Fast-Paced Amusement

Yesterday’s discussion of the New York & Manhattan Beach Railroad was a side journey off a rabbit hole I fell down some time ago, looking for racetracks in and around Coney Island. The rabbit hole is identifying for certain what Irving Underhill took a picture of, in 1912, in the photo above. I’m not sure if what I was looking for even entirely makes sense, but I feel like describing the search might be interesting. For a reason that I discuss below, 1908 was a big year in the history of racetracks in New York. So here’s an index map from 1907:

Gravesend Bay is the corner of the Lower New York Bay between Coney Island and the main part of Brooklyn; the Gravesend Ship Canal was a fantasy that never got built and its location is, roughly, where the (actual) narrow and meandering Coney Island Creek is. Here’s a slightly-larger blow-up of the Coney Island peninsula:

Left to right: Sea Gate (maps 26 and 27), Coney Island (maps 28, 29, 30, and the west end of 34), Brighton Beach (map 34) and Manhattan Beach (map 35). The three famous amusement parks are there in maps 29 and 30: Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park. The NY&MB Railroad is visible in both maps, on the right side of maps 13 and 18 in the large map, curving around the west end of Sheepshead Bay before ending at Manhattan Beach. The large building near the end of the railroad is the Manhattan Beach Hotel; the large building by the “35” is the Oriental Hotel; the large building next to the words “Brighton Beach” is – you guessed it – the Brighton Beach Hotel. These were wood-construction victorian resort hotels. The railroads that would eventually become subways are not visible in this overall view.

Two racetracks are visible in the Coney Island map: the Brighton Beach Race Track behind the Brighton Beach Hotel and a bicycle track behind the Manhattan Beach Hotel. There were apparently a bunch of small tracks for stunt motorcycle riding further west in Coney Island. A third large track is visible in the bigger map, north of Sheepshead Bay and straddling maps 40 and 41. (Note that it is named the Coney Island Jockey Club even though it’s definitely not in Coney Island.) The track in the Underwood photo is quite large, so it’s not a stunt track put up at one of the amusement parks.

This is where the year 1908 comes into play: New York State passed a law that year forbidding betting at horse tracks, which was strengthened in 1910 and led to all horse tracks in the state closing by 1911. The restrictions were later lifted, but a number of tracks had switched to car or motorcycle racing, which were potentially more lucrative. For a few years, while this drama played out, the distinction between a horse track and a motor track was blurry, and 1912 was within that period. So the fact that Underwood labelled the track as a “motordrome” doesn’t help identify it.

Option 1: Underwood’s picture is the Coney Island Jockey Club. This is almost certainly wrong. First, it’s not remotely at Manhattan Beach. Ocean Avenue and Avenue X, then and now, is part of the neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay. Second, the picture is low resolution, but that sure looks like the ocean on the right, past the empty land. And the Jockey Club track was surrounded by more land.

Option 2: The picture is the “bicycle track” at Manhattan Beach. On the positive side: it’s at Manhattan Beach, like the title says. On the negative side: on the far side of the rack, just left of where the curving bleacher ends, you can see a railroad station. But the NY&MB tracks, as seen in the map, should be behind us. (Since the ocean is on the right, we have to be looking east.) And the tracks seem to be more or less running north-south, perpendicular to the shore, which, again, is not the route of the NY&MB. Map 35 itself, annoyingly, does not show the bicycle track, but is shows the rail line and station, and I can’t see how to reconcile them with the picture.

Option 3: the photo shows the Brighton Beach track. I’m not ashamed to say that map 34, below, threw me for a while, until I realized it’s two different maps at two different scales and two different orientations:

Here’s map 34 turned into one continuous map, north at the top:

That’s looking pretty good. There’s no curving bleacher, but there’s a “grand stand” at roughly the right location that could have been modified between 1907 and 1912. The railroad coming in from the north is the Brighton line, which was eventually modified into the current Brighton line subway. The angle of the photo is such that we wouldn’t see the Brighton Beach Hotel, which means that the big building we’re seeing further down the beach would be the Manhattan Beach Hotel, or possibly the Manhattan Beach hotel with the Oriental right behind it.

Not a definite answer, but it looks pretty good for option 3. Had Underwood labelled it Brighton Beach instead of Manhattan Beach, it’d be clear.

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