Coney Island History Project celebrates the 200th anniversary of the People’s Playground

Coney Island wonder wheel
The Coney Island History Project is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the peninsula’s humble beginnings.
File photo by Rose Adams

A Coney Island history organization celebrated the peninsula’s 200th anniversary and honored the area’s oldest surviving relic, the original toll house sign, on Oct. 28.

The antique sign was put up in 1823, when a bridge and toll house were build at Coney Island Creek and Shell Road — officially opening the peninsula to the public for the first time. Posted on the side of the toll house, the well-worn sign advertised fees to enter the island as little as 5 cents for a horse and rider and up to 50 cents for a coach-driven horse has survived the area’s 200-year-old history and serves as a reminder to Coney’s humble beginnings.

On Oct. 28, the Coney Island History Project put the restored sign on display for the first time in years. 

The Coney Island History Project celebrated the neighborhood's 200th anniversary with the oldest surviving relic.
The worn sign (left) was hung on the original toll house in 1823. Photo via Coney Island History Project FB

In a film created by Charles Denson, director of CIHP, Denson shared that until 1823, public access to Coney Island didn’t exist. Instead the are started as a “common land” shared amongst property owners. In March of 1823, the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company was created to increase access to the island. Shell Road was extended one mile though former salt marsh to the newly-created bridge.  

The opening was announced later that fall in a short article calling Coney the “finest and most regular beach” in the city. 

The toll sign was originally posted on the toll house at the entrance of the island, but, in 1928 it was removed by former ride manufacturer, William Mangels Jr., and put on display in an amusement museum on West 8th Street.

“The sign’s importance is symbolic,” Denson said in a statement. “It represents the endurance, continuity, and resiliency of Coney Island. It is the only object that was there at the beginning, the only link to the origins of the World’s Playground.” 

As time continued, the sign passed through many hands until 2003 when it was eventually rediscovered and restored by Carol Albert, co-founder of the Coney Island History Project.

According to Denson, the sign showed clear signs of age so Albert arranged for a professional and intricate restoration. 

“The fragile sign was in a deteriorated state and needed professional restoration before returning to Coney Island. The wood was severely rotted, crumbling, and insect damaged. The sign was in such poor condition that it could not be safely handled or displayed,” Denson said.

After being properly brought back to life, the sign was proudly displayed at the CIHP exhibit on West 12th Street, just a few blocks from where it was originally posted. 

Since its opening over 200 years ago, Coney Island has become one of New York City’s best-known attractions, with the famous Riegelmann Boardwalk, which turned 100 this year; minor league baseball at Maimonides Park, and two amusement parks — Deno’s Wonder Wheel and Luna Park, home to the longest-standing roller coaster, The Cyclone. 

Paraders revel in their Mermaid and Mer-man get-up
Over the past 200 years, Coney Island has become a cultural cornerstone of the borough, with amusement parks and beloved annual traditions like the Mermaid Parade. File photo by Erica Price

The nabe also features year-round festivals like the annual Mermaid Parade, which invites locals to dress in their sea creature-esque couture, a bone-chilling Polar Plunge in the Atlantic Ocean every New Year’s Day and a host of sideshow circus performances. Coney has also captured the imaginations of dozens of writers and creatives, and has been featured in dozens of books, movies, and even songs. 

Outside of the CIHP, the neighborhood’s legacy is kept alive with the help of Coney Island USA, an arts program and The Alliance For Coney Island, a business advocacy group.