Thrill of a Lifetime
Abandoned for almost 40 years, Coney Island's parachute jump rebounds with a $5 million renovation.
By Tricia Vita | Online Only | June 30, 2006
"That ride—there was nothing like it, before or since," says Charles Denson, a New Yorker who came of age riding the Parachute Jump with his dad in Coney Island's Steeplechase Park. "Just when you thought, 'It can't go any higher,' the chute hit the top and exploded. You were flying in a free fall. Then it billowed open and you sailed down."
Denson last soared from the parachute jump's 250-foot tower in 1962, two years before the great granddaddy of vertical-thrill rides, along with the rest of Brooklyn, N.Y.,'s economically troubled Steeplechase Park, closed forever.
Originally designed by a retired Naval commander to train military paratroopers in the 1930s, parachute towers were soon modified into amusement attractions when civilians clamored to ride. Coney Island's Parachute Jump first wowed visitors at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Afterwards, the ride became the star attraction at Steeplechase, the world-famous amusement park that opened on Coney's fabled shore in 1897.
Today, the jump's tower is all that remains of the park that once billed itself "Coney Island's Only Funny Place, Where 25,000 People Laugh at One Time." The city-owned landmark's proximity to the Brooklyn Cyclones' KeySpan Park, the successful minor league baseball stadium that opened in 2001, has given it a new lease on life.
In September 2002, preservationists welcomed the announcement that the long-unused steel tower was set for a $5 million structural refurbishment by the not-for-profit New York City Economic Development Corporation, under contract with the city. What generated giddy headlines, however, was Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's suggestion at a Sept. 26 press briefing that the Parachute Jump might be returned to operation with 21st-century technology.
The idea is tantalizing, since Coney's other landmarks, Astroland's Cyclone roller coaster and Deno's Wonder Wheel—75- and 82-years-old, respectively—still attract ride enthusiasts and nostalgia buffs from all over the world. Often referred to as Brooklyn's Eiffel Tower, the Parachute Jump endured years of neglect and threats of demolition before acquiring city landmark status in 1988. Five years later, city workers stabilized and repainted the tower in its original colors: red, yellow and blue.
Yet a coat of paint hasn't prevented the tower from rusting in the ocean air. "We have to dismantle it halfway up to do lead abatement and structural repairs. Then we'll put it back together again," says Janel Patterson, speaking for the Economic Development Corporation. "The wind would create hazardous conditions if we did it the way you do a bridge." The restoration is among the city's capital projects in the neighborhood since 2000, including the $39 million KeySpan Park, situated on the former Steeplechase Park site. The Parachute Jump looms over the right-field fence of the new ballpark, whose success sparked Coney's revival and a $250 million renovation, now under way, of the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal.
"Since Coney Island is undergoing such a tremendous economic renaissance, refurbishing and possibly reopening the Parachute Jump, if it makes sense economically and can be done safely, would be another step in the right direction," says Markowitz, who asked the corporation to hire a ride consultant to study the idea. Last week, the city opted instead for what Patterson calls "a study to look at possible adaptive reuses," a decision that highlights the controversies inherent in returning historic amusement rides to operation.
Three vintage parachute towers are still in operation at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the U.S. Army's Airborne School. But Coney Island's Parachute Jump is "the only one of its kind" in the civilian world, says Jim Futrell, the National Amusement Park Historical Association's historian. A similar attraction at Chicago's Riverview Park was demolished in 1968, says Futrell, whose group has helped restore and return to operation such amusement park antiquities as the Venetian Swings in Flint, Mich., and the 100-year-old Leap-the-Dips, the world's oldest coaster, in Altoona, Pa.
Modern parachute jumps designed by Intamin, a Swiss manufacturer of roller coasters and vertical-thrill rides, made their debut at Six Flags theme parks in 1976. Following Steeplechase Park's lead, Intamin created the Great Gasp, Texas Chute Out, and the "Parachute Training Center, Edwards AFB Jump Tower." Futrell points to the controlled descent of the Intamin rides as a model for the restoration of Coney Island's Parachute Jump. "There are a lot of practical considerations involved, since no one would insure that kind of free-fall ride today," Futrell says. "What we at least try to do is preserve the traditions."
Modernizing the control system is the easiest part of the equation, according to Edward Pribonic, a California-based independent ride engineer and certified safety inspector. "The lawyers of today are going to sue you for what was built 100 or 60-some years ago, so there's a conflict between being historical and being safe," says Pribonic, who is concerned about stress on the structure and the viability of reusing original components. "As a visual icon, it's probably fine. When you're talking about turning it into an operating amusement ride that carries passengers and is subject to thousands of dynamic load cycles a day, then it becomes a different engineering problem."
Critics of the ride's restoration often cite stories of Parachute Jump riders being stranded in mid-air or tangled in cables. In his new book, Coney Island Lost and Found, Denson interviews Chuck Steen, the ride's daredevil mechanic, who recounts "riding the hook," the mechanism that hoisted the chutes to the top. Steen also reveals the real reasons for frequent stalls: "If we weren't doing much business, and two girls came on who looked like screamers, we'd send them up 200 feet and turn the thing off," Steen says in the book. Despite the best efforts of Steen and his crew, Denson says, the ride seldom made money because it was temperamental and had to be shut down on windy days.
Denson, who became a preservationist at age 12 amid rumors that Steeplechase might be torn down, says that altering the Parachute Jump to make it operational would be a desecration. "It would change the look of the thing, and it would definitely change the structure," explains the author, who favors a museum or restaurant in the base, similar to Paris' Eiffel Tower café. Or, Denson suggests, an observation deck with a spiral staircase like the one in the Statue of Liberty. "The Parachute Jump serves a great purpose being the symbol of the survival of Coney Island. Why put it back to work?"
This story was originally published on Preservation Online on Nov. 15, 2002. On July 7, 2006, the Coney Island Parachute Jump will be illuminated for the first time in a new lighting scheme designed by artist Leni Schwendinger. Featuring 17 lamps and 150 lighting fixtures, the tower will be lit throughout the year in one of six different displays, reflecting the seasons, holidays, and lunar cycles.
Tricia Vita is a freelance writer who divides her time between New York City and an 1850s mill conversion in Norwich, Conn.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.