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History of the Coney Island Boardwalk

Coney Island’s original amusement parks may be long gone, its storied rides permanently out of commission, and sideshows closed down, but the little island’s still got it going on. Let’s take a look at how the legendary boardwalk came to charm the pants off of NYC.

A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.

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How it all started…

What’s now one of America’s most recognizable islands (that’s not really an island) started in 1829 with the opening of just one seaside property, the Coney Island Hotel. Before the island even had time to layout plans for the official Riegelmann Boardwalk (we’ll get there, I promise) – the place quickly became a weekend playground for wealthy Manhattanites and A-listers. But as more hotels popped up – and carriages, boats and steam railroads began transporting the masses – it turned into an everyman’s getaway, and in 1870, when the Brooklyn Bridge connected BK to Manhattan, Coney Island became a bonafide day-tripper’s paradise.

The Theme Park Heyday

The turn of the century brought another one of Coney Island’s firsts – 5-cent rides at the 1903 Sea Lion Park – followed quickly by Steeplechase Park (responsible for the Coney Island "Funny Face" logo), Luna Park, Dreamland, and Lilliputian Village, which was staffed by three hundred dwarfs (apparently no one was concerned with being pc, huh?).

The Riegelmann Boardwalk – billed as "Coney Island’s Fifth Avenue" – officially rolled out on May 15, 1923 after putting to use a cool $3 million budget (equivalent to $40 million today). Stretching from West 37th to Ocean Parkway, the walkway took 120,000 tons of stone and 3.6 million feet of timber to construct.

Coney Island basked in its success, selling itself as the "People’s Playground," and between 1880 and World War II, it was the biggest amusement park in the US. Packed with now-iconic attractions and venues like Nathan’s Famous, which opened its hot dog headquarters in 1916 with just a family-recipe, the boardwalk had no trouble gaining continued investment.

Another $3 million facelift from 1938-1941 extended the boardwalk to Brighton Beach, but the interest soon waned and Luna Park closed in 1946 followed by Steeplechase Park. The island’s glory days were over.

Coney Island As You Know and Love It

Even though Coney’s original attractions and entertainment couldn’t stand the test of time, anyone who’s been in recent years knows that its magnetic pull is all the same. What’s endured is the seductive carnival colors, the rush of running thrill rides, shops hawking Island ephemera (and NYC tchotchkes), and whiffs of seaside concessions. Stepping off the subway platform and crossing the street to the boardwalk, the fact that the golden age is over simply doesn’t matter.

Coney Island is in peak form during the summer – another fact that has never changed. You can always check out veteran attractions like the Coney Island Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel or the New York Aquarium, or grab a pie at Grimaldi’s and park your butt on the beach to watch people workout at Coney’s mini Muscle Beach, but there are some seasonal musts. Fireworks are shot off on the beach from June to Labor Day, the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating competition (this year celebrates Nathan’s 100th anniversary) and the Coney Island Mermaid Parade are held along Surf Ave, and the Coney Art Walls – a free collection of street art murals by celebrated local artists – welcome visitors with a pop of color.

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