Coney Island’s nightmare: The Dreamland fire of 1911

Coney Island’s Dreamland attempted to bring exotic and mysterious wonders of the world to Brooklyn when it first opened in 1904. It was an extension of the famed Luna Park–a 50 acre amusement park designed to resemble Baghdad and filled with surreal, Byzantine-style architecture and bright circus colors. Dreamland was a cornucopia of 1 million flashy lights that were so bright, immigrants caught glimpses of the glowing Dreamland Tower before they even saw The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Luna Park boasted over 90,000 daily visitors, but Dreamland creator, William H. Reynolds, envisioned a retreat from the overcrowding which both glorified and marred New York City life at the turn of the century. Dreamland was a peaceful environment with inclined and broad open walkways. Steamboats starting from the Battery, 23rd street and Harlem, brought patrons directly to Dreamland’s piers. The famed tower was designed to resemble the Giralda from Seville, Spain. Dreamland depicted murals of scenes from around the world, like the Venice canals, the Swiss Alps, and the fall of Pompeii. It had quirky shows and theaters featuring thrilling bible-based and historical dramas and operas.

‘Fighting the flames,’ was a show in which people watched brave firemen save women and children from blazing tenements. That one proved most popular with Brooklyn audiences. It also had the Leap Frog railway-two electrical rail cars bounding along the same track threatened to collide.

Some of the Dreamland attractions were imitations of those in Luna Park, only with a Neoclassical flair. The creative spectacles were plentiful. However, most Coney Island enthusiasts felt that Dreamland was too leisurely for their tastes and the profits were weak.

Shortly after midnight, on May 27th, 1911, a fire erupted in Dreamland. It fed and gained strength on the flimsy woodwork and paper mache structures which enclosed the park. It burned for a full 2 hours before it was discovered around 2:10am. A Southward shifting wind halted the danger of the fire spreading to Luna Park and other buildings along Coney Island.

Sergt. Klinck from the Coney Island Police station realized that there were six Incubator babies trapped inside a building from one of Dreamland’s ‘oddity’ exhibitions. According to initial reports, he attempted to save them, but despite getting three babies out, it seemed the others had sadly perished. Happily, they were actually saved by the nurses and resident doctor.

Fireman and other volunteers tried their best to quench the flames, but their water supply was low and it was too far out of control. Wild animals from the Safari show were released from their cages and ran loose. It was soon decided that all the animals had to be shot down before they made mad dashes throughout Brooklyn. Thousands of onlooker crowded into the Tent of Creation to view the spectacle, only this time, it wasn’t part of the show. Flames licked around the Dreamland Tower and sent it crumbling to the ground in a flurry of sparks. By morning, Dreamland was reduced to rubble and would never be rebuilt again.

Coney Island, since its inception, is a constantly evolving amusement park that caters to the child-like and whimsical desires of New York’s citizens and thousands of tourists each year. Currently, for a $5.00 admission fee, visitors can explore a small weekend museum filled with memorabilia of Coney Island’s bygone days. In May of 2011, the museum began featuring a ‘Cyclorama’ of the Dreamland fire.

For anyone interested in seeing it, visit the Coney Island museum page for more information.

For an in-depth look on Dreamland’s full history, please read the fascinating article–‘Coney Island-Dreamland’ by Jeffrey Stanton.


4 thoughts on “Coney Island’s nightmare: The Dreamland fire of 1911

  1. Those incubator babies didn’t perish in the fire: they were evacuated by the resident doctor and nurses. The media initially reported that they died in the fire to sensationalize the event, but later redacted that story.

      • No problem — I’ve been on a Coney Island historical research spree for the last couple days, it’s such interesting stuff!

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