I can’t believe it’s been more than a year since the last entry in our Postcard series! Not much has found its way to us since then, but, yesterday, this awesome engraving was brought to our attention via eBay.
Titled “The New Iron Pier at West Brighton Beach, Coney Island,” the image was created by Charles Graham and published in Harper’s Weekly in 1879. It shows the New Iron Pier – not to be confused with the Old Iron Pier – erected in 1881 near what today is Surf Avenue and West 5th Street.
New York Times reported in April 1881 of the structure’s designs just a week after the contracts were awarded, writing:
The pier will … be built in the Swiss style of architecture. It will be 1,200 feet long, extending 200 feet further into the ocean than the present pier. The ends of the pier in shore and off shore will be 150 feet square, and the centre 60 feet wide. There will be a tower at each end 50 feet square at the base, and rising to a height of 100 feet above the water-line. Three balconies for sight-seeers will be connected with the towers. The entire pier will be roofed and there will be a ball-room, restaurants and spacious promenades. It will be lighted at night by electric lights, and the Ninth Regimental brass band and Arbuckle have been engaged to furnish music for the season.
Sounds like a ball! So what did the inside look like? Thankfully someone’s got a postcard that shows it:
Back then, of course, Coney Island’s piers weren’t just piers, they were attractions in themselves. The New Iron Pier, according to a Brooklyn Public Library fact page, held The New Brighton Theatre, “the most handsomest seaside theatre in the world,” which brought A-list stars like Belle Hathaway and her Simian Playmates, a popular vaudeville troop that featured monkeys and a baboon. The real attention-grabber in that act had the baboon catching plates thrown at him by Hathaway. The pier also included restaurants, sideshows and, heck, even a camera!
As Coney Island developed and became more condensed, the land around the pier was used for different things. Shortly after it was built, the sands next to it made for a fine bathing ground, and the train line ended nearly at its foot. A 1978 photographic collection of the Long Island Historical Society shows us how things changed.
Here it is circa 1895:
And then, 10 years later, all that wide open space is gone:
According to the published collection:
As the resort increased in popularity, numerous stands and amusements grew up around the pier. In the right foreground is the Dreamland Annex of actress Marie Dressler. At Dreamland, which adjoined the pier at right, Miss Dressler, down on her luck, sold popcorn and peanuts, assisted by small boys dressed as Mephistopheles. At the left is Balmer’s Baths. Photo: Geo. P. Hall & Son.
Regardless of all its amusements and attractions, the pier, of course, was first and foremost a landing for steamboats. An 1896 travel guide to American summer resorts said visitors could catch a vessel to the New Iron Pier from various points in Manhattan including Whitehall Street and West 23rd Street. The Iron Steamboat Company serviced visitors until 1932, but it began using the Dreamland pier. The Cony Island History Project has a reproduction of one of their schedules. I couldn’t find any information about when that transition happened, or when the New Iron Pier was dismantled/destroyed.
Here’s what one of those steamboats looked like:
Now here’s a few more photos I found:
In the one below, the tall structure to the right is the 300-foot-tall Iron Tower, which sported two steam powered elevators that brought visitors to the top for a bird’s eye view of the island: