station.
  • Coney Island's Steeplechase Pier is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike.
  • The pier can almost always be seen decorated by fishers hanging over the railings next to their lines.
  • The New York Aquarium, located right off the boardwalk, is the oldest continually operating aquarium in the United States. After opening in 1896 in Castle Garden in Battery Park, Manhattan, it moved to the boardwalk in 1957.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Coney Island Got Its Name

Along with iconic New York sites like Times Square and the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, a peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Brooklyn, is a name known around the world. 

The origins of its name are less well known.

The indigenous Indians, who lived there well before any Europeans knew where it was, called it Narrioch, meaning “land without shadows,” since it seemed to have sunlight all day. The Dutch settlers of the 17th century had a different viewpoint. Because the island — and it was an island then — had many rabbits and rabbit hunting was common, the Dutch named it Conye Eylant, meaning “Rabbit Island.” It was anglicized to Coney Island when the English took over New Netherland in 1664.

Though there are other theories as to the origin of the name, this one seems most likely — and logical.

The area was originally part of Gravesend, chartered to an English baroness, Lady Deborah Moody, in 1645, when it encompassed not only Gravesend, but what is now Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Gerritsen Beach. It was then pretty much farms and grazing land.

It started to become a popular seaside destination with the 1824 building of its first hotel, the Coney Island House (actually in what is now Sea Gate). There was further expansion in the 1870s when five railroads and two boulevards to the island were built, followed by the introduction of amusement park rides. There was the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster; Steeplechase Park opened in 1897; then Luna Park, and in 1905, Dreamland Park.

Nathan’s hot dog stand opened in 1916 and the Boardwalk in 1923. Landfill in 1920 partially attached the island to mainland Brooklyn and that, along with extension of the subway that year, created Coney Island as “the nickel empire” — the cost of a subway ride at the time. The 260-foot Parachute Jump moved there from the 1939 World’s Fair, the last remaining relic of Steeplechase Park.

Coney Island faced a serious decline after World War II as well as in later years, but there has been a revival recently, beginning with the building of MCU Park, the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team. MCU Park, opened June 25, 2001, was built on the site of the former Steeplechase Park, which closed in 1964, and is located just beyond the right field wall. Originally named KeySpan Park, it was renamed MCU Park in 2010.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.