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Hell Gate: The Coney Island attraction that led its riders to hell

In 1905, Coney Island visitors experienced the newest – and most unusual – attraction of the Dreamland amusement park. After paying 10 cents to ticket vendors in red robes and horned hats, they stood in front of an open-faced building with a huge, red, winged satan figure. Under his scowl, they watched the drivers squeeze into open boats in front of them and descend towards the center over an increasingly narrow 50-foot whirlpool until the boats surprisingly came disappeared– apparently swallowed by the water of the gate.

When it was their turn, the drivers eagerly handed in their tickets and got on the boats to find out for themselves what was underneath.

The trip was Hell Gateand it was a star in Dreamland̵

7;s second season – one of several attractions and improvements that Dreamland founder William Reynolds had spent $ 500,000 to improve nearby Luna Park. Hell Gate sat caddy corner of creation, a ride that took visitors through the events in the first chapter of Genesis. (Dreamland took this ride, which had debuted at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, to New York for $ 250,000.)

It may seem a little strange to have religious rides in an amusement park, but according to Alex Delare and Jonathan Anderson, who are walking tours of New York as The History Couple, there was a very good reason why Dreamland chose them. “Amusement parks like Dreamland did these religious rides that represent Judeo-Christian values ​​because New York City would otherwise have closed the show,” they told Mental Floss via email. “At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City had very strict laws that only religious or educational events could take place on a Sunday. Since Sunday was the only day when people were free, it was the busiest day of the week in Coney Island. If the owners of the park wanted to make a profit, they had to have attractions that the city would allow, so all shows are religious. “

While Luna Park tried an attraction that simulated hell, she called Night and morning (The riders entered a coffin-shaped room that was “sunk” into the ground. At this point, one side of the coffin fell off as they went on a tour of life after death.) They were more likely to become educational attractions to tend. or shows where adults felt like children again. Dreamland, however, “went above and beyond with these shows,” said Delare and Anderson. “In this way, their patrons could start their day in the Garden of Eden, see the Apocalypse, and end in hell. They turned morals into a money cow.”

Hell Gate was owned by a showman named William Ellis and 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 opening Hell Gate … Is due to the complex machine requirements, ”says the New York Tribune Explain: “There are so many mechanisms involved in the operation … it took longer than expected to assemble the various parts.”

Once it was open, about a month later, Hell Gate quickly became an attraction to be seen. On June 27, 1905 in Brooklyn The Standard Union wrote: “Of the two water rides in Dreamland, one of the most popular is the ‘Venice Canal’ or the ‘Hell Gate’. The latter is the newest and newest and attracts crowds. “

The press was exuberant in her praise. The Harrisburg Telegraph called the trip “amazing and unique” while The New York Times noted that it “competes with all other water attractions. Since the opening … the attraction has been astonishingly popular, and there are crowds nearby. “

As soon as they disappeared through the gate, the drivers stormed “down a slope into a spray fountain that shouldn’t get the adventurer wet” The sun. A canal led the boats through dark gypsum caves full of stalactites and stalagmites.

Theodore Waters explained how Hell Gate worked in the July 8, 1905 edition of Harper’s Weekly:

“The ‘pool’ is just a spiral tub made of wood and iron, through which the water transports the boats to the middle, where the slope suddenly drops and they can slide under the outer edges of the spiral into an underground channel, which follows a winding course under the building. There are scenes … which are supposed to confirm the popular idea of ​​the interior of the earth. “

“When the audience above wondered what happened to the boat,” Waters wrote, “the passengers have experienced a lot of underground horrors and are being shot to the surface by one side of the pool.”

For the second season Hell Gate have several upgrades. Not only was the trip extended, but there was also a fleet of new boats, new hydraulic effects, and increased capacity. Even the hot tub was faster. This was part of the amusement park strategy at the time. “There was a philosophy that many of the Coney Island Showmen followed – if their attraction did not pay for itself in the first year, you should get rid of it. They kept updating the trips to keep things fresh and to get tickets.” Delare and Anderson say. because Hell Gate It is safe to assume that it was a money earner. Its popularity even served as inspiration for another trip that first took place in 1906 The end of the world.

When the Italian explorer Duke of Abruzzo visited the park in 1907, he “took a break … to catch his breath” Hell Gate “and then lost the hot tub again,” said the New York Tribune. In the same year, Maxim Gorki wrote what appears to be the only description of what actually happened in the tunnels under the hot tub The Independent [PDF]. The riders saw Satan and rubbed their hands for joy. They watched demons drag people – a girl admiring herself in a new hat; a man drinking whiskey; a girl who steals some money from a handbag – into a trough that releases gray steam and flaps tongues from a red paper fire. Before the end of the trip, they received a speech about good behavior, which, according to Gorki, was given by a man who spoke “monotonously, tired” and “did not seem to believe what he was told to preach”. Then an angel appeared and sent Satan “[diving] like a fish in the pit for sinners. You hear a crack, the paper stones are thrown down and the devils run away happily to recover from their work, “wrote Gorki.

For years, Hell Gate frightened and enthusiastic visitors to Dreamland. And then, in 1911, the journey that caused hell literally went up in flames.

Workers feverishly prepared the trip for the start of the decorating day (now Memorial Day) in the season when the lights in the tunnels of the trip exploded at 1:30 a.m. and submerged the area in darkness. Some tar – the loud one Times Unionwas used to “create a miniature hades that would attract patrons’ attention as they passed in the boats” – caught fire, and the fire soon raged out of control. The water pressure at the hydrants in the park was too low for firefighters to stop the fire, which burned almost everything in its wake from West 5th Street to West 10th Street and from Surf Avenue to the ocean.

Delare and Anderson: “When the park caught fire, it was a spectacle in itself. Everyone in Coney stopped what they were doing to see Dreamland burn down.”

No human lives were lost in the inferno, but rather Hell Gate A fire, along with 50 other companies, destroyed virtually all of Dreamland and caused approximately $ 5 million in damage (approximately $ 135 million today). The park was not rebuilt; The smaller companies weren’t in the flames either.

Luna Park and Steeplechase, Dreamland’s two main competitors in the amusement park, remained intact, but things changed on Coney Island after the inferno. “There was a change in the entertainment culture of Coney Island – large productions like creation began to disappear and more and more dance halls, bars, salons, cinemas and other ‘cheap amusements’ moved in, “say Delare and Anderson.” Coney began taking care of low-income neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and appealing to a new generation of New York youth. The children came, made appointments, made out and went back to Manhattan at the end of the day. “

Finally, Hell Gate lived up to its name and turned one of Coney Island’s most popular tourist attractions into a smoldering pile of ashes and rubble – and helped change the structure of Coney Island itself.

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