I’ll admit when writing Shores of Chaos: Shipwrecked, I was driven by nostalgia for my love of all things related to the seashore. Two of those things are the boardwalk and seaside amusement parks. I personally have always loved walking up and down the boardwalks, looking for cool things to buy or fun games to play. Of course a walk to the beach is always nice too.
People have always found the seashore a fun retreat from their daily drudgery and Gilded Age Americans were no different. Prior to the 20th century, boardwalks began to pop up on the coasts. The Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey is the oldest beachside boardwalk in the United States and opened on June 26, 1870. The first boardwalk there was a temporary structure meant to keep sand out of the railroad cars and hotels. The boardwalk featured hotels, restaurants, and shops and later amusement piers were added.1 Other early boardwalks include Virginia Beach built in the late 19th century, the Ocean City boardwalk in Maryland that opened in 1900, and the Santa Cruz boardwalk that was meant to accommodate the public bathhouse.2
Another famous beach is Coney Island in Brooklyn. After the Civil War, it became one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in the US. Coney Island soon became the home to amusement rides such as the first roller coaster in the United States, carousels, exotic performers, a Ferris wheel, aquariums, and circuses. Soon whole parks such as Sea Lion Park, Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland Park opened, allowing Americans a weekend retreat.3
One place I do mention by name in my story is Old Orchard Beach. The town was settled in 1657 by Thomas Rogers and since that time has been a tourist destination in Maine. On July 2, 1898, the town opened a pier over 1800 feet long, offering concerts, dancing, lectures, and a casino. The pier was damaged and rebuilt several times over the years. Many famous people like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong have provided entertainment on the pier and it is now home to souvenir shops, restaurants, and a night club.4
Something you’ll often find on boardwalks or by the beach are ice cream parlors. In the 19th century, ice cream saloons were places where ladies could go without a male chaperon and not be looked down on. Ice cream parlors started off as little cafes that served ice cream, pastries, and oysters, but over time they became more opulent and served more dishes. They became popular destinations for women after shopping so that they could exchange some local gossip or meet with a secret lover. Many parlors were decorated in an ornate manner with plush seats, marble fireplaces, countertops, and floors, mirrored walls, and ceiling frescos; all meant to resemble a home atmosphere, hence why they were called “parlors.”5
I’ll give a little bit of history on amusement rides themselves. Carousels find their origins in a 12th century training game. The word carousel comes from the Italian carosella, meaning “little war.” In the 1100s, Arabian and Turkish troops would ride horses in a circle, throwing a perfume-filled clay ball between each other. If you didn’t catch the ball and it hit you, you would smell of perfume. In the 1400s, the French adopted this game. In one version, instead of throwing a ball, they would ride on wooden horses rotated by a pole and try to spear rings with their lances. In other versions, finely dressed knights and decorated horses would parade around in a circle in what was called “le carrousel.” This game maintained such popularity that by the 19th century, fairground carousels appeared for patrons. The modern day carousels we think of came about with Thomas Bradshaw’s steam-powered one in 1861. Soon other animals and mythical creatures that moved up and down were added to the rides. In keeping with their origins, the carousel animals were richly decorated like their medieval counterparts and early carousels added “catching the brass ring” as part of the fun. When carousels came to the United States, they became bigger and more elaborate, especially when German immigrants arrived who were adept at carving the horses.6,7
The first Ferris wheels appeared in the early 1600s in Europe and were known as “pleasure wheels.” George W. Ferris created a large ride that would bear his name for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This Ferris Wheel was 250 feet in diameter and had 36 cabins that could hold 60 people each.1 The roller coaster has its origins in the ice slides of Russia which were popular from the 1600s on. The French took the idea and called them “Russian Mountains” in the 1800s. In 1884, the first “switchback railway” was introduced at Coney Island in which riders would go down an undulating track in carts. The ride was improved over the decades so that a chain lift hill was included and the ride included one singular, continuous track. The first looping coaster was built in 1898 and did not have the safety mechanisms or proper design in place that modern coasters have. The first successful looping coaster was made of steel in 1975.6
- “Atlantic City’s First Boardwalk- June, 1870” by the Library of Congress, posted on atlantic-county.org
- “The 20 Most Iconic Boardwalks in the US” by Zoe Miller and Frank Olito, for Insider. Aug. 5, 2020.
- “Coney Island” by Monica Shenoda for the History of New York City blog from Shu.edu.
- “History of Old Orchard Beach Pier” by travelMaine
- “The Ornate Ice Cream Saloons that Served Unchaperoned Women” by Jessica Gingrich for Atlas Obscura. June 22, 2018.
- “A Bit of Amusement Ride History” by Greg-Chris Shaw, 2000
- “The Dizzy History of Carousels Begins with Knights” by Kat Eschner, July 25, 2017 for Smithsonian Magazine