The most recent update to shorpy.com
("the 100-year-old photo blog") included a wonderful 1903 shot of Coney Island's Steeplechase Park
as seen from the Bowery.
I sat there and looked at the picture and said "I know just where that picture was taken."
And within an hour, I'd not only nailed down the spot (and realized I had a picture of that same location taken in 2000) but also learned that most of the buildings in the picture only had a few months left to live, as a big ol' fire took out most of the Bowery in November 1903. I dug up a New York Times story
on the fire as well as a story on the famous 1907 fire
which destroyed Steeplechase Park.
The 1907 fire is best known for the actions of Steeplechase's owner, George C. Tilyou, no stranger to rising up from the ashes in Coney Island. George was one of the few people who, in the late 19th century, stood up to Coney Island's political boss John Y. McKane. In 1887 Tilyou blew the whistle on McKane's corruption and filed a report with the state. As a result Tilyou was forbidden to do business in Coney, his father was forced out of his real-estate business and the entire family was evicted. A friend was able to hold on to the Tilyou family home, allowing George to hide out there and do business under McKane's nose.
While Tilyou's report was conveniently lost in the State Assembly thanks to some of McKane's pals, the contents of the report had already been published in the papers and McKane began fending off more and more charges. He was finally nabbed on fraud and sent to Sing Sing in 1894. As his carriage left Coney Island, George C. Tilyou was there to give a friendly wave good-bye. Then he settled back in, free to seek his Coney fortune once more. He eventually built a giant enclosed amusement park around an imported horse racing roller coaster, and called his park Steeplechase. It stayed in the family (or someone else's family, at least) until 1964.
Steeplechase was hit by fire several times in its life, but the 1907 fire wiped everything out. A few days after the blaze, while the Steeplechase ruins were still smouldering, park owner George C. Tilyou posted a sign outside the park which has become of my favorite examples of triumphing over adversity in a Coney Island way:
To inquiring friends:
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 cents.
See? See what harm one innocent picture does? Sends me off on a wild chase through archives and folklore and god-knows-what and I have a lot of fun. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to do other stuff today, but this is too much fun to stop.