Category Archives: Coney Island

Coney Island Palimpsest

Looking west through the temporary arch over Surf Avenue at West 8th Street, Coney Island, August 1893 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Looking west through the temporary arch over Surf Avenue at West 8th Street, Coney Island, August 1893. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Twenty-seven thousand firemen descended on Coney Island in August 1893. No, the place wasn’t burning, for once! They came for the 21st annual convention of the New York State Firemen’s Association and a week of dinners, speeches, boxing matches and parades. As the New-York Tribune described the setting on Monday 14 August 1893 (p. 10, col. 1), Coney Island “was one mass of flags and bunting. It looked as if . . .

1893_NYSFA_Coney_Island_Aug_watermarked

. . . every one tried to outdo his next-door neighbor, and the result was the most lavish display of decorative material ever seen at the Island. The preparations for the firemen’s convention ended with these decorations, and yesterday was given over to welcoming the delegates. The line of march for the big parade next Friday is covered with flags, and across Surf ave., near Eighth-st., a big arch has been erected, decorated with pictures of engines, hose carts and hook and ladder wagons. Across the top, in big letters, are the words ‘Welcome to Coney Island’.”

It’s easy to imagine this fanciful arch stood where the pedestrian bridge would later span Surf Avenue connecting the West 8th Street subway station to the New York Aquarium. The arch is long gone, of course; it probably came down right after the convention. The bridge went up in the mid-1960s and served for half a century. Safety concerns prompted its overnight demolition in August 2013.

The New York Aquarium's pedestrian bridge spanning Surf Avenue as it looked in June 2011 {Courtesy of Google Street View}.

The New York Aquarium’s pedestrian bridge spanning Surf Avenue as it looked in June 2011. {Courtesy of Google Street View}


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Der Koloss Elefant auf Coney Island

Most of you know of (and kindly indulge) my obsession for Elephantine Colossus, the giant tin-skinned, elephant-shaped structure that stood on Coney Island between 1884 and 1896. Here’s my latest find, which arrived today all the way from Germany (you’ve got to love eBay!). It’s a page from the Illustrirte Zeitung [or Illustrated News] for August 1, 1885, showing our Elephant in head-on and X-ray views. These are the same images that accompanied a Scientific American feature a month earlier. If anyone reads German, I’d love to have a translation of the article in the left column — “Der Koloss von Coney-Island” — though I suspect it’s the same recitation of hyperbolic statistics that followed the Elephant wherever he went!

"Der Koloss von Coney-Island," Illustrirte Zeitung, August 1, 1885, p. 119. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

“Der Koloss von Coney-Island,” Illustrirte Zeitung, August 1, 1885, p. 119. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

Scientific.American.1885.07.11

“The Colossal Elephant of Coney Island,” Scientific American, July 11, 1885. [Collection of Joseph Ditta]


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend Characters Past: “Governor of Coney Island”

Continuing the challenge posed by my fellow members of the Society for One-Place Studies that we blog about 52 residents of our respective places in as many weeks, I turn my attention this time to the curious stereoscopic view below. It surfaced recently, as so many fascinating treasures do, on eBay.

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E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, recto, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The image side shows a seated, portly gentleman, hands clasped across his rumpled, outdated frock coat. He wears equally unfashionable ruffles at his neck, and squints at the camera with a bemused half-smile, looking for all the world like William Claude Dukenfield, despite his flowing hair.

The reverse side of this stereoview — one in the series “A Trip to Coney Island” published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co. circa 1864-1869 — bears the cryptic caption “Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island.”

Most internet searches on the phrase “Governor of Coney Island” return hits for Gilbert Davis, an early owner of the Pavilion, a dancing and entertainment venue at Norton’s Point (present-day Sea Gate). Davis, who died about 1870, was a wine merchant who so relished his unofficial honorific that he marked his casks “CGI” for “Governor of Coney Island.” But Davis was an upstart newcomer to Coney Island, at least in the eyes of the Wyckoff family.

Wyckoff.Governor.Coney.Island.reverse

E. & H.T. Anthony & Co., stereoscopic view no. 2076, verso, “A Trip to Coney Island. / Wyckoff, Governor of Coney Island,” circa 1864-1869 [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

The Wyckoffs were among the first permanent European settlers of Coney Island. John Wyckoff (1787-1871), a great-great-great-grandson of Wyckoff family progenitor Pieter Claesen (died 1694), opened a seaside hotel, the eponymous Wyckoff House, in the 1840s. By the time the Anthonys issued their stereoview, Wyckoff’s son, John Jr. (1809-1873), had become proprietor.

Although the Wyckoffs are one of the best-documented families in the world, the Coney Island branch seems to have fallen through the cracks. Published information is sketchy or outright wrong. The standard genealogy of the Wyckoff family states that John Jr. died in 1868. He did not. He passed away December 8, 1873. His funeral took place three days later at the Wyckoff House, and he was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush. A subsequent notice in the Sag Harbor Corrector positively identifies him as the man in the stereoview:


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Letter from Gravesend, 1855

Before 1843 letters destined for Gravesend, which had no post office, went instead to Flatbush, where any passing resident could collect his mail and any for his neighbors to deliver at leisure. Shopkeeper Martin Schoonmaker became the town’s first postmaster that year, and he served until 12 July 1854, when he was succeeded by 22-year-old fisherman Gilbert Hicks. Hicks, a son of Thomas and Cornelia (Van Sicklen) Hicks, was born at Norton’s Point (now Sea Gate), Coney Island, on 6 March 1832, but by the time of his appointment as postmaster, he was living with his family in the house now known as 27 Gravesend Neck Road–commonly called “Lady Moody’s House”–which his mother’s Van Sicklen ancestors had owned for generations. Eventually he moved to Flatbush, where he died in 1903.

In the letter below, dated 1 August 1855 and postmarked the following day, he wrote to his uncle Elias, who lived in Rockaway, then a part of the town of Hempstead, which belonged to Queens County until 1898. Note the use of his franking privilege as postmaster to send the letter free of charge.

Letter from Gilbert Hicks to Elias Hicks, postmarked Gravesend, 2 August 1855 (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

“Dr. Baisley” is probably Robert B. Baisley, a Rockaway physician born around 1819; he does not appear to have been appointed to the position discussed. And the “melancholy accident at Coney Island” refers to the drowning deaths of the Rev. John H. Elliot of Williamsburg(h) and his daughter, who were dragged down by the undertow while bathing near the Oceanic House on 25 July.

Gravesend Aug 1st 1855

Dear Uncle Elias

Mr. Samuel Hubbard of this village, who is one of the Superintendents of the Poor of Kings County wishes me to write to you for some information, which he thinks you can give him. He says that the new Lunatic Asylum at Flatbush is completed, and that at the next meeting of the Board of Superintendents they will most likely appoint a physician to take charge of it. There are several applicants for the appointment, and among them a Doctor Baisley of Rockaway. The Superintendents desire to appoint a capable and worthy physician: one well qualified to discharge the duties which would necessarily devolve upon him in the Institution.

Mr. Hubbard thinks it very probable that you are acquainted with Dr Baisley, and can furnish him with some information respecting him. Mr H. would be greatly obliged to you if you would write immediately (or as soon as you can possibly) and give him your opinion of Dr Baisley, and also state whether you think he would be a proper person for so responsible an appointment. It is worth a thousand dollars a year. Direct the letter to Mr Hubbard who will consider it strictly confidential.

We are all as well as usual. Fish are unusually scarce just now but bring a good price. Mother went to Aunt Fanny’s week before last. She found all the folks there well.

I supposed you have read the newspaper accounts of the melancholy accident at Coney Island. I am unable to add anything to those accounts. Had the proprietors of the bathing houses furnished their establishment[s] with boats, ropes &c as they should have done no lives would have been lost. Now, after the accident has occurred, they have got them. There are very few boarders at the boarding houses on the Island this season, and since the accident on the shore the bathing house has been but poorly patronised. People are afraid to venture into the water.

The farmers, here, are carrying their potaters to market as fast as they can get them out of the ground. They are worth from 4/6 to 5/6 per bushel. The wet weather if it continue[s] much longer, it is feared will set them rotting.

Uncle Elias we would be very happy to have you make us a visit. It is quite a long while since you were here last. If I can spare the time, I will try to make you a short visit next Fall. I would like dearly to visit Far Rockaway.

I have not received a letter from Uncle Isaac in a long while but I occasionally receive papers.

Give my best wishes to Uncle William, and to Potter.

Respectfully yours,

Gilbert Hicks


Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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