Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower
Late last year, I found myself driving home from Sunset Park, Brooklyn on a mild Sunday afternoon. The unseasonable weather stirred local residents of Bay Ridge to abandon TV images of NFL football games in favor of enjoying an afternoon of walking, jogging, bicycling or just relaxing on a park’s promenade overlooking Gravesend Bay. Driving on the Belt Parkway, on the opposite side of this park, I took in the scene then caught sight of the old Parachute Jump in the distance towering over Coney Island. I began to think about this now decommissioned landmark as the Belt Parkway steered me closer to this distinctive tower.
The Parachute Jump was designed to be the centerpiece for the amusement area at the 1939-1940 New York’s World Fair. Conceived by a retired navy commander, James H. Strong, he received a concession from the Fair Committee to build, assemble and operate the tower. The 1939 Fair guidebook described the ride:
Eleven gaily-colored parachutes operated from the top of a 250-foot tower enable visitors to experience all the thrills of “bailing out” without the hazard or discomfort.
Each parachute has a double seat suspended from it. When two passengers have taken their place beneath the chute, A cable pulls it to the summit of the tower. An automatic release starts the drop, and the passengers float gently to the ground. Vertical guide wires prevent swaying, a metal ring keeps the ‘chute open at all times, and shock-absorbers eliminate the impact of the landing. One of the most spectacular features of the
Amusement Area, this is also a type of parachute jump similar to that which armies of the world use in the early stages of actual parachute jumping.
Admission was 40 cents for adults and a quarter for children and the drop down took between 10 and 20 seconds. It was the delight of the fair and my mother and father, then an engaged couple, took delight in riding this phenomenon multiple times. Growing up, mom would regale me with stories about the fair and especially tales of this ride that both frightened and excited me. After the fair ended, the Tilyou family, who owned Steeplechase Amusement Park purchased the structure and re-assembled it at the boardwalk entrance to their Coney Island grounds christening it: Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower.
By the mid-1950s I began to travel to Coney Island with other local neighborhood kids. We’d venture by subway to swim at the beach or to explore the amusement areas behind the boardwalk. We rode the three roller coasters, the famous and still operational, Cyclone, and the Thunderbolt and Tornado. We rode the Bob-Sled, a short-thrill ride that performed just as its name implied, the Wonder Wheel, a gigantic Ferris wheel and a peculiar ride called the Virginia Reel. The Reel featured round cars where about six people sat in a circle facing each other. The car rode a chain to the top of a slope, then spun down a zigzag incline bruising as many parts of bodies as possible.
We visited Steeplechase Park but never got up enough nerve or the price of 75 cents to ride the Parachute Jump. Back then 75 cents was an exorbitant price especially when the Cyclone only cost a quarter. But in my head I thought, “Someday, I’m going to do it.”
Then one windy day, I looked up to see a couple trapped aloft beneath a parachute entangled in the wires. All they could do was sit there and wait until a hook and ladder arrived and the firemen could raise the main extension ladder high enough to rescue them. I was mesmerized by this spectacle and I don’t know what scared me more; watching them being trapped or their 200 feet climb down the ladder!
After experiencing the horror of that evacuation, it was beyond my nerve to consider a ride on the jump ever again.
Ironically, Steeplechase and its Parachute Jump closed in 1964, the same year that the successor to the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows Park. A popular swell of enthusiasm wanted to bring the jump back to the new fair, but Robert Moses, the Tsar of the 1964-1965 Fair, wanted no part of it or an amusement zone.
To this day it remains derelict yet a stately, well-maintained and freshly painted landmark; Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower.