The Mauch Chunk Switchback, a forty-mile stretch of rail near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, was meant for transporting coal. Its place in history was assured by the unknown genius who saved himself a walk down to the station by hitching a ride and discovering just how fun it was to hurtle down the mountain. When the rail was rendered obsolete by a tunnel in 1872, its owners switched it entirely over to thrillseekers. George Ferris‘ celebrated creation for the Columbian Exposition had been a huge financial success, and engineers began to refine the concept. Soon more intentional coasters began to spring up, including the Switchback Railway, built in 1884, and the Leap the Dips coaster, built in 1902 and today the oldest standing coaster in the world. The Switchback Railway was followed by a host of imitators thanks to its immense financial success and its location: the tony seaside resort and racing destination of Coney Island. The leisurely 6 m.p.h. pace of the Switchback Railway was soon to be challenged by Coney Island’s other, faster coasters: the Drop-the-Dip, the Cannon Coaster, Pike’s Peak Railway, the Loop-the-Loop (America’s first inverted coaster), the Thunderbolt. And along with the coasters, some entrepreneurs had thrown together newfangled rides, special effects, and modern electric lighting to create a new form of entertainment: the theme park. Thompson and Dundy’s Steeplechase and Luna Park and William Reynolds’ Dreamland dazzled turn-of-the-century tourists. Every corner of the human imagination had been upended in search of spectacles that could be created or recreated: human roulette wheels; the Canals of Venice and Japanese teahouses; glowing towers visible from thirty miles out to sea; Lilliputia, a half-scale village populated by three hundred little people with its own "Midget Fire Department"; clowns, circus animals, and the Fall of Pompei; Oriental tableaus and elephant rides; visits to Mars, the Moon, and Hell.
It’s difficult to imagine how dizzying (in number and variety and in the experiences themselves) the offerings must have been to the average New Yorker in the park’s first few years. Theme parks didn’t just offer the chance to interact with the opposite sex without a chaperone (and perhaps steal a kiss while on the rides of Steeplechase); they were seen by some as signaling the decline of Western civilization. In his essay collection, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, Mark Dery quotes James Huneker on Coney Island:
After the species of straitjacket that we wear everyday is removed at such Saturnalia as Coney Island, the human animal emerges in a not precisely winning guise… Once en masse, humanity sheds its civilization and becomes half child, half savage… It will lynch an innocent man or glorify a scamp politician with equal facility. Hence the monstrous debauch of the fancy at Coney Island, where New York chases its chimera of pleasure.
It went beyond the opportunity to hold hands on a roller coaster or make an illicit grab at one’s swain on the human roulette wheel. Too much attention to pleasure might reduce society as a whole to the purported condition of the little people of Lilliputia, living in a state of near anarchy, merrily having babies out of wedlock and adopting aristocratic titles for the hell of it.
It couldn’t last. The occasional visitor death couldn’t end Dreamland, but a bucket of tar could. The tar, spilled during maintenance work before the park opened for the season, ignited Hell Gate; the fire quickly spread to the rest of the attractions, and Dreamland was ablaze. The Midget Fire Department was able to save a portion of Lilliputia, but the rest of Dreamland was a smoldering ruin. Dreamland’s owner, Tammany Hall politician William Reynolds, took the insurance money and did not rebuild. Luna Park was gutted by fire in 1944; with construction materials constrained due to the war, the owners charged a dime to see the ruins for the remainder of the season, then closed the doors for good. Steeplechase struggled on into the Sixties before closing, the last of the great Coney Island theme parks.
Today’s Coney Island trades off its history; the Mermaid Parade, the Sideshow, and Burlesque are echoes of Coney Island after its gentlemanly peak. But the Cyclone lives on. The Cyclone, which first offered rides in 1927 and is billed as the "world’s greatest coaster", was completely restored and reopened to the public in 1975. The Parachute Jump may be making a comeback. Even the ruins of Coney Island’s past still seem to fascinate some. And it’s not just old coasters that get people’s hearts pumping; it’s not even just the famous parks, the Steeplechases and Disneylands of the world; people spend time thinking about all kinds of defunct parks. Even such low-grade entertainment locations as the Enchanted Forest, a "fairy park" from the Fifties that was the site of a number of really dull birthday parties I attended as a young child, attract preservation efforts. Beyond the wonderfully evocative artifacts that abandoned parks provide, the overgrown greens and rusted rides are a memento mori, a slow fading of childhood memories — if not yours, then someone’s.