About 1500 to 2000 years ago, the land along that stretch of the Ohio River was home to mound-building native Americas, mainly the Hopewell culture, and many of the mounds remain visible today. In 1867 a farmer by the name of James Parker purchased 20 acres in the area and planted a 400-tree apple orchard. As more people traveled west, they found the orchard a good place to stop for a rest and a picnic. Parker soon realized the value of his land lay more in its location than it did in apples, and he took advantage of that, first by building picnic shelters and later by adding such structures as a dining hall, dance hall and bowling alley. He even constructed the first merry-go-round. As the apple trees died off, Parker replaced them with maple trees, and many of those trees remain today.
In 1886, Parker sold his farm to the Ohio Grove Corporation, headed by two steamboat captains, for $17,500, and the amusement park opened on June 21, 1886. Called “Ohio Grove, The Coney Island of the West” in an attempt to link the park to New York’s Coney Island, then the largest amusement area in the United States, the park simply became known as Coney Island in 1887.
As river travel increased, so did the park and carnival games and rides were added until Coney Island became a full-fledged amusement park. Even after the travelers began to arrive more by car than by horse and buggy, the park grew. It also changed hands several times and other improvements were made, such as building Lake Como and developing roller coasters.
In 1924, the park was purchased by Coney Island, Inc., a group run by George Schott and his brother Edward. The Schotts loved the park and immediately put over a million dollars into it. They expanded it to over 120 acres, and many of the improvements made then remain today.
A kiddieland was constructed to entertain the Schott’s grandchildren, possibly the first such area devoted strictly to small children that was ever created in an amusement park. The Sunlite Pool, which remains the world’s largest flat-surfaced, recirculating pool in existence, was constructed in 1925, as were the now-iconic main entrance and Moonlite Gardens, the open air dance hall. George Schott loved Coney Island, and he died there at an event in Moonlite Gardens in 1935.
Schott’s death isn’t the only tragedy Coney Island has seen through the years. Its proximity to the Ohio River has made it the victim of numerous floods, and personal tragedies have occurred as well. One young boy died when he was thrown from the Scrambler and struck by another spinning car. A woman died on the merry-go-round when she experienced dizziness on the ride, attempted to exit, and then fell and hit her head, dying soon after. A group of young men decided to race from the edge of Sunlite Pool to the island in the center. They all dove in, but one hit his head on the shallow bottom and drowned.
Numerous ghost stories surround the park. Native Americans are heard chanting in the areas of the mounds. The music from the merry-go-round is sometimes heard, even when the ride is shut down. Splashing and screams are reported coming from the Sunlite Pool, not just at night but also after it’s drained for the season. But the best story may involve George Schott himself.
Many employees and visitors alike have reported being watched from the Moonlite Gardens balcony by a man in period clothing, and sometimes the gentleman is even accompanied by a woman. When shown pictures of Schott, almost everyone identifies him as the ghostly witness to the festivities.
George Schott appears to remain in the park he loved and made so popular.
Note: Except for a period of a couple of years in the early 70s, after the opening of Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, Coney Island has operated almost continuously. You can visit it today for the price of a small, and very reasonable, admission, and one of their most popular events is Fall-O-Ween, held every autumn. The park is now owned and operated by Brenda Walker, who loves it much as George Schott did himself.
Trivia: The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, from Hanna-Barbera Productions in the late 60s, filmed many of its outdoor scenes at Coney Island.