“Harlem’s Coney Island has one great advantage over Everybody’s Coney Island, and that is it costs only a nickel to get there. Every nickel means a glass of beer or a frankfurter, and every East Sider knows the value of a nickel. That is one great reason why Fort George is popular.” -The Sun, August 13, 1905
In 1895, on the same spot where George Washington and his band of Revolutionaries defended a British assault after the Battle of Brooklyn, a glorious and magnificent amusement park rivaling Coney Island opened near the northeastern end of Manhattan.
The Fort George Amusement park was located in what is now the northernmost end of Highbridge Park between 190th and 192nd Streets and Amsterdam Avenue.
During its heyday this Gotham wonderland would boast two Ferris wheels, three roller coasters, nine saloons, a pony track, several hotels, a casino, five shooting galleries, a tunnel boat ride, two music halls called the Star and the Trocadero, fortune tellers and more frankfurters, peanuts and pretzels than you can imagine.
Located at the end of the Third Avenue Trolley line, the park was a natural and popular destination for locals and residents throughout the city. While the children rode the massive Ferris wheel or took to the Toboggan slide adults could gamble the night away before renting a room in the Fort George Hotel and Casino to celebrate their winnings, or more likely, mourn their losses. There were even areas in the park where, for a fee, Mom and Dad could drop the kids off in a supervised playground setting, while they went off to enjoy “The Human Ostrich” or “The Cave of Winds.”
Initially a loose and disorganized strip of sideshows the park became something truly spectacular under the leadership of Joseph Schenck (left) and his brother Nicholas. The brothers, Russian Jews who immigrated to New York from the ancient Slavic settlement of Rybinsk in 1893, first came to the park as curious visitors. Realizing the fortunes to be made they quickly invested in a beer hall called The Old Barrel.
It was in the Old Barrel that the Schnecks likely met another entrepreneur named Marcus Loew (right) , a park regular who had already amassed a small fortune with a string of theaters and penny arcades. (Loew would later become a Hollywood power-broker heading a theater chain that still bears his name.) Borrowing money from Loew, the brothers Schneck were soon able to open several thrill rides in an area of the park known as Paradise Park.
In a June, 1941 edition of Liberty Magazine, found by New York Wanderer Ben Feldman while rummaging around in a Tennessee junk shop, details of the early days of the park begin to emerge:
“One hot Saturday afternoon in 1905, Joe Schenck, then about twenty-six, took a trolley ride up to Fort George, the highest point on Manhattan Island. That was quite the thing to do in those days–ride to the end of the car line up there to cool off. When Joe arrived he found more than a thousand other New Yorkers strolling about enjoying the breezes. He noticed that there were a beer parlor or two, a couple of shooting galleries, and some tintype stands, and he quickly concluded that this was insufficient entertainment for all those people. He began to talk to some of them, inquiring if they would come up nights, as well as Sundays, if Fort George offered a dance hall, a merry go-round, and other attractions like those at Coney Island. Everybody he questioned said “You bet!” or words to that effect.
Joe took a lease on a small one-story building at Fort George that could be reached only through an alley. He constructed a cheap dance floor in the rear and turned the building into a saloon. He hired an orchestra and an unknown singer named Nora Bayes, put tables around the dance floor, and then waited. But the people just wouldn’t go through the alley, not even through a big sign that proclaimed: “Beer and Dancing in Rear.”
What would be most likely to entice the public? It was brother Nick who suggested that a picture would be better than printed words. Joe hired a man who painted scenes on mirrors behind the bars to make a garish-colored wooden cutout of a huge beer schooner with the foam on the amber contents. The schooner, lighted up at night, could be seen from a distance, and it drew the thirsty in droves. The result was that by summer’s end Joe Schenck had cleaned up several thousand dollars.
Early in the spring of 1906 Joe and Nick began construction of what they called Paradise Park. On a Saturday afternoon in May, they were all set for the opening. They weren’t as enthusiastic as they might have been. After the merry-go-round and the other equipment had been installed, mostly on credit, they had realized, to their horror, that it would be necessary for the public to climb fifty-six steps to get to the park after leaving the trolley cars. They had been so engrossed in building the park on a high, cool spot that they had entirely overlooked that seeming drawback.
The brothers held their breath as the first of the Saturday-afternoon crowd began to spill out of their cars. When the visitors saw the amusements up there ahead of them, many were so eager that they took the fifty-six steps two at a time. The next day, Sunday, the same thing happened, and the Schencks knew that their fears about the steps had been unfounded. “And so,” Joe told me, “when we found the public didn’t mind the steps, we put a turnstile in–quick–right at the fifty-sixth step, and charged them ten cents admission. We hadn’t dared do that before.“
Some New Yorkers had such fond feelings for the park that it became a popular spot for wedding proposals. In fact, in June of 1907 nineteen-year-old Susan Pierce and Raymond Barrett went so far as to tie the knot on the skating rink where they met. The bride, bridegroom and minister all donned roller skates for the nuptials.
It was a first for the park and likely a first for New York. After exchanging vows some 500 couples joined Susan and Raymond on the rink to skate to the popular “Love Me and the World is Mine,” before the happy couple skated off to Atlantic City for their honeymoon.
But as the years passed, neighborhood sentiment towards the park soured.
Initially a boon for the local economy, local residents and real estate developers grew tired of the noise, the drunken crowds and the crime that came to be associated with the park.
“One thing that has always hurt Fort George is the reputation it has had for being a tough resort. It deserved this reputation to a certain extent, but its toughness was not due to the businessmen there. It got its bad name from some of the people who went there and from the inactivity of the police“.(The Sun, August 13, 1905)
Reforms were promised by then Police Chief William McAdoo, but even the Chief was at a loss to explain why this family establishment had become a magnate for the criminal element. According to the Sun, “He could not understand why so many holdups occurred at and near Fort George. In one night there were four.”
McAdoo soon established a “dead line” of officers every evening at midnight to scour the woods in the hopes of flushing out highwaymen and other assorted criminals.
McAdoo, as well as the reporter for the Sun, largely blamed the out of control environment on race-mixing.
According to the Sun, “Fights between negroes used to be of nightly occurrence. They overran the whole place and did pretty much as they pleased.”
McAdoo, put a Sergeant Corcoran in charge of “cutting down on negro attendance.” He also laid down the law with the owners of two concert halls “frequented by the negroes.”
The Chief threatened fines, jail time and loss of liquor licenses to owners who did not comply.
African Americans surely felt the sting of the Chief’s comments—their attendance plummeted from 2,000 to 300 a night.
Wrote the Sun, “The color line is drawn pretty strongly now at Fort George. There is one section of it that is patronized almost solely by negroes. There is a merry-go-round that is almost exclusively by them.”
McAdoo attempted maintain order amid the gamblers, swindlers, palm readers, megaphone men as well as run of the mill drunks and brawlers, but his reforms had little effect. The park remained a noisy and dangerous place.
By February of 1910, distressed neighbors demanded the music halls and saloons be abolished to make room for a public park.
Local historian and neighborhood activist Reginald Pelham Bolton led local residents in the fight against park. Then president of the Washington Heights Taxpayers’ Association, Bolton paid the resort a visit and reported his findings to the New York Herald:
“Our chief hope, of course, is that the force of public sentiment and the revelations of the evils that exist because of these resorts will decide the city to condemn the property and convert it into a park.”
“After and inspection of some of the resorts I can scarcely believe that the authorities will allow them to continue under present conditions,” said Mr. Bolton. “I have in mind one place where there is only one exit, and in case of fire all of the four or five hundred persons who are in the place would scarcely be able to escape.” (New York Herald, February 28, 1910)
On December 10th, 1911, an arsonist took public sentiment into his own hands and attempted to burn the park to the ground.
According to news accounts an out of control inferno, fanned by strong winds, destroyed the Star Music Hall, the old Fort George Hotel, the dance hall of Paradise Park, a popular tavern and several smaller buildings.
The damage, estimated at $25,000, could have been much worse if not for the daughter of truck farmer Nicholas Ceramer whose cries of “Papa, look at the fire,” allowed her father to sound the alarm. Ceramer emerged from his cottage across from the park just in time to “see a Man about 5 feet 9 inches tall, of stocky build, wearing a black hat and overcoat, run out of the lower floor of the music hall to the south. He gave chase, but failed to overtake the man.“
Two years later, still healing from the scars of the arson attack, the park suffered a fatal blow at the hands of another suspicious fire.
On June 9th, 1913, a fire described as “the most spectacular ever seen,” engulfed the Fort George Amusement Park. At around two in the morning, Dominick Barnot, the night watchmen for Paradise Park saw that the dance hall was on fire. Barnot ran for help, but within ten minutes the fire, fueled by a strong westerly wind, had become an inferno. One-hundred foot flames seen as far south as 42nd Street were reported that night.
Firemen and concerned volunteers descended on Fort George, but “the firemen quickly saw that it was their duty to save the property near by and let the park burn…One by one the play places were consumed. The roller coaster was quick to go, and then the Ferris wheel. And after the wheel the merry-go-rounds, the roller skating rink, and all the other things the Schneck Brothers had installed for the entertainment of the public.”
Down, but not defeated, the Schencks moved their act across the Hudson River, where they soon opened the wildly popular Palisades Park in New Jersey.
And, while Paradise Park was never rebuilt, a generation would remember the glory days and smile knowing they had witnessed a now forgotten piece of New York history.