Friday, May 27, 2011

100th Anniversary of Dreamland Fire

Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island lies in ruins after a fire on May 2, 1911
Hell Gate was an indoor boat ride in the huge Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island. It was topped by a gigantic sculpture of a bat with its wings unfurled. About 1:30 a.m. on May 27, 1911, a fire started in the attraction and spread quickly through the park, reaching the circus area, where the one-armed lion tamer’s beasts escaped and wandered terrified through the blaze.

Toward dawn, a lion appeared at the Creation Gate, its mane on fire. It ran down Surf Avenue and into the “Rocky Road to Dublin” scenic railway where it climbed to the top of a reproduction of Blarney Castle and was shot dead with 24 bullets in its head.

The next day, the lion, whose name turned out to be Black Prince, was skinned and put on display for ten cents a look. Lion’s teeth were also for sale as souvenirs, and before long, stories were being told all over South Brooklyn of wild animals performing circus tricks all by themselves in vacant lots. Usually the person telling the story hadn’t seen them, but he had it on good authority from someone who had that a few of the escaped animals from Dreamland were still on the loose. The stories were told for years, somewhat reminiscent of the “alligators in New York sewers” stories.

Dreamland Park had opened on May 14, 1904, one of the three giant amusement parks at Coney. Luna Park and Steeplechase Park were the other two.

The Coney Island History project has launched a new exhibit about the Dreamland fire. you can read more about that in this New York Post article.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Celebrate Memorial Day at Green-Wood Cemetery

If you aren’t planning on skipping town this Memorial Day weekend, you may want to celebrate the holiday as it was originally intended — by giving a shout-out to the soldiers who died fighting for our country.

And if you want to be historically accurate about it, you should go to Green-Wood Cemetery, which is hosting an extra special line-up of events in honor of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, started as a tribute specifically to Civil War soldiers.

New York sent more troops to the Civil War than any other northern state, shipping off 448,850 soldiers to battle. And believe it or not, Green-Wood Cemetery is the final resting-place of more Civil War soldiers than any other cemetery in the North, including Gettysburg.

Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman, along with a team of volunteers, has been working since 2002 to uncover how many Civil War veterans are interred there. So far they have found 4,600. (read more about Richman's Civil War project here.)

This Sunday evening, May 29, candles will be lit in front of each and every one of those Civil War veterans’ graves. At 8:15 p.m., you can join the Grand Procession that will wind its way through the cemetery past the graves, accompanied by cavalry, uniformed re-enactors and musicians. Meet inside the main entrance at 25th Street and Fifth Avenue. Tickets are $10.

Then on Monday morning at 11 a.m. the cemetery will hold a March of Honor to the Civil War Soldiers’ Lot, where 127 Union veterans are interred. Ceremonies at the Soldiers’ Lot will include a reading of the names of some of the veterans, artillery and rifle salutes and musical tributes.

On Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. the cemetery will host its 13th-annual free Memorial Day concert, featuring the ISO Symphonic Band. Included will be melodies of the Civil War in addition to works by some of Green-Wood’s permanent residents — Fred Ebb, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Leonard Bernstein and many others.

Rounding out these events will be a Civil War exhibition featuring fascinating memorabilia such as two authentic Civil War cannons, life-sized zinc sculptures of Union soldiers and genuine Civil War uniforms. Admission to the exhibit is free. It will be open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends and noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays from May 28 through June 12.

Find out more at

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

New Exhibit on the Horizon At Brooklyn Historical Society

A new exhibit is on the way at the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), which ambitiously tackles the borough's 400 years of history.

As per BHS's press release,  "'Inventing Brooklyn: People, Places, Progress' traces the evolution of Brooklyn into the place we know today. From Native American roots and Dutch colonial influences to icons such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Dodgers, Inventing Brooklyn examines how various people, places, and historical events have shaped the development of the borough."

The exhibit is part of BHS's Ex Lab program (Exhibition Laboratory), an after-school museum studies program for local high school students from Packer, St.Ann's, Brooklyn Technical High School and Cobble Hill School of American Studies. (I've been to the last two exhibits that this program put together and they were great: “Home Base: Memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field” and “Pages of the Past: The Brooklyn Adventures of Jasper Danckaerts” )

Highlights will include cannonballs from the Battle of Brooklyn, original copies of the Long Island Star from 1827, Civil War soldiers’ letters, and posters from Brooklyn movies such as It Happened in Brooklyn and Moonstruck.

The exhibit will open on June 2 with a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 at BHS, 128 Pierrepont St.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Opening Day at Luna Park

Luna Park, AP/Library of Congress
From the Eagle's On This Day in History Page: On May 16, 1903, the 22-acre Luna Park amusement complex opened in Coney Island. It was built as a rival to the nearby Steeplechase Park.

About 60,000 people attended the opening of “The Electric City by the Sea.” As they arrived, according to one reporter, they stopped, “rubbed their eyes, and stood in wonder and pinched themselves. They stood at the imposing gates of what appeared to be a dream city, a mysterious palace of play.”

Once inside, they discovered in the words of a New York Times journalist, “an enchanted, storybook land of trellises, columns, domes, minarets, lagoons, and lofty aerial flights. And everywhere was life — a pageant of happy people; and everywhere was color — a wide harmony of orange and white and gold … It was a world removed — shut away from the sordid clatter and turmoil of the streets.”

At night a quarter million electric lights transformed the park into a magical realm. For 10 cents admission the public could enter this magical and thrilling world, enjoy the entertainments and thrill to the rides. When Luna opened, it boasted a Venetian city complete with gondoliers, a Japanese garden, an Irish village, an Eskimo village, a Dutch windmill and a Chinese theater. Every season thereafter more attractions were added.

Luna succumbed to a series of disastrous fires in the 1940s and finally closed after the 1949 fire. It was replaced by a parking lot and later by the Luna Houses development.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Lecture Circuit: Great Women, Utopian Visions and an Historic Building

This Saturday, May 7, Green-Wood Cemetery will hold a "Great Women Walking Tour," guiding visitors through the colorful and influential women of the 19th and early 20th centuries who are buried there. They include Matilda Tone, wife of the Irish patriot; pioneering doctors Susan McKinney Steward and Mary Jacobi; abolitionist Abigail Hopper Gibbons and actresses Laura Keene and Kate Claxton. It should be an enjoyable walk since Green-Wood is really starting to bloom right about now. The tour is led by veteran Green-Wood tour guide Ruth Edebohls. The tour starts at 1 p.m. Tickets are $15/$10 for Historic Green-Wood members.You can reserve online here or call 718-768-7300.
Proteus Gowanus, the gallery and reading room at 543 Union St., will hold what sounds like an interesting lecture on Tuesday, May 10. The gallery has been exploring the theme of "paradise" this year, and to that end has invited historical anthropologist Edith Gonzalez to speak about two 19th century utopian communities that were founded in New Jersey, Ocean Grove and Asbury Park. The talk will begin at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
The Brooklyn Historical Society will offer tours of its beautiful 1881 building on May 15 and May 28 at 2 p.m. The striking building was designed by architect George Post and is a New York City landmark. The Othmer Library on the second floor is a particular treat. The tour is free with museum admission.