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Coney Island of Fun and History

No matter where you live, there is probably one holiday hot spot (or more than one) that everyone has heard of. It may be associated with many different activities or events but most would agree that there’s fun to be had. For more than a century, one such place is Coney Island in Brooklyn New York.

Named by the Dutch in the 1600s for its plentiful rabbits, Coney Island is situated on the south shore of Long Island and was an island until the construction of the Belt Parkway in the 1930s. However, holiday excursions to the island started long before automobile access. After the Civil War, rail and steam transportation connected Manhattan and Brooklyn to Coney Island and resorts were built along the beach — sun-lit all day long because of the southern exposure.

In addition to the beach, Coney Island was the largest amusement area prior to World War II, and an affordable summer day-trip for those escaping the heat and drudgery of New York City’s tenements. At one point, there were three separate amusement parks operating on Coney Island. Luna Park Amusement Park opened in 1903 — its current reincarnation reopened this year — and offered thrill-seekers a chance to Shoot the Chutes (flume water ride) or enter the Dragon’s Gorge (enclosed roller coaster). In the 1900s, Luna Park’s biggest draw was probably the electric light display when most households still depended on gas lighting.

Luna Park lights

Luna Park and its millions of lights was probably most New Yorkers' first experience with electricity (1908). Image source NY Public Library digital archive ID 801283.

Despite or perhaps in spite of its kitsch and carnival atmosphere, Coney Island continues to be a summer destination. In addition to the beach and boardwalk, and the new Luna Park, there’s also the annual Mermaid Parade, the New York Aquarium, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus show: Illuscination, and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog’s Hot Dog eating contest — a traditional July 4th event ever since 1916. Watching someone eat 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes* may not be to everyone’s taste but there’s enough going on at Coney Island to warrant a subway ride. Plan a day trip — the millions who visited over the century can’t be wrong — and don’t forget the sunscreen.

*Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won again but only managed 54 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

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