Coney Island Parachute Jump
A BRIEF HISTORY
It is somehow ironic that the last surviving amusement in Coney Island's
Steeplechase Park has its origins not in some turn-of-the century inventors
workshop as so many rides did, but in the American military-industrial complex of
the 1930's. The Jump was originally designed not to amuse vacationers but rather
to train the men who would fight the next war.
The shift in military doctrine in the thirties
toward airpower and airborne infantry
- the paratrooper - made the question of parachute training critical. In-air jumps
were too time consuming and dangerous to waste on troops in the initial stages of
training. Some sort of jump simulator was needed. In Russia, they had been building such devices since the twenties. They were primitive affairs; simple wooden towers from which to jump off of. Jumpers were guided down by a single cable and frequently dashed against the side of the tower. In spite of this, the towers proved to be a popular recreational activity in parks and collectives across the Russian Empire. Retired Naval Air Commander James H. Strong had witnessed the training of paratroopers in Russia and considered the risks of such training devices to be unacceptable.
Spurred on as much by patriotism as by profit, he set off to design a safer jump for the American armed forces. Strong's design, patented August 7, 1936, included a strong steel tower with electric motors to tow the chute upwards and a series of 8 guide cables in a circular arrangement about the chute to prevent swaying and unpleasant contact with the tower. Various versions of his design were built on his estate in Highstown, NJ in 1936 - 1937. Much to Strong's surprise, he soon discovered that one didn't have to be a paratrooper to enjoy being flung off a 250 foot tower. Hundreds of passing motorists stopped to request rides. Spurred on by this favorable public reaction, he adopted his military design for general use. Shock absorbers were placed at the landing point "to ensure happy landings." The military style single sling seat was replaced with a more comfortable (and romantic) two passenger version. The chute was enlarged to a 32 foot diameter, 8 feet larger than standard military issue.
Strong sold military parachute jumps to several
parties, including the Romanian
and American armed forces (the U.S. Army still operates a Strong jump at Ft.
Bragg Georgia.) In 1937, Strong's company converted an existing 200 foot tall
observation tower at Chicago's Riverside Park into a six chute amusement jump
confusingly labelled the "Pair-O-Chutes." After a successful season of operation
in Chicago, Strong applied for a concession to build and operate a jump at the
1939 New York World's Fair. For the Fair, Strong designed a more graceful
version of the Riverside Jump, increased its height to 250 feet and included
rigging for 11 (later 12) chutes. The LifeSaver's Company provided $15,000 in
sponsorship and colorful lighted LifeSaver's candy rings that dotted the length of
the tower. Although financially successful, the Jump was plagued with technical
failures. On several occasions, riders were suspended aloft for hours when a
chute tangled in the cables. On July 12, 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Rathborne
were suspended 150 feet above the ground for five hours while jump employees
attempted to free their chute. They went for another ride the very next day, likely
at the urging of worried Fair publicity agents.
The most bizarre incident at the Jump occurred on August 25, 1940: the "Parachute Wedding" of Arno Rudolphi and Miss Ann Hayward. As photographers, the wedding party and band looked on from other chutes, the couple wed, kissed and went into freefall. Fair exhibitors loaded the newlyweds down with gifts and the next day, headlines proclaimed "No Man On Earth is Good Enough for Ann."
At the close of the Fair in October, 1940, the Jump was purchased by the Tilyou family of Steeplechase Park for the extraordinary price of $150,000. The family hoped to cash in on publicity from the World's Fair. In fact, the ride did very well
during the war years, when the public fascination with military gadgets ran high. But interest waned in such things after the war and the Jump was too labor intensive (it required three operators for each chute) and sensitive to wind conditions to turn a profit without steady crowds. Still the ride operated through the fifties and sixties. An attempt was made by the Tilyou's to sell it to the Japanese, but the disassembly and freight costs proved to be far greater than the selling price. Steeplechase Park itself closed after the 1964 season, bought and razed by Fred C.Trump for housing that was never built. But the Parachute Jump survived, presumably saved by the ever increasing cost of demolition that had kept it at Coney since 1941. The Jump continued to operate until 1968, part of a group of small scale rides operated on the now nearly vacant lot.
From 1968 on, the Jump was essentially left to rust in the salt air. In 1971, the New York City Parks Department put the Jump up for sale. No bids were received. Plans were prepared for its demolition. "Any New Yorkers who have a nostalgic feeling for the parachute jump had best take a look at it, because it will soon disappear from the horizon," said the city's Real Estate Commissioner at the time. Meanwhile, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce filed a proposal calling for landmark status and conversion of the tower to "A Beacon of Welcome, the Steeplechase Parachute Light." It took over four years for the landmarks commission to hold a hearing. On July 12, 1977, the Jump was declared a city landmark. Unfortunately, the city Board of Estimate overturned the designation, concerned that preservation of structure was "a luxury we can not afford." Threats of demolition were once again made, but a price tag of $250,000 and public outcry scuttled the idea.
For the next five years, the Jump was ignored, again left to rust in an empty lot. In 1982, a major structural survey concluded that the Jump was fundamentally sound but suggested a half-million dollars in stabilization work to be done. No work was done. In 1988, the Parachute Jump was declared a city landmark for a second time, surely some sort of record. This time the designation stuck, but by then the structure had deteriorated even further, prompting one reporter to write "it is scarier now to stand under it than it ever was to ride it."
The nineties brought new threats of demolition. The Buildings Department found the tower structure to be unsafe. Stabilization costs were now estimated to be more than $800,000. Fred C.Trump, apparently intent on finishing the destruction he had started 25 years before, offered $400,000 if the Jump was torn down. But the city had no choice; the structure was a landmark and had to be preserved. Work began in early 1992. An unsafe concrete platform was demolished. Corroded steel members were replaced. Dangling guide cables that once swung menacingly in the wind were removed. The Jump was painted, for the first time in at least 25 years, in its original colors.
Despite its arrival
at the end of Coney Island's era of greatness and its non-amusement origins, the Jump is
very effective as a monument to all that
Coney once was. And with its new coat of paint, fresh steel and landmark status, the Steeplechase Parachute Jump seems ready for another 25 years.
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