"I have troubles today that I did not have yesterday; I had troubles yesterday that I have not today. On this site will be erected shortly a better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park. Admission to the burning ruins—10�"
Tilyou was as good as his word. A better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park was erected.
In the meantime, other would-be capitalists were not standing still. In 1903, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, who were later to build the New York Hippodrome, opened Luna Park, installing the country's first midway and presenting to the public's delighted eye gardens, broad lagoons, extensive towers and minarets over which incandescent lights twinkled.
Coney Island's third great park, Dreamland, threw open its doors one year later. "The park," wrote a journalist, "was a triumph of architectural ingenuity. Elaborate amusement structures with gaudy facades fronted on broad promenades.... A number of new attractions were installed, along with a few that had been pirated from Luna Park. Frank C. Bostock presented his wild animal show.... The Infant Incubator, it was announced, would exhibit newborn infants under the care of a corps of trained nurses.... Wormwood presented his dog and monkey show and the Midget Village had a population of 300 Lilliputians, all housed in a miniature reproduction of old Nuremberg in the 15th century. Coasting through Switzerland was a scenic railway, with sleighs jingling over snow-peaked Alps against a vast panorama.
Naturally, the rivalry among the three parks for the public's favor became frenetic. Hoping to attract crowds to Steeplechase, George Tilyou had an old square-rigged sailing ship beached in front of the entrance. The owners of Luna Park retaliated by announcing that Topsy, an irascible elephant, would be executed before the public. Topsy was led out and fed allegedly poisoned carrots, which she promptly spat out, after which it was announced that she would be electrocuted (an idle threat for whatever publicity it might be worth).
Dreamland Park mulled over the efforts of Steeplechase and Luna, then advised the public via the newspapers that an airplane flight would be launched from the top of the Shoot-the-Chutes. The airplane consisted of a wicker basket with muslin-covered wings hinged to the sides. The wings were operated by a pilot by pulling cords and pushing pedals, no flying experience necessary. A local character known as Dutch Charley was given his wings and installed inside the basket. Then the plane was hauled to the top of the Chutes and suspended by a cord from an outrigger, 50 feet above the surface of the ocean. Charley had been given his instructions by the inventor. He was not to attempt to fly farther than Rockaway the first time out. A short ceremony was held before takeoff. Then Charley was given a signal and he began to pedal furiously. The cord was cut, loosening the plane, which promptly fell into the ocean. Charley was rescued by lifeguards.
As the big amusement parks tried to outdo each other, so did Coney Island's oceanfront hotels, enormous wooden structures with deep sprawling verandas. Most of the hotels had gone up in the late 19th century—the Brighton Beach, which catered to highly respected businessmen and the horsy set; the Manhattan Beach, popular with the cream of New York society; and the Oriental, which rented suites to wealthy families, not only for a weekend, but for the season.
It was not until 1927, a few years after the extension of the subway had made Coney Island "a mecca for the millions," that the Half Moon was built, a hotel 14 stories high, designed in modified Spanish style. The Half Moon specialized in "invigorating saltwater baths, roller chairs in which to glide along the Boardwalk, a spacious sun deck, and delicious food on the Ocean Terrace." Rates started at $3.00 a day. The hotel became popular with politicians (mostly Democrats), vacationing tourists, honeymoon couples and sportsmen. But for those who could translate economic conundrums correctly the "good old days" were already over. First, there was the Depression. Coney Island, along with the rest of the nation, went into a decline. Then World War II broke out and, finally, in 1941 a third event took place that shook the Half Moon to its very foundations at the least. It was the Abe (Kid Twist) Reles affair.
Reles, a Brooklyn gangster, who had agreed to inform on a horrifying bit of Americana called Murder, Inc., headed by the notorious Albert Anastasia, was put into "protective custody" in a five-room suite at the Half Moon. His protectors were five police guards who "looked in" on him every few minutes. But somehow they weren't looking when, early on a chill November morning, Kid Twist Reles reportedly went out of his bedroom window clinging to the end of two bed sheets, which, to do away with technicalities long since forgotten, came undone. His broken body was found on the roof of the hotel's kitchen extension, two floors above the ground. Whether he fell, was pushed or thrown (if so, by whom?) is still an open question. His body, it was discovered, had landed about 20 feet from where it should have landed had he merely fallen. It did seem, said one policeman ruefully, "that he must have had a little help." For weeks the Half Moon Hotel was in the headlines, and people no doubt went to Coney just to gawk, but it was hardly the kind of publicity that encouraged paying clients. Like so much that had sparkled in Coney's past, the last great hotel had lost its glitter. A year later it was being used as a hospital by the Navy and finally, in 1951, was converted into a convalescent home for Brooklyn's aged and infirm.
Throughout its long history Coney Island has been plagued by fires. In 1911 a spectacular blaze leveled 50 amusement spots, including Dreamland, where the fire started when a workman accidentally overturned a pail of pitch. Animals perished horribly, reported the newspapers, but the incubator babies were saved. Dreamland was never rebuilt. In ensuing years no less than half a dozen fires left Coney scorched and scarred, and in 1944 most of Luna Park went up in flames. Today only its name is preserved, in a housing development that stands on the site. Steeplechase, the first and last of the great amusement centers, closed down for good in 1965 "for lack of business," said George Tilyou's heirs. Its famous horses have been sold to an amusement firm in Great Britain, its other rides dismantled, all but the outside framework of the famous Parachute Jump, which still stands high and proud, a lonely-looking oddity surrounded by empty land.