Most of you who waste your precious time reading me know I grew up in Brooklyn and, from the time I was 14, lived in a tiny “bungalow” on a dirt street on the outskirts of Coney Island.
Yes. We were poor; but we always had a roof over our heads, food on the table and hand me down clothes to wear. Poppa, with his 8th grade education, busted his ass until he died to make sure we always had the absolute necessities of life.
Coney Island at the time was much different than it is today. It went through a period of severe decline during the sixties and is now in a bit of a renaissance. It was once a place where kids could go both for the beach and the amusement rides.
And the place to go in the fifties was Steeplechase Park.
And the ride to ride in those days was the parachute jump.
Parachute jump you say? Well let me describe it for you from first hand experience. Remember this was the fifties and the parachute jump could not exist today in this age of “safety” and litiginous customers.
The parachute jump was originally built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was a major hit. After the fair closed the “ride” was purchased by George C. Tilyou, owner or Steeplechase Park, moved to Coney Island and reassembled.
So what was this “ride” all about.
“The ride was based on functional parachutes which were held open by metal rings throughout the ascent and descent. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprout from the top of the tower, each of which supported a parachute attached to a lift rope and a set of surrounding guide cables. Riders were belted into a two-person canvas seat hanging below the closed chute, then hoisted to the top, where a release mechanism would drop them, the descent slowed only by the parachute. Shock absorbers at the bottom, consisting of pole-mounted springs, cushioned the landing.”
The tower was 250 feet high, about the height of a 25 – 30 story office building.
You and your girl sat in a flimsy canvas seat hanging below a real parachute, held open by guide wires. You were “strapped in” to the flimsy canvas seat – nothing between you and your girl. If I recall there was a flimsy little stick across your thighs to hold on to.
You were then raised on a guide wire up to the top of the tower, screaming in your cheap canvas seat – up 250 feet. When you got the top “you were released”; actually the mechanism dragging you, your girl and your parachute up the guide line would strike the top of the tower with a loud thud.
For a second you were bounced up and weightless, sitting in your canvas seat.
You and your girl were then dropped – with only the parachute slowing your fall.
And that ‘chute didn’t slow you down much!
Screaming your lungs out, you would hit the bottom and be stopped by shock absorbers and springs – bouncing widely in the air in your canvas seat until you finally stopped.
The official 1939 Fair guidebook describes 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 places 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 the armies of the world use in early stages of training for actual parachute jumping”
It would take about a minute to drag your asses to the top of the tower and the fall might take ten or twelve seconds, during which time your heart would stop beating.
The Jump, which attracted as many as half a million riders annually, was described as “flying in a free fall”. Occasionally, riders could get stranded in mid-air or tangled in cables and stuck for hours. Nevertheless, the ride was fickle and subject to shutdowns on windy days,
As Coney Island went into decline, Steeplechase Park and the Parachute Jump were closed for good in 1964. There was a great deal of discussion in New York about what to do with the tower Eventually it was designated a national landmark, repainted, rehabilitated and restored.
Considering safety standards today, rest assured the ride will never re-open.
It was a time when you would take your girl up, hold your girl close ‘cause she was so scared and perhaps even get a glimpse of her thighs during the fall as the wind blew up her skirt.
Those were very good years.