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A century of fires in Coney Island

Historian: Fires consumed Steeplechase Park, the Ravenhall bathhouses, the Boardwalk, and Dreamland

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Several attractions in the People’s Playground have burned to the ground over the last century. Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson — whose museum on West 12th Street between Bowery Street and the Boardwalk has an extensive collection of photos and films about these torched amusements — gave us a brief rundown on the amusement area’s fiery history.

• 1896: The Elephant Hotel. It has been long suspected that the hotel and reputed brothel, which was actually shaped like a giant pachyderm, caught fire after someone forgot to put out his cigar.

“It was really dramatic, because flames were shooting out of the elephant’s eyes,” Denson said.

• 1907: Steeplechase Park. No one knows what started the fire that erased 35 acres of this iconic amusement area. But the next day, owner George C. Tilyou put out a sign reading: “Admission to the burning ruins: Ten cents.”

•1911: Dreamland. The morning before opening day, workers were sealing a leak in the Hellgate water ride with tar when several of the light bulbs above them popped. Sparks fell onto the hot pitch and started a blaze that consumed the Hellgate, Dreamland’s towers, the animal arena — and most of the animals.

“A flaming lion ran down Surf Avenue and climbed the Ben-Hur ride,” Denson said. “Police had to shoot it down.”

Some historians say that low water pressure in nearby fire hydrants prevented firefighters from putting out the blaze fast enough — and allowed the conflagration to spread.

• 1932: Boardwalk and Surf Avenue. This fire, considered the worst in Coney Island’s history, consumed 100 feet of the Boardwalk and destroyed apartment buildings and bathhouses along Surf Avenue between W. 21st and W.24th streets. The fire was so extensive that it burned a house on Neptune Avenue and scorched several nearby subway cars. More than 1,000 people were left homeless, and thousands more were left naked and dripping on the beach after abandoning their clothes as they ran out of the burning bathhouses. The cause? Kids playing with matches, Denson said.

• 1944: Luna Park. The fire that destroyed most of the first Luna Park may have been caused by a cigarette thrown into a trash can, Denson said. Flames quickly spread across the straw roofs covering several rides, then reached the park’s tower, which began spewing embers. Another fire wiped out what was left of the park a few weeks later.

• 1963: Ravenhall bathhouses. Denson remembers this one from his childhood. A mid-winter electrical fire in one of the arcade consumed the Ravenhall — a place our columnists Lou Powsner and Carmine Santa Maria have fond memories of.

• 2010: Coney Island Arcade. Denson blames roofers illegally using propane torches for the fire that gutted Manny Cohen’s funhouse on W. 12th Street in 2010. “They put down some roofing and just left. Meanwhile the crawl space was smoldering. Then it just took off,” Denson said.

Reach reporter Will Bredderman at (718) 260–4507 or e-mail him at wbredderman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/WillBredderman
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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