Coney Island — the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone, the River Runner?!
Any Brooklynite could tell you Coney Island got its name from the rabbits — or “konijnen,” in Dutch — that thronged its shores centuries before it became the Playground of the World. But not as many know that odd locations across America borrowed the Coney name hoping to get a piece of its fame — and still use it to this day.
One of those spots is the Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, Ohio, home of the River Runner — pretty much like Astroland’s old Pirate Ship — and the Sunlite Pool, one of the largest man-made swimming basins on the planet, among other attractions. Like the People’s Playground, in the mid-1800s, the area where the amusement park now sits was a relaxing resort for well-to-do people looking to take a carriage or boat ride out of the city. In 1886, enterprising new owners William and Malcolm McIntyre decided to start calling the property “Ohio Grove, the Coney Island of the West” to profit from the Brooklyn destination’s prominence.
“They named it Coney Island of the West to make it sound like it was associated with Coney Island in New York,” says amusement park employee Amy Pass.
The new name was such a hit that by 1887, the McIntyres dropped the “Ohio Grove” and “of the West” and just started calling their park “Coney Island.” Again following Sodom by the Sea’s lead, the park added rides in the early 1900s, and the park has been giving Cincinnatians and tourists a thrill ever since.
A similar chain of events created Minnesota’s Coney Island — today a small, pine-covered chunk of land in a small lake alongside a small city on the southeast end of the state. A train line and ferry service made the island a popular resort destination for people from Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the 1870s, and by 1884, owner Lambert Naegele was calling it “the Coney Island of the Northwest.” In 1886 the Coney Island Hotel rose to accommodate visitors, and small cottages sprang up along the shore, and the tiny isle became known for horse-racing, ballgames, and Fourth of July festivities. But success didn’t last. Like Brooklyn’s Coney, the Gopher State destination went into a decline around midcentury, and the resorts and hotels closed and crumbled. Today, the only visitors are illegal snowmobilers.
“We discourage people from going out there, but they do anyway,” says Wendy Petersen-Bjorn of the Carver County Historical Society, located in Waconia, Minn.
But there’s hope on the horizon — the current owner of the island is in the process of turning the property over to the state to become a public park.
But perhaps the strangest — and most widespread — adoption the Coney Island name are the countless unaffiliated chili dog joints sprinkled across the midwest. The odd phenomenon started in 1917 in Detroit, where Greek immigrant Gust Keros opened a frankfurter emporium named American Coney Island. According to Keros’s granddaughter Grace, the People’s Playground was one of the first things the restaurant founder saw upon arriving in America. When Gust Keros set up shop in the Motor City, he decided to name his business after the amusement district and his adopted homeland.
“He’s in America, and what better to call it than ‘American Coney Island,’” Grace, the current owner, says.
The young Keros believes Nathan’s had nothing to do with her grandfather’s decision to sell hot dogs. Rather, he devised his own blend of meats and spices and special chili, topped the creation with diced white onions and yellow mustard, and just started calling it a Coney Island dog.
But Gust never copyrighted his business’s name, and other Detroit Greeks eager to copy his success opened their own Coney Island restaurants — starting with his own brother, who opened Lafayette Coney Island next door. The two restaurants are still rivals today.
As Hellenic entrepreneurs left the Motor City, they brought the chili dog with them, opening Coney Islands across Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa. Restaurants in Flint, Mich. even came up with their own famous chili recipe using beef heart.
So next time you hear the city slogan “The One and Only Coney,” remember that Brooklyn’s beloved amusement district may be the original, but it’s not alone.Reach reporter Will Bredderman at wbredderma