Coney Island bell rings again after a century

Restored Dreamland Pier bellOn May 27, 1911, the 500-pound bell that used to ring the arrival and departure of steamboat visitors to Coney Island’s Dreamland Pier sank below the waves along with the pier itself in a devastating fire.

There it remained in its watery grave until commercial diver and Coney Island native Gene Ritter recovered it last month.

The pier, and its artifacts, were thought lost forever until Gene Ritter, a professional diver in Brooklyn, discovered remnants of Dreamland in 1990. Many dives later — in the warm, clear water of an afternoon last November — Mr. Ritter and one of his diving partners, Louie Scarcella, found the bell. It sat 25 feet down, upright but tilted slightly in the sand, Mr. Ritter said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said.

The bell was lifted from the sea with inflatable bags last month and towed to the Gateway Marina on Flatbush Avenue. It was then hauled by crane onto land. The bell was in good condition and had mostly “resisted marine growth,” said Mr. Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Mr. Ritter said he wanted to return to the dive site in a bigger boat to check for other items. “Every single artifact we find will stay here,” he said. “They belong to the people.”

The Dreamland Pier bell after it was pulled up from the ocean floorIt was in great condition when he found it. The bronze finish was looking a little green around the gills, but there were no severe incrustations or rust. The inscription on the bell — a dedication to trapeze artist and founding member of the Gregory Brothers Circus James Gregory, plus the casting date of 1885 — looked pristine. They even managed to ring it and it still sounded good after living 25 feet deep under the Atlantic for 98 years.

Now the bell has been lovingly restored and is on display at the Brooklyn Borough Hall. It’s the only major artifact to survive the devastating 1911 fire. The 1,200-foot pier itself was iron so just sort of melted into the ocean. The Dreamland park ended up a twisted pile of rubble.

The fire began in the Hell Gate ride where boats were drawn down into a swirling pool. Some workers doing late night roof repairs before the season was to open the next day dropped a bucket of hot tar when some light bulbs burst. The sparks ignited the tar and next thing you know, the Hell Gate ushered in an inferno.

A panorama of Dreamland Park after the fire

That stump in the middle of picture was all that remained of the Dreamland Tower, a 375-foot tower decked out in 100,00 lights that could be seen from Manhattan back when even the tallest structures were just 10 stories high. Look how pretty it was lit up at night:

Dreamland Tower at night

For more about Dreamland Park and the fire, see this fantastic essay.

6 thoughts on “Coney Island bell rings again after a century

  1. I am constantly excited by how the Edwardians amused themselves, especially in summer. I have written plenty of times about beach pavilions like Bexhill on Sea, Lido Land near Brighton, Universal Exhibitions, outdoor bandstands, pleasure gardens etc – and still love the topic.

    But Coney Island’s Dreamland Pier is new to me, as was its tragic fire. Dreamland Tower, the very tall tower decked out in all those lights, looked sensational. I can imagine the excitement of Edwardian visitors, the first time they saw the magical atmosphere.

    Art and Architecture, mainly

    1. Oh, you simply must read the linked essay. It’s packed full of pictures of Dreamland Park and it’s truly an Edwardian wonderland. It was only in operation between 1904 and 1911, so it fits right into the era.

      There was a midget village where 300 little people lived, incubator babies on display before incubators were accepted in hospitals, the Hell Gate ride, a double water chute, a circus, a variety of freaks, you name it.

  2. I had never heard of Dreamland Pier either, though I do love old amusement parks. I think it’s fantastic the bell is in good shape and on display.

    At least the loss of this one can be chalked up to mishap. Historic Elitch Gardens, in Denver, built a new park at another site and redeveloped the historic park. They demolished Colorado’s first roller coaster, the Wildcat, rather than move it. Denver ain’t Orlando, the whole reason Elitch’s was cool was the history.

    Sorry to go off on a tangent, it just reminded me.

    1. Not a tangent at all. I’m afraid Coney Island has suffered from really poor development choices as well. The most notorious recent scandal was when Guiliani had the famous Thunderbolt coaster demolished in the wee hours of the morning because the Keyspan Energy corporation — who had bought the naming rights to a stadium on Coney — wanted the line of sight unimpeded and the coaster was in the way.

      To be fair, it was no longer in functioning condition but still. Most anything can be restored if you give a crap.

    1. How wonderful! I know there’s been mention of a traveling display that would bring the bell to Coney (among other places), so here’s hoping it has the riotous homecoming it deserves. 🙂

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