Coney Island - Development of Rail & Steamboat Lines to the resort

The material is copyrighted © 1998 by Jeffrey Stanton.

Revised June 2, 1998

Development of Rail and Steamboat Lines to Coney Island

The development of Coney Island's tourist facilities went hand in hand with the development of transportation routes to the increasingly popular seaside resort. As transportation to the resort became both easier, faster and cheaper, tourist facilities were built for the increasing numbers of tourists.

During the early 19th century there was considerable discussion among the community of building a shell road across the creek to the nearby beach, since the only existing approach involved crossing the creek at low tide. Nothing occurred until 1823 when Supervisor Terhune and others formed the Coney Island Road and Bridge Company as a private enterprise. They sought funding through a stock issue of 300 shares at $20 / share. The shares were purchased quickly and in 1829 the company built the Shell Road across the creek that separated Coney Island from the mainland. They also built a hotel called the Coney Island House which marked the beginning of summer resort business.

Additional tourist development began in 1846 at the far westerly point of the beach that was later to be known as Norton's Point. Two New Yorkers, Eddy and Hart, built a pavilion (circular wooden platform covered by a tent) there. The following year a little side-wheeler steamer on an irregular schedule began to bring visitors from Manhattan to a small pier that jutted out into Gravesend Bay. The boat trip, much faster than the half day ferry and stagecoach route, cost only fifty cents and required a mere two hour sail down the bay.

The first railroad of any kind to reach Coney Island, actually cars pulled by horses, reached Coney Island in 1860. The terminal was at Van Sicklen's, which at the time was near the beach. However, as the sandbar that protected West Brighton filled in and the beach widened, the present day location of the terminal is far inland.

The Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island Railroad initially ran to Bath Beach (where 18th Avenue meets the shore of the Lower Bay, north of Coney Island) in 1864. The line, which ran from 25th and 5th Avenue in Brooklyn, where it connected to horsecars, was extended to Coney Island in 1867. The BB&CI Railroad was a steam railroad and its tracks were laid along a turnpike road (now New Utrecht Avenue). After C. Godfrey Gunther acquired it, it was called the Gunther Road. By the mid-1880's the line was owned by the Brooklyn, Bath and West End Railroad, and for short called the West End Line. It terminated at the Tivoli Hotel in West Brighton and was located just west of the Elephant Hotel. It eventually became the West End Terminal

In 1876 it became much easier to reach Coney Island by road. The Ocean Parkway, a seventy feet wide roadway landscaped with trees and shrubbery was built from Brooklyn's Prospect Park to the ocean. It was nearly straight and was flanked by two gravel roads each twenty five feet wide, perfect for racing surreys.

During the next three years, business men, notably William Engeman who acquired the title to Brighton Beach, and August Corbin, a rich banker who acquired title to Manhattan Beach, decided to develop their respective property. Corbin was a wall street investor and railroad tycoon who saw potential profits by building two large luxury seaside hotels and a railroad to bring in customers. His New York and Manhattan Beach Railway brought the shore within an hour of uptown New York.

Corbin's Manhattan Beach Hotel was built on the far eastern shore of Coney Island. It was considered the most elegant and fashionable hotel in the United States. It featured 258 lavish rooms, restaurants, ballroom and shops. When Ulysses S. Grant delivered the dedication speech for the hotel's grand opening on July 4, 1877 the event and the free fireworks show drew such huge crowds that it overwhelmed Corbin's railroad.

The railroad, which offered direct service with Manhattan, was narrow gauge at first and had two terminals: Bay Ridge with its steamers to Lower Manhattan on the Hudson side, and at Greenpoint. After it was incorporated as part of the Long Island Railroad in 1882, it was standard gauged and was routed to Long Island City instead of Greenpoint within a year or so. However, it continued to run to Greenpoint until about 1900.

The second resort that came into existence about the same time was William A. Engeman's Brighton Beach, located west of Manhattan Beach. Engeman had made his fortune selling more than a million horses and mules to the government during the Civil War. But to put together the land deal to build his magnificent Brighton Beach Hotel, required several years of patience and craft on his part. Stillwell, the town's surveyor, acted as Engeman's purchasing agent, no doubt at a handsome profit, with Engeman's name kept secret until all the lots had been purchased. He also obliged by including some of the town's common lands in his map of what Engeman actually owned, enabling Engeman to secure leases on those lands at trifling sums. Best of all, Engeman was able at a cost of only $20,000, to take possession of several hundred acres of prime ocean-front real estate long before he had actually purchased any part of it.

Engeman constructed his Brighton Beach Hotel in time for the 1878 season. This vast wooden hotel, 460 x 210 feet and several stories high, with accommodations for nearly 5000, could also feed 20,000 people per day. He also constructed an Iron Pier nearby and the 400 foot wide, two story Brighton Beach Pavilion. His resort was connected to New York by railroad and was frequented by the upper middle class rather than the wealthy because its location in Brighton was too close to Coney Island's seedier section immediately west of it.

The third and final big-time developer was Andrew R. Culver who ran a steam line to West Brighton shortly before Corbin and Engeman got their railroads started. His Prospect Park & Coney Island Railroad, called the Culver Line, terminated in 1875 at a spacious terminal on the ornamental Culver Plaza along Surf Avenue. It offered regular and speedy service to Coney Island for a 35 cent fare. However, it irked Gravesend's 2000 residents because Culver commandeered Gravesend Avenue, their original village road and its new $80,000 extension towards Brooklyn, to lay his tracks.

Opposite the station stood the 300 feet tall Iron Tower, a structure with steam elevators that wisked visitors to the top for a high view of Coney Island. Culver had purchased it from the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition. A Camera Obscura, which showed a panoramic view through a combination of lens and mirrors, also from the fair was installed nearby.

The Iron Pier Company owned by Buel T. Hitchcock, had leased a lot nearly opposite Culver Plaza. They built the New Iron Pier there in 1880, about 350 feet east of the Old Iron Pier. The company owned a fleet of side-wheeler steamships that brought passengers from Manhattan at twenty minute intervals during the summer tourist season.

The final syndicate to provide rail transportation to the island in 1879 built their New York and Sea Beach Railroad that terminated at their Sea Beach Palace. Their enormous combination terminal, restaurant and hotel that was moved from the 1876 World's Fair at Philadelphia, was located on Surf Avenue several blocks west of Culver Plaza. It boasted that it could accommodate 10,000 guests overnight and serve 15,000 diners at one sitting. Service began on July 18, 1877 and offered service between Coney Island and the 64th Street Pier and reached the Sea Beach depot in 1879. Their Bay Ridge dock was right next to Manhattan Beach's. Since they were the upstart railroad, they offered lower fares.

The Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad between Prospect Park and the Brighton Beach Hotel began service on July 2, 1878. The steam railroad was extended on August 19, 1878 to Atlantic Avenue and Franklin Street where it connected to the Long Island Railroad's mainline. However, the LIRR which owned the competing Manhattan Beach Railroad, terminated the trackage right agreement in December 1883. After losing its connection, the reorganized Brighton Beach Railroad began negotiations with the Kings County Elevated Company to route its trains downtown via the Fulton Street El. The El had been opened in 1888, and even then it didn't connect until the railroad was extended north from Bedford station (south side of Atlantic Avenue) to Fulton Street in 1896. The two companies felt that they could beat out their competition with through service to Coney Island. Service began in 1896 and shortly afterwards the Kings County El took control of the Brighton Line. The line was electrified and in 1899 it provided through trains to Park Row, and Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge.

There were no east-west transportation at Coney Island, or even a street until about 1890. You were supposed to use the railroad or ship that went to the section of Coney Island that you wanted to patronize. Since many of the railroads owned land on Coney Island, they wanted customers to use their amusements, restaurants, hotels and bathing pavilions. Profit wasn't so much in transporting tourists to Coney Island, but in the money they spent while on excursion or extended vacation.

Map of transportation routes to Coney Island in 1879.


Formation and operation of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT)

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company grew rapidly. It began with streetcars, then got the Brooklyn Elevated (all els except Fulton Street) before it gained control of the Kings County Elevated (Brighton Line). By 1900 it had merged the Kings County Elevated, the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad, along with almost every other railroad, elevated and streetcar line in Brooklyn into its public transit system. The exception was some of the Long Island Railroad's routes and the Coney Island and Brooklyn (streetcar). Between 1904 and 1908 there was a major upgrade to the Brighton Line and the line was elevated from the Fulton El connection, then ran in an open cut from north of Prospect Park to Newkirk Avenue. From there it ramped up to an embankment to Sheepshead Bay where the line descended to the ground for the last leg to Coney Island.

The West End relocated its terminal to 36th St in 1890, and shared it with the Culver line via new branch. This was the Union Depot, and it was now reached by elevated as well as by streetcars. Also about this time, a new ferry to 39th St opened, and the South Brooklyn railroad from it to near Union Depot allowed both West End and Culver trains to run from a New York ferry connection as a supplement to the Union Depot trains. LIRR acquired South Brooklyn and Culver circa 1895; ran a 39th St--So Brooklyn--Culver--Manhattan Beach routing for a few years.

The West End line was electrified in 1893; the Culver Line in 1899. Through service to the els by steam may have started circa 1895 (summer specials). Electric el service began in 1899 but was not the normal service until 1907. Circa 1900-1905, the Culver line saw a mix of: steam and electric el trains, steam and electric trains from 39th St, electric streetcars off various streetcar routes, and LIRR steam trains!

The New York and Sea Beach Railroad that operated between the Sea Beach Palace Hotel at Coney Island and the 64th Street Pier in Brooklyn was reorganized into the Sea Beach Railroad Company. The steam railroad was electrified in 1898 and in 1903, the BRT began through service between Bath Junction and Coney Island. Trolleys ran west of Bath Junction to the pier and later to a ramp near 3rd Avenue. In 1910 Sea Beach trains began terminating at West End depot.

The Sea Beach line was actually a secondary or extra service. Mainly it let trains bypassed a slow section of West End line through Bath Beach. Nonstops from the el to Coney ran over the Sea Beach. The main Sea Beach service was trains from Bay Ridge to circa 1900 and trolleys from the Third Ave streetcar line-- all the way to Coney, mixed with el trains.

Transportation to Coney Island in 1907

Surface (16 electric street cars lines)
Elevated (all have 5 cars / train)
Steamboat Service from Manhattan
  • Iron Steamboat Company - Iron Pier (to Steeplechase Pier after June 1911)
  • ??? Steamboat Company - Dreamland Pier

    Malbone Street Wreck & Bankruptcy of BRT

    One of the most tragic accidents in the history of metropolitan rapid transit occurred on the BMT's Brighton Line on the evening of November 1, 1918. A wildcat strike by motormen the night before forced management to use tower operators and other supervisory personnel as substitute motormen. One substitute operator, Anthony Luciano, with only two days training and not on the Brighton Line was driving a five car train headed towards Coney Island during rush hour. Since he was unfamiliar with the route, he didn't notice when he reached the junction of the Fulton Street El and the Brighton Line at Franklin Avenue that the signal was set for straight ahead instead of where he needed to go. He realized his error after crossing the Fulton Street junction, stopped the train, backed up, then took the proper turn.

    The train was now headed for Coney Island shortly before 7 P.M., but to make up time Luciano picked up enough speed to frighten the passengers. He sped down the incline so fast that he missed his stop at the Consumer's Park station. As he approached the Prospect Park station the train encountered a sharp turn before entering the tunnel. Signs warned the motormen that maximum speed was 6 MPH, but the train was travelling at least 30 MPH, perhaps as some survivors claim, much faster. None-the-less the train derailed on the turn as it approached the tunnel. The first car left the track a few feet from the opening of the tunnel and rammed one end of the concrete partition that separated the two tracks. The old wooden car was thrown at right angles across the roadbed in front of the tunnel entrance. The other cars cut right through it, smashing it to bits and either crushing or cutting its passengers to pieces as it was dragged 200 feet down the tunnel. The second and third cars, also wooden, left the rails after collision with the first and ran sideways into a series of iron pillars. The pillars cut great gashes into the sides of the cars and mowed down the passengers. As the left sides of the cars were stripped away, scores of people were flung by impact out of the cars against pillars and the concrete tunnel wall. Most of the passengers in the rear two steel cars escaped serious injury. They were packed so tight that the force of the shock was broken. The crash was heard up to a mile away by thousands who soon rushed to the scene.

    When police and firemen arrived to do rescue work they encountered difficult conditions in the narrow tunnel. But they managed to extract 85 bodies by 11 P.M. and dealt with over 100 severely injured passengers. No one survived from the first car and only a few from the second car. Eventually 97 people died in New York City's worst subway accident.

    The District Attorney ordered all who might be responsible arrested on manslaughter charges. That included the missing motorman and officers of the BRT; Col. Timothy S. Williams - president, John Dempsey - vice president, and several others. Police found Anthony Luciano at home in a state of shock. His story indicated criminal negligence in hiring him to run train. Asked why he took a job for which he was unfitted, he replied, "A man has to earn a living." Although general policy is that no man could run a train without three month's experience, he had received only two days instruction before running the wrecked train. The venue was ultimately changed for the various trials the following year and Dempsey was acquitted for responsibility of the wreck. Luciano, the motorman was also freed of manslaughter charges.

    While a grand jury convened to investigate transit evils, relatives of the wreck victims formed an organization, the Brighton Beach Survivors & Passengers Protective Association. Lawsuits by victim's families began to clog the courts as more than 50 claims were filed and approved. A board of arbitrators was set to fix the wreck cost and decide whether the city would pay half. Some urged that fares be increased to cover claims. While the first settlement to Mrs. Mooney for the death of her daughter was only $12,000, later settlements escalated to $55,000 with Mrs. Broeck and $140,000 for K. Amien for the death of his wife and his injuries. The BRT was soon bankrupt and reorganized in 1923 as the Brooklyn - Manhattan Transit Corporation, the BMT.

    Subway link of Manhattan with Coney Island

    During the "Dual Contracts" period of subway construction in the late teens, the surface part of the Brighton Line from Sheepshead Bay was elevated and increased to four tracks. The first section, between Sheepshead Bay and Ocean Parkway, opened on May 22, 1917. It was extended to West 8th Street on May 30, 1917, and to the new Stillwell Avenue terminal on May 29, 1919.

    Between 1913 and 1915 as part of the "Dual Contracts," the Sea Beach Line as it is known today, was built between Coney Island and the 4th Avenue Subway at 59th Street. This provided passengers with the fastest express route to Manhattan. The four track Sea Beach route, virtually all open cut, had no express stops between Coney Island and 59th Street. The new line began revenue service on June 22, 1915 and connected into the 4th Avenue subway and the first on the Manhattan Bridge. Sea Beach trains began using the new Stillwell Avenue terminal on May 30, 1919.

    The completion in 1919 of the subway to New York City, which enabled millions of city's poorer citizens to reach the seaside resort for only five cents (the BRT had charged ten cents prior to 1920), ushered in an era that became known in Coney Island as the "Nickel Empire." It was significant because it transformed the resort by imposing the tastes and financial means of the masses. Where Coney was visited primarily by the rich in the 19th century and later by the middle class, who could both afford the island's food and entertainment, this new group was different and poor.

  • Coney Island's subway and BMT elevated station opened in 1919.

    Transportation in the 1940's


    Four lines came directly to Coney Island. They were part of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Transit (BMT) syatem. Later in the 1950's the Independent (IND) line absorbed the old Culver elevated line. STREETCARS

    Reaching Coney Island via the BMT Today

    There are four subway lines to Coney Island. Cost is $1.50 each way.

    NOTE: This article was very difficult for me to research from my home in California and is likely full of errors, particularly with surface transportation (electric street cars) and ocean steamboats. If anyone who is an expert on Brooklyn's transit history, I would appreciate it if my errors are corrected.

    [Home] [History Articles] [Timeline] [Historic Maps] [Bookstore]