AUGUST   2020


Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I want to tell you something about fame and fortune. They beat the heck out of obscurity and poverty. As proof I give you the life of the “fearless frogman”, Paul Boyton, the Victorian era’s Esther Williams and a newspaper editor’s dream. He lived on adrenaline and publicity. One commentator described him as having a  “…gift for gab, lust for life, and the pluck to take great calculated risks.” And his life reads like a comic book adventure hero.
At 15 Paul joined the U.S. Navy during the civil war. He formed a life saving service on the New Jersey coast, and pulled 71 swimmers back from the brink of death. Fifty years before the first swimmer made it, Paul paddled across the English Channel while floating in an inflatable rubber survival suit. He met Queen Victoria and floated down most of the rivers of Europe. The Italians labeled him “L’uomo pesce” – the fish man. The government of Chile charged him with espionage. He wrote two autobiographies. He was a star in P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. His image was used to sell cigars, calendars, music and playing cards – so many items that a new word had to be invented to describe his popularity; “Boyton-mania”. For some thirty years the “Captain”, as his friends called him, was the most famous man in the world. And ultimately, like all the other great forces of nature, Paul Boyton came to Coney Island.
In 1895, when Paul Boyton stepped off the train from Chicago, his sly but unapologetic mustache was still brown. But at 48, he was getting too old to risk his life four times a day for ten cents a ticket. But Paul had arrived in Coney Island with a new idea, something he had developed at the Chicago Columbian Exposition, in 1893. It was to be called an “Amusement Park”.
It is human nature to be attracted to novelty. And after the Civil War, as the population of New York City approached 3 ½ million, the occupants began to look for a way to escape, at least for a few hours.
Steam powered rail lines spread out from the city, carrying the wealthy to summer mansions and genteel racing tracks on the Long Island sea shore.
Luxury hotels sprang up in Brighton and Manhattan Beaches to house their middle class pretenders. The imitative working masses followed, and were transported at 35 cents a head by excursion boats from the Manhattan docks or the newly electrified rail lines from Brooklyn, (or “Breukelen” in the original Dutch).
In the spring of 1884, James Lafferty spent $65,000 to build a hotel on the empty stretch of sand known as Coney Island, just across Surf Avenue from the boat pier and the railroad terminals. When finished, four months later, the wooden and tin inn stood seven stories tall and was constructed in the shape of an elephant.
Visitors climbed a stairwell in a rear leg to reach the reception desk in the abdomen. Visitors could get an elevated elephant’s eye view of the ocean for a penny. For the price of a full night's stay, a guest could sleep in the Shoulder Room, the Throat Room, the Stomach Room, or any of the other 27 bedrooms. The unusual structure quickly became an icon on Coney Island, a landmark, and people traveled all the way from Manhattan to be able to say they had “gone to see the elephant”.
But financially the hotel was a disaster. Within a few years Lafferty was forced to sell his poisonous white pachyderm of a public house to a Philadelphia syndicate. And the new owners were willing to switch to a more iconic business model.
The Elephant Hotel was converted into a bordello. And “going to see the elephant” acquired an entirely new iconic meaning. Still, it was a long train ride when you could “see the beast” a lot closer to home and save the 35 cents. So by the time the Captain arrived, although the Elephant hotel was still open, it was on its last legs.
Paul Boyton was attracted by the 16 cheap acres directly behind the failing hotel (the above photo was taken from the Elephant's hinie). There Paul  erected the greatest innovation so far in entertainment history; a fence - with a ticket booth at one end. By selling general admission tickets to his “Sea Lion Park”, which opened on Thursday, July fourth, 1895, Boyton kept his customers captive so he could sell them food and drink all day long, pulling in around $1,000 a day during the 90 day long season. And curiosity about the elephant behind the fence kept the customers lined up at the ticket booth.
Several times a day Boyton himself would appear to demonstrate his rubber suit, and to
feed four dozen hungry sea lions in the park’s central lagoon. The performance was described by the Lubin film studios, who were selling a 30 second Kinetoscope of the show to nickelodeon operators, as “a decided novelty”. Once the pinnipeds were sated, the “Shoot-the-Chutes” took over the lagoon.
Designed originally by Thomas Polk, for Boyton’s Chicago exhibition, it was a short but exciting ride. A flat bottomed boat was released at the top of a long ramp. Near the bottom, the ramp curved upward. This sent the boat and its passengers skipping across the lagoon. When the boat slowed, the onboard operator would then pole the boat to the landing. The passengers would be unloaded, before a cable pulled the boat back to the top of the ramp for the next joy ride.
In addition, inside the fence Boyton had the “Flip Flap Railroad”. This was a two seat two car roller coaster, and the first in the world to feature a complete 360 degree 25 foot tall loop. It was also the first to explore the physics of inverted amusements. Unfortunately the loop contained a minor design flaw. It was perfectly circular. And it turns out that this perfection delivered 12 g’s to the passenger’s necks, equal to the maximum endured by the astronauts during a Space Shuttle launch. The unprepared customers, sitting upright, suffered whiplash, blackouts, headaches, nausea, tunnel vision, and loss of balance for hours afterward, not the mention the joy of losing your lunch at thirty-five miles an hour while upside down. People paid just to watch the more adventuresome ride through the loop of the “Flip Flap”, but because of injuries the amusement did not last into the Park’s second season.
That year, to replace the nausea loop, Boyton added a mill ride and cages of live wolves. But at the end of that second season the park lost its landmark. On the Sunday night of September 27, 1896, the abandoned Elephant Hotel burned to the sand. Three years later, Boyton bought the property and replaced the elephant with a large ballroom. But he simply could not afford to add new rides year after year. And that was required to keep the curiosity level high enough to bring repeat customers behind the fence.
The breaking point for Paul arrived in 1902. That summer saw 70 days of cold rain out of a season of just 92 days. Buisness at Sea Lion Park that horrible summer has been described as "macrabe". Over the winter Boyton was easily convinced to lease the park to competitors, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, for 25 years.
They renamed the 16 acres “Luna Park”, built palaces and lit the place with electric lights (still a novelty to most people, even in New York City). But by then, Paul Boyton had retired from the limelight.
But his idea was developed by others, and soon Coney Island became crowded with amusement parks, fence touching fence, each competing with its neighbors for the customer’s nickels and dimes. Albert Bigalow Paine described Coney Island as where “the cup of gaiety and diversion overflows.” Thousands still went to the beach to frolic in the surf for free. But the high roller coasters, the parachute rides, the Ferris wheels and the joyful screams of patrons was a constant temptation for those masses to spend the quarter and go to “see the elephant” behind the fence.
Having spent half his life on such a quest, Paul Boyton was no longer curious enough to look. He bought a small home in Brooklyn and died in relative obscurity in 1924. He was 77 years of age. By then his invention had been passed on to future generations, who contiued to build fences around elephants. You, see in the entertaiment industry, the money is in the fence.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010


I guess the first irony was that if it had to happen, this was the best of all possible places and times for it to happen. It was a Saturday, so the streets around Washington Square Park, at the bottom of 5th Avenue and the junction of West 4th Street, were not as crowded as they would have been on a regular work day. That meant the rescue efforts were not slowed by traffic. The building in which the fire had been sparked was the ten story Asch Building, a modern “fire proof” structure. And the flames were born just after 4:30 p.m., so it was still daylight. The early spring darkness would have made the hell that was about to descend on lower Manhattan, just that much worse. It was March 25, 1911, and it was the best of all possible times and places for hell to be unleashed.
The first alarm was sent in from Box Number 289 on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just one block East of Washington Square Park. It was just 4:40 p.m. The fire at that moment was less than five minutes old. The alarm sounded at Company #18 on 12th street.
At the sound of the bells, the three horses on each unit began to move on their own from their stalls. In addition the lead horse in each team had been trained to pull ropes that opened the fire house doors. The fire horses were eager to answer the alarm. It was in their blood. Upstairs the firemen, just as eager, leapt to their lockers, pulled on their boots, baggy pants and great coats. By the time they were sliding down the brass pole all the horses were waiting in place beneath the traces, which were hanging from the ceiling. The traces were dropped onto the team’s backs and the crews slapped on the leather. Within moments the “steamers” (pumpers, able to produce 1,000 gallons of water a minute), the hook and ladder wagon (company #20, carrying the tallest extension ladders in the city - another piece of good luck), the hose wagon (company #72) and the supply wagons, with all their human  crews hanging on for dear life, were speeding their way toward Washington Square Park.
In a squat block-sized building at the junction of west 10th Avenue, West Side Avenue and Gransevoort Street, the same alarms sounded as well. Here, in the Granesvoort Pumping Station, was the city’s answer to the invention of the skyscraper; five Allis-Chalmers electrical centrifical pumps, able at the flick of a switch to send 300 gallons of water a minute into the pipes. The new High Pressure System was less than five years old and was designed to increase water pressure at each fire hydrant in the district from 25 to at least 90 pounds per square inch. In tests this system had been able to send a stream of water as high as a tenth floor of office buildings. As soon as the alarm sounded on this Saturday afternoon, the pumps were turned on. Within three minutes the lines were fully pressurized, before a single firemen had even arrived on the scene. But it was already too late.
It was 4:44 p.m.; four minutes since the alarm had been sounded - less than ten minutes since the fire had broken out.  As the first pumper turned the corner onto Greene Street (above), the horses, heading on their own toward the fire plug, reared and suddenly stopped. The firemen on board were almost thrown to the ground. One fireman dismounted to see what had spooked his horses.
He saw a bolt of cloth lying in the street. He moved to pick it up, before he realized it was a woman’s body, crumpled on the pavement.
As he stood in shock a second woman plummeted to the ground with a sickening thud. Looking up, the fireman saw smoke pouring out of the upper story windows. On the sidewalk and street were the bodies of previous jumpers. At about the same moment “Hook and Ladder Company # 20” had barely made the turn onto Washington Place, when the horses here also reacted with horror to the carnage on the street. Firemen grabbed blankets and nets, designed to catch people leaping out of buildings. But these women, some as young as 13, were dropping from the ninth floor. They ripped right through the fabric and thudded onto the concrete.
A few even landed on the doors covering service elevators. They smashed right through the steel and landed in the basement below. The rescue nets and blankets were useless.
As Fire Chief Worth arrived, firemen were leading their horses and pumpers through the rain of bodies into position. Chief Worth immediately sent in a second alarm. It was 4:48 p.m. As soon as the pumper and ladder units were in position, firemen disconnected the horses and led them to the safety of Washington Square Park, where they could be watered and calmed down.
Immediately upon their arrival fireman from Company 18 began to fight their way up the stairs against the stream of frantic civilians, pouring down. The firemen found fire on the 8th floor, and per their training, they stopped there to fight it. To have gone higher would have put them above the fire, a suicidal position in a building blaze.
But just one floor above them, the fast majority of victims were dieing, some leaping to their deaths as the flames began to engulf their clothing.
Outside, the ladder companies began to crank their extensions toward the huddled victims on the ninth floor ledges. But the ladders only reached to the seventh floor. The streams of water from the high pressure hoses, even with the aid of pumpers, could only manage to reach the sixth floor. The desperate women and girls, with the flames licking at their backs, and seeing salvation fall two stories short, stepped into space and dropped to their deaths. Some waited too long and fell like flaming meteors.
The corpses were pilling up on the street like discarded dolls. Some were so badly burned it was impossible to tell if they were male or female. Some were so broken by the fall that they could be gathered into bushel baskets and carted away.
Firemen were now dragging their high pressure hoses into the building and up the stairwells, hitting the fire directly. At 4:56 p.m. Chief Worth sent in third alarm. At 4:57 p.m. the last body thudded to the pavement on Greene street. By 5:10 p.m., when the fourth alarm was sounded, the fire was well out. As David Von Drehle has noted, “The entire blaze, from spark to embers, lasted half an hour.” (“Triangle, the fire that changed America”)
In that brief span of time the fire had killed 141 people, most of them seamstress for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fireproof building, true to its name, did not burn. Only the furniture and the people inside it did. The building still stands today.
It was a day in American history when everything went right. It was a day when 141 people died in less than 30 minutes. It was a day so piled with irony, it could have been fuel for the fire. 
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