The Coney Island Attraction That Took Its Riders to Hell
In 1905, visitors to Coney Island experienced Dreamland amusement park’s latest—and most unusual—attraction. After paying 10 cents to ticket sellers in red robes and horned hats, they queued up in front of an open-faced building topped with a huge, red, winged figure of Satan. Under his glowering stare, they watched as riders ahead of them crowded into open boats and descended along an ever-narrowing 50-foot whirlpool swirling toward the center until, astonishingly, the boats disappeared—seemingly swallowed up by the waters of the Gate.
When it was their turn, the riders eagerly surrendered their tickets and clambered into the boats, ready to find out for themselves what lay beneath.
The ride was Hell Gate, and it was a star of Dreamland’s second season—one of several attractions and improvements Dreamland founder William Reynolds had spent $500,000 on in an effort to one-up nearby Luna Park. Hell Gate sat caddy-corner from Creation, a ride that took visitors through the events in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. (Dreamland brought that ride, which had debuted at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, all the way to New York at a cost of $250,000.)
It might seem a little strange to have religious-themed rides in an amusement park, but according to Alex Delare and Jonathan Anderson, who lead walking tours around New York as The History Couple, there was a very good reason Dreamland chose them. "Amusement parks like Dreamland made these religious rides, ones that portray the Judeo-Christian values, because New York City would have shut the show down otherwise," they tell Mental Floss via email. "In the early 20th century, New York City had very strict laws that only shows of a religious or educational nature could take place on a Sunday. Because Sunday was the only day that people had off, it was the busiest day of the week down in Coney Island. If the owners of the park wanted to turn a profit, they had to have attractions that the city would allow, hence all the shows of a religious nature."
While Luna Park tried an attraction that simulated Hell called Night and Morning (riders entered a coffin-shaped room, which was “lowered” into the Earth, at which point one side of the coffin fell away as they took a tour of the afterlife), they tended to lean more toward attractions of an educational nature, or shows that allowed adults to feel like kids again. Dreamland, however, "went over the top with these shows about heaven and hell," according to Delare and Anderson. "That way, their patrons could start their day in the Garden of Eden, see the apocalypse, and end in Hell. They turned morality plays into a cash cow."
Hell Gate was the owned by a showman named William Ellis, and it stood where a submarine boat ride from the park’s first season had been. It wasn’t ready for Dreamland’s opening day; on May 28, 1905, The Sun noted that “The delay in the opening of Hell Gate … is due to the elaborate machinery required,” with the New-York Tribune explaining that “there is so much mechanism in connection with the operation … that it has taken longer than anticipated to assemble the different parts.”
Once it did open, about a month later, Hell Gate quickly became a must-see attraction. On June 27, 1905, Brooklyn’s The Standard Union wrote that “Of the two water rides at Dreamland, it is a question of which is the most popular, the ‘Canals of Venice’ or ‘Hell Gate.’ The latter is the latest and newest and is drawing crowds.”
The press was effusive in its praise. The Harrisburg Telegraph called the ride “startling and unique,” while The New York Times noted that it was “rivaling all other waterside attractions. Since the opening ... the attraction has caught on amazingly, and crowds are the rule in the vicinity.”
Once they disappeared through the Gate, riders took “a dash down an incline into a fountain of spray warranted not to wet the adventurer,” according to The Sun. A channel bore the boats through dark, plaster of Paris caverns replete with stalactites and stalagmites.
Theodore Waters explained how Hell Gate worked in the July 8, 1905, issue of Harper’s Weekly:
“The 'pool' is merely a spiral trough made of wood and iron, through which the water carries the boats to the centre, where the slope suddenly dips and allows them to slip beneath the outer rims of the spiral into a subterranean channel which follows a tortuous course under the building. There are scenes ... intended to corroborate the popular conception of the Earth's interior.”
“By the time the spectators above are beginning to wonder what has happened to the boat,” Waters wrote, “the passengers have had a surfeit of subterranean horrors, and are shot up through one side of the pool to the surface.”
For its second season, Hell Gate got several upgrades. Not only was the ride made longer, but it got a fleet of new boats, new hydraulic effects, and increased capacity; even the whirlpool was faster. This was part of the strategy of amusement parks at the time. "There was a philosophy that many of the Coney Island Showmen followed—if their attraction didn't pay for itself in the first year, get rid of it. They were constantly updating rides in order to keep things fresh and keep tickets coming in," Delare and Anderson say. Because Hell Gate stuck around for so many seasons, it's safe to assume it was a moneymaker. Its popularity even served as inspiration for another ride that debuted in 1906 called The End of the World.
When the Italian explorer Duke of Abruzzi visited the park in 1907, he “paused ... to catch his breath" at Hell Gate "and then lost it again shooting down the whirlpool,” according to the New-York Tribune. That same year, Maxim Gorky wrote what seems to be the only description of what actually happened in the tunnels below the whirlpool for The Independent [PDF]. Riders saw Satan, rubbing his hands in glee. They watched as demons dragged people—a girl admiring herself in a new hat; a man drinking whiskey; a girl who steals some money from a purse—into a trough, triggering gray steam and fluttering tongues of red paper fire. Before the end of the ride, they got a speech about good behavior, which Gorky said was delivered by a man who talked "monotonously, wearily" and did "not seem to believe in what he was told to preach." Then, an angel appeared, sending Satan "[diving] like a fish into the pit after the sinners. A crash is heard, the paper stones are hurled down, and the devils run off cheerfully to rest from their labor," Gorky wrote.
For years, Hell Gate terrified and delighted visitors to Dreamland. And then, in 1911, the ride that evoked Hell literally went up in flames.
Workers were feverishly readying the ride for the Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) start to the season when, at 1:30 a.m., the lights in the tunnels of the ride began exploding, plunging the area into darkness. Some tar—which, according to the Times Union, was “used to create a miniature Hades, attracting the attention of the patrons as they ride by in the boats"—caught fire, and the blaze soon raged out of control. Water pressure at fire hydrants in the park was too low for firefighters to stop the fire, which burned nearly everything in its wake from West 5th Street to West 10th Street and from Surf Avenue to the ocean.
According to Delare and Anderson, "When the park caught fire, it was a spectacle in itself. Everyone in Coney stopped what they were doing to watch Dreamland burn down to the ground."
No human lives were lost in the inferno, but the Hell Gate fire destroyed virtually all of Dreamland, along with 50 other businesses, resulting in approximately $5 million in damage (the equivalent of about $135 million today). The park wasn't rebuilt; neither were the smaller businesses engulfed in the blaze.
Luna Park and Steeplechase, Dreamland's two major amusement park competitors, escaped unscathed, but things changed in Coney Island after the inferno. "There was a shift in Coney Island's amusement culture—large scale productions like Creation started to disappear, and more and more dance halls, bars, saloons, movie theaters, and other 'cheap amusements' moved in," Delare and Anderson say. "Coney started to cater to the lower income neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and appeal to a new generation of New York City's youth. Kids started to come, date, make out, and then go back to Manhattan at the end of the day."
In the end, Hell Gate lived up to its name, transforming what was one of Coney Island's most popular tourist attractions into a smoldering pile of ash and rubble—and helping to change the very fabric of Coney Island itself.