George C. Tilyou: Father of Steeplechase Park

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That’s right; he is dead.

Wait, wait, hear me out! A few months ago (back when you could see the grass) we were walking through Green-wood Cemetery (like you do), and, boom, I just noticed this marker. And it is totally his!

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George C. Tilyou (1862-1914) was the founder and creator of Coney Island’s longest lasting amusement park Steeplechase Park, and really the author of the character the area has had for over a century.

Tilyou was a second generation Coney Island entrepreneur. The family moved there in 1865 and his father Peter operated an eatery and bath house, and then began buying and selling land. George famously started out as a teenager in true Barnum tradition selling sand to tourists; then moved up to operating his own stagecoach shuttle service; then opened Coney Island’s first theatre the Surf Theatre in partnership with his father in 1882.

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From 1887 through 1894 the Tilyous were shut out of Coney Island because of the machinations of a crooked politician named John McKane. When McKane got sent up river in 1894, the younger Tilyou was able to come back like gangbusters. That year he brought in Coney’s first ferris wheel, a brand new invention which he had seen the previous year at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. Within three years he had amassed more rides and opened Steeplechase Park. Its keystone attraction was the titular ride, on which people mounted hobby horses and rode them down a bumpy slide (inspired by the fact that Coney Island had long been the site of horse racing tracks). The entire park was enclosed and admission was charged, just to keep things on a civilized footing.

Steeplechase was nicknamed “The Funny Place” and it’s iconic mascot was The Funny Face (sometimes called “Tille” after Tilyou), which has been associated with the entirety of Coney Island since the mid 20th century.

Steeplechase was not Coney’s first amusement park; that credit goes to Captain Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park.  But it was the first of the big three: the original Luna Park didn’t follow until 1903 and Dreamland until 1904. The first Steeplechase burned to the ground in 1907. Tilyou charged admission to the burning ruins and was up and running again two years later, this time with an indoor Pavilion of Fun, a brilliant masterstroke that allowed the fun to continue during inclement weather (current day Coney needs something like that badly). Steeplechase was to outlast its founder by fifty years.

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