|Coney Island's Elephant hotel towered over the seaside neighborhood before burning down in 1896.|
Situated on Surf Avenue and West 5th Street, this enormous elephant made of pine and tin — often referred to as the Coney Island Elephant — burnt down on Sept. 27, 1896. The five people inside at the time of the blaze were safely guided to safety by Howard Wilson, the watchman at the nearby Sea Beach Palace.
The elephant had been seven stories high and over 100 feet long. The first floor had a restaurant and saloon, while the upper floors were used as a hotel. On the top was a howdah (a saddle used to ride an elephant), which was used as an observation deck. There was a cigar store in one of its legs and a “diorama” for panoramic views in the other.
It was built by James V. Lafferty, who built two other elephant-shaped buildings, one of which still survives, “Lucy the Elephant” in South Atlantic City. “Old Dumbo,” built in Cape May in 1884, was torn down. Lafferty actually had a patent, starting in 1882, giving him the exclusive right to make, use or sell animal-shaped buildings for 17 years.
The Coney Island Elephant cost $68,000 to build and by all accounts was a financial failure, frequently changing hands. But for years it was the most recognizable element of the Coney “skyline.”
On Sept. 28, 1896, the day after the elephant burnt down, the Brooklyn Eagle published a eulogy of sorts for the prominent pachyderm, “Loss of an Old Friend.” The writer, using delicate language, suggested the elephant did not always attract the most esteemed clientele.
'Loss of an Old Friend'
“News of the death of the Coney Island Elephant, which occurred last night at 10:30 o’clock, will be received in Brooklyn as elsewhere with feelings of profound regret. He died as a hero, not exactly like the boy on the burning dock, but faithful to those who admire and loved him and anxious even in his last moments to contribute to their happiness. It was a singularly pathetic career full of promise at the start, but marred by the intervention of events over which there could be no control.
“Born in 1876, our friend possessed qualities that attracted the attention of mankind. He stood 76 feet high in his stockings and had an appetite proportionate to his height. Barrooms and restaurants he could swallow at a gulp, as he also swallowed the men who had confidence in him as a financial attraction. The capacity of his “midst,” taken in connection with his tremendous height and the fact that he was not in the habit of wandering from his own fireside made him a sort of Coney Island landmark.
“Passengers on the ocean steamers caught a glimpse of him on their way up the channel and were impressed by the ponderosity of American institutions. They were bound to admire the majesty of his proportions just as they were compelled to express appreciation of the solemnity of his mien. It was not, however, to the plaudits of the better element that he chiefly appealed. He did not care much for the adulation of those who had tasted the civilization of European cities, or even of those who had become jaded with the excesses of our own metropolitan existence. What he especially reveled in was the gaze of the guileless, that of the inhabitants of our rural districts, who regarded him as the personification of all the virtues of city life.
“Contemplating his soulful eyes as they swept the blue Atlantic was it possible to credit the slanderous allegations that were occasionally made against him? Was it possible to believe that this innocent looking creature could be justly held up to the view as the type of all that was wicked?
“Is it difficult to select a conspicuously excellent trait among many that are about evenly deserving of commendation. Yet if we must do so we should say that the loyalty which our friend displayed was perhaps the most charming trait of all. He knew [corrupt Gravesend political Boss John McKane] in the days of his prosperity and in the days of his adversity. He was, impervious however, to the changes made by time and circumstance in the fortunes of the former Coney Island ruler, and no one ever heard him say an unkind word concerning him. It was the same, too, with other people whose acquaintance he enjoyed. His lips were closed to their faults, and no amount of persuasion could induce himself as to their shortcomings, if indeed he thought they had any.
“His end was not only heroic but spectacular in the extreme. It seemed as if he had reserved all his energies until the last, in order to make a fitting exit. Crowds came from far and near to watch his expiring gasps. The youth and beauty of Coney Island were there and its chivalry too, and the flames mounted fifty feet to the sky and lighted up the Atlantic, to say nothing of the palatial residences in the immediate vicinity, there was a general feeling of sadness. Every person in the throng felt as though he or she had lost a friend, and it was a loss of magnitude of which could not easily be exaggerated.
“It is not kind to speak ill of the dead, and that in deed is not our intention. We cannot help thinking, however, that if the deceased had not scattered his energies in so many different directions he would have attained a greater degree of success. In any walk of life he would have won distinction, but when he consented to lend himself to several lines of effort at the same time, he taxed his efforts to too great an extent. His loss, however, for this reason will not be less deplored. His career was full of usefulness and was one moreover that cannot be easily duplicated.”