Dreamland (Coney Island, 1904)

Dreamland was an amusement park at Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City, which operated from 1904 to 1911. It was the last of the three original large parks built on Coney Island, along with Steeplechase Park and Luna Park.


The park was founded by William H. Reynolds, a former state senator and successful Brooklyn real estate developer. He designed the park to compete with Luna Park, a neighboring amusement park opened in 1903. Dreamland was supposed to be refined and elegant in its design and architecture, compared to Luna Park with its many rides and chaotic noise.
Reynolds purchased a parcel at Surf Avenue and West Eighth Street on which to build the park, using proxy buyers in order to hide his real ambitions for the lot. Once he bought the site, he used political power to demolish West Eighth Street in order to expand the lot. Today, the site is near the West Eighth Street subway station opposite Culver Depot, the then-terminal of New York City Subway's BMT Brighton Line and BMT Culver Line. Culver Depot itself later became the site of the New York Aquarium and the adjacent subway station.


Opened on May 15, 1904, Dreamland was a park in which everything was reputed to be bigger and more expansive than in neighboring Luna Park. Dreamland had a larger central "Tower" and one million electric light bulbs illuminating and outlining its buildings, four times as many lights as Luna Park. Dreamland featured relatively high-class entertainment and dramatic spectacles based on morality themes such as "The End of the World" and the Orient Theater's "Feast of Beshazzar and the Destruction of Babylon." It also featured elegant architecture, pristine white towers, and some educational exhibits along with the rides and thrills.
Among Dreamland's attractions were a railway called Coasting Through Switzerland that ran through a Swiss alpine landscape; imitation Venetian canals with gondolas; a human zoo called the "Lilliputian Village" with three hundred dwarf inhabitants; a Filipino village featuring Igorot people in native dress, although many of the Filipinos were not Igorot and few Filipinos dressed this way by 1911; and a demonstration of firefighting in which two thousand people pretended to put out a blazing six-story building fire every half-hour. However, many rides were imitations of Luna Park's. There were also two Shoot-the-Chutes with two ramps that could handle 7,000 hourly riders and a simulated submarine ride. The side shows were owned by the Dicker family, who also owned the hotel next to the park. There was also a display of baby incubators, where premature babies, triplets who were members of the Dicker family, were cared for and exhibited. The doctors advised them of the new invention, but they could not use it because incubators were not approved for use in hospitals, so the triplets were placed in the side show, which was allowed. Two survived and lived on to have full lives.
In a bid for publicity, the park put famous Broadway actress Marie Dressler in charge of the peanut-and-popcorn stands, with young boys dressed as imps in red flannel acting as salesmen. Dressler was said to be in love with Dreamland's dashing, handlebar-mustachioed, one-armed lion tamer who went by the name of Captain Jack Bonavita. Bonavita, who commanded lions in the Bostock animal arena, had one arm amputated when his hand was severely clawed by one of the lions, and a blood infection spread through that hand.


In spite of its many draws, Dreamland struggled to compete with Luna Park, which was better managed. In preparation for its 1911 season, many changes were made. Samuel W. Gumpertz was put in the park's top executive post. The buildings, once all painted white in a bid for elegance, were redone in bright colors. On the night before opening day, an attraction called Hell Gate, in which visitors took a boat ride on rushing waters through dim caverns, was undergoing last-minute repairs by a roofing company owned by Samuel Engelstein. A leak had to be caulked with tar. During these repairs, at about 1:30 a.m. on May 27, 1911, the light bulbs that illuminated the operations exploded, likely due to an electrical malfunction. In the darkness, a worker kicked over a bucket of hot pitch, and soon Hell Gate was in flames.
The fire quickly spread throughout the park. The buildings were made of frames of lath covered with staff. Both materials were highly flammable, and as they were common in the Coney Island amusement parks, fires were a persistent problem there. Because of this, a new high-pressure water pumping station had been constructed at Twelfth Street and Neptune Avenue a few years earlier, but on that night it failed. Water was available, but there was not enough to contain the fire that enveloped Dreamland. The Dicker family's adjacent hotel also burned down in this fire.
in 1911
Chaos broke loose as the park burned. As the single-armed Captain Bonavita strove to save his big cats with only the swiftly encroaching flames for illumination, some of the terrified animals escaped, but about 60 animals died. A lion named Black Prince rushed into the streets, among crowds of onlookers, and was shot by police. By morning, the fire was out and Dreamland was completely destroyed and never rebuilt. Early editions of The New York Times claimed the incubator babies had perished in the flames, but later the paper corrected this and reported that they had all been saved. According to contemporaneous accounts, a number of these saves were accomplished by Sgt. Frederick Klinck of the NYPD, who made several trips into the burning structure to rescue incubator babies.
Almost ten years after the fire, Reynolds, who by then owned the majority of Dreamland's outstanding bonds and stood to make a windfall, used his political connections to have New York City purchase the land on which Dreamland once stood. The city bought the area, valued at $1.5 million, for $1.8 million.

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