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January 22nd, 2010

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03:42 pm - and this is why nothing gets done
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.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 22nd, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
You should consider writing freelance pieces for various magazines on your findings.
[User Picture]
Date:January 22nd, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
If you did this for your job, what would your job be?

I think I agree with the above comment, you belong in writing, professionally.

I've kept you on my LJ feed as long as I've had one, long since any common allegiance to the Brunching community melted away, and it's not because you and I have a hell of a lot of specific interests in common.

It's because whatever you write about, you make it irresistible to read.

You know that, don't you?
[User Picture]
Date:January 22nd, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
That NY Times article was a great read. The matter-of-fact accounting of the man that "will die." The line about how many people were still asleep at 3 in the afternoon, including "the Behrens woman." So many gems.
[User Picture]
Date:January 23rd, 2010 12:24 am (UTC)
Admission to the burning ruins: 10 cents.


I'm pretty sure I was supposed to do other stuff today, but this is too much fun to stop.

Have you considered finding room for a regular column of this nature somewhere? I have no idea how one goes about being a freelance historian, but I'd be pleased to read the results.
Date:January 23rd, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)
That sign of Tilyou's is wonderful.

(And I agree with the others. But "you should get a job doing this!" is vastly easier to say than to do, so I'll just say that I love reading your stuff.)

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