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"Coney Island is a Jonah"

Jan 11, 2010 4:35 PM | 0 comments

In 1867, Kings County celebrated the opening of Ocean Parkway, which connected Prospect Park with the Town of Gravesend.  The Parks Commission owned the small patch of land where the Parkway met the Atlantic Ocean.  The land, known as Ocean Concourse Drive, straddled the barrier between Coney Island and the more respectable Brighton Beach. Looking for revenue, the Parks Commission proposed that an aquarium should be built on the west end of the Concourse, believing an aquarium would "be a good thing to introduce the Island to civilization." 

New Map of Brooklyn including Kings Co., 1884

From 1877 to 1887, the Seaside Aquarium entertained and educated Coney Island's crowds.  Charles Reiche & Bros. already operated the successful New York Aquarium in Manhattan, so they were a natural choice for management.  But the pairing of public and private interests set in a neighborhood of risky business ventures made for a tumultuous story.

The aquarium was a 150 foot square building with a center canopy roof.  Few images of the aquarium remain, although Joy was able to help me locate this representation.  (Scroll down to the image with the title "1881 View Shows Vanderveer's Resturant & Bathing Pavilion, the Seaside Aquarium and a C.I.E.R.Y. train.") The Seaside Aquarium did not limit itself to aquatic life.  While it included whales, sea lions, seals and "every kind of fresh and salt water fish," it also housed giraffes, lions, tigers, monkeys, broncos, birds and reptiles. 

1880 Federal Census, Town of Gravesend, pg 4

The 1880 Federal Census listed the aquarium staff, which included a musician from Sicily, an exhibitor from Madagascar (whose parents' origin is listed as "Unknown"), a servant and housekeeper, several showmen and a lecturer who described himself as a "Lightning Calculator."  The fact that they appear together suggests that they boarded together -- possibly at the aquarium itself.  According to the New York Times, an employee at the aquarium in 1877 made $7 a week and spent $5 of that on room and board.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1877

Despite the variety of entertainments available, the aquarium was never successful.  As early as 1878, the Parks Commission was being questioned for its decision to use park land for private use.  The matter only became more problematic when the aquarium brought in acts that were more sideshow than cultural.  The aquarium boasted of the St. Benoit Twins who were conjoined at the hip and the "man with the elastic skin."  Still, the throngs of beachgoers did not come, and the new attractions made the aquarium "not of a character that should be tolerated or recognized by the [Parks] department."  Members of the Commission regularly called for its closing, but this was postponed so that the investors could earn back their losses -- an estimated $80,000.  The losses were never recouped and the Parks department publicly admitted that they had never profited from the venture.  In the spring of 1887, the building was torn down and it's lumber was sold at auction. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1887

Although the Times suggested that a new "source of profit" might be built in its place, the Parks Commission seemed determined not to tempt the Coney Island fates again.  Just before the aquarium closed, the Eagle wrote "Coney Island is a Jonah" - or a jinx that brings bad luck.  This certainly seemed to be true for the Seaside Aquarium, a place with grand dreams that is barely known to history today.