James McCullough — the great-grandson of legendary Steeplechase Park founder George Tilyou, and the former owner of Coney Island institutions like the B & B Carousell and McCullough’s Kiddie Park — passed away on Aug. 19.
McCullough, whose roots in the People’s Playground went back four generations on both sides, was born in Brooklyn in 1929. After several years living on Sixth Street, McCullough moved with his parents and brothers to Long Island. But he built his life in Coney Island. From childhood on, he helped his father and grandfather operate small theme parks and shooting galleries.
“It was what the family did. It was what the family knew, and it was a good living,” said Carol McCullough, one of his four daughters.
James McCullough ran several parks of his own, in the current location of New York Aquarium and on the W. 15th Street and Surf Avenue property that now serves as Gargiulo’s parking lot. He met his future wife Lois, a former high school classmate whom he had never actually spoken to, on the Boardwalk in the 1950s at the Stubbman Carousel — pieces of which became part of the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Carousel in Queens. The ride had belonged to McCullough’s mother’s family, and relocated to the promenade near Steeplechase Park at George Tilyou’s request.
McCullough settled his wife and children in Massapequa, but located his business on two adjoining W. 12th Street lots in 1961 — where it operated for 52 years. McCullough brought many new attractions to Coney Island, including the first Skywheel Ferris wheel, and the first Zipper.
Carol recalled growing up working at the park, just as four generations of her family had done before her. She sold tickets in the summertime, and in the winter she helped her father in the machinery shop. The experience inspired Carol to devote her life to the family’s amusements.
“It was always cool to work with Dad. It was a very cool thing to do. It was hard work, very long hours,” the younger McCullough said. “We learned a good work ethic from him. If something had to get done, he did it.”
In 1975, McCullough bought the historic B & B Carousell with partner Mike Saltzstein. They operated the ride on Surf Avenue for 30 years. But after his family helped define Coney Island in the 20th century, the dawn of the next one was not kind.
In the early 2000s, real estate mogul Joe Sitt bought the two lots McCullough’s park sat on, and when their lease expired on the parcel nearer the Boardwalk, Sitt kicked them out. Then Saltzstein died in 2001, and McCullough couldn’t afford to keep operating the B & B Carousell without his help, so the family sold the century-old attraction to the city in 2005.
Later that year, doctors diagnosed McCullough with pulmonary fibrosis. They gave him just a year to live, but he held on for eight more.
“He was a strong, strong man,” said Carol. “Strong physically, strong mentally.”
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy doused McCullough’s Kiddie Park, along with the rest of Coney Island. But the McCulloughs faced an additional problem — the lease on their remaining lot expired at the end of the year, and Sitt refused to grant them another contract for the space. While others were cleaning up after the storm, the McCulloughs packed up their destroyed equipment. The terminally ill patriarch made a rare trip back to the park, to see his life’s work in wreckage.
“He was upset. He worked his whole life to build this up and now it was just a pile of scrap on the ground,” his daughter said, lamenting the end of her family’s dynasty in Coney Island. “I feel like we just faded away and nobody noticed. The family had been there so long, and now we’re gone.”
Gone, but not forgotten. After years of restoration work on the hand-carved horses and antique finishings, the B & B Carousell reopened on the new Steeplechase Plaza earlier this summer.