Today is the birthday of the Fearless Frogman, Paul Boyton (1848-1924), showman, daredevil, and one of the early founders of the Coney Island amusement district.
Boyton served in the navy as a teenager in the Civil War, then became a mercenary for Mexico and France, and later one of the early founders of what was to become the U.S. Coast Guard. His initial fame came through his promotion of an inflatable rubber dry suit invented by C.S. Merriman, which allowed the wearer to float atop the water on his back. Wearing this suit, Boyton made several highly publicized long-distance journeys, floating feet forward, paddling himself along kayak style, toting his provisions in a little boat behind him. In such a fashion in the mid 1870s he crossed the English channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, and went up the Rhine, Danube and Mississippi Rivers. His longest journey, taken in 1881, was a distance of 3,580 miles.
Next he toured around for some years with an aquatic circus. In 1887, he traveled with P.T. Barnum’s circus. At each stop along the tour they would have to excavate a special “artificial lake” for him to do his demonstrations in. He opened his first permanent park (indeed the first amusement park anywhere) Paul Boyton’s Water Chutes in Chicago in 1894. The next year he opened Sea Lion Park in Coney Island, the first amusement park there. Prior to Boyton, the Coney resort had consisted of hotels, casinos, racetracks and of course the reason for it all, the beaches. Thus it can be said that its transformation into what it is now began with Boyton. In addition to presenting demonstrations of his own act as well as trained sea lions in Boyton’s artificial lagoon, Boyton offered rides like the Shoot the Chute and the Flip Flap Railroad (an early roller coaster).
Boyton’s example inspired George C. Tilyou to open Steeplechase Park on adjoining land. Then in 1901, Thompson and Dundy bought Sea Lion Park itself, transforming it into the original Luna Park. Boyton continued to live in Brooklyn until he passed away in 1924.
To learn more about amusement history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.