Saturday, 29 July 2017

1896: The Alligator That Fought a Newfoundland on Coney Island

In July 1896, Victor D. Levitt, the manager of the Bostock-Ferrari Midway Carnival Company, received an alligator that hailed from the St. Sebastian River in Florida. Victor considered the gift to be a bad luck sign, as the large alligator had been bruised in a train wreck on its way to New York.
Victor decided to give the alligator to Acting Police Captain Lawson of the Coney Island Police station as a sign of his gratitude for Lawson’s upstanding service since taking over the corrupt police force started by Gravesend Supervisor John McKane.
Not wanting to appear ungrateful, Captain Lawson accepted the alligator graciously. He then chained the alligator to the lawn of the station house on West 8th Street, where it drew large crowds. Thinking that this activity was in violation of the penal code (not to mention dangerous!), he convinced Captain Paul Boyton that he needed an alligator at his new Sea Lion Park (because alligators and sea lions get along so well.)
John Y. McKane
Gravesend Town Supervisor and Sunday school teacher John McKane fortified his control over corruption and vice by creating a Coney Island police force in 1881 and appointing himself chief. Many of the “policemen” that he commanded from his shack in the sand were ex-cons who often robbed the people who sought their help.
Captain Paul Boyton
Born in Ireland in 1848, Paul Boyton took to the sea at a young age. He reportedly joined the U.S. Navy when he was 15 to fight for the Union side during the Civil War. He also helped organize the United States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) and served as captain of the USLSS station in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
It was during his stint with the USLSS in 1874 that he discovered the rubber life-saving suit invented by C. S. Merriman of Pittsburgh.
Gravesend town hall
In the late 1880s, the Coney Island police shared space in the Gravesend town hall at 2337 McDonald Avenue (they had four jail cells in the basement). It was here Captain Lawson kept the alligator on display. The town hall was constructed around 1873 on the site of a former schoolhouse built in 1788. When the police force moved into their new headquarters in 1897, the town hall served Engine Co. 254. It was demolished in 1913.
The suit – the precursor to the frogman diving suit or the dry suit used in scuba diving – was essentially rubber pants and a shirt cinched at the waist. It had air pockets that one could inflate using tubes, which allowed the person to float in the water and stay dry for long periods of time. (If only the Titanic had a few thousand of these on board!)
Captain Paul Boyton
Captain Paul Boyton
In the winter of 1879, James Creelman, a reporter for the New York Herald who couldn’t swim, was assigned to test the life-saving suit in New York. He and Paul Boyton donned the suits and jumped into the icy water at Castle Garden (today’s Battery Park) at 11 p.m.
The two daredevils paddled their way in the dark as Boyton shot off Coston flares to alert the men on Governor’s Island that they were approaching. Once near the island, they drank some wine and smoked cigars that Boyton kept along with his flares and other safety gear in a small, 3-foot iron boat that he tied to himself.
Paul Boyton in rubber life-saving suit, 1880s
Captain Paul Boyton was famous for his daring demonstrations of a watertight rubber suit designed as a life-saving device for steamship passengers.
After a few dangerous encounters with ice floes, the men finally reached shore at Stapleton, Staten Island, around 6 a.m. It was James Creelman’s vivid account of that dangerous adventure that helped propel Boyton to aquatic stardom.
Sea Lion Park
After years on the road demonstrating the rubber suit and operating a traveling aquatic circus, Paul finally settled down at Coney Island.
In 1895, he bought 16 acres of cheap land behind the failing Elephant Colossus hotel from the New York & Sea Beach Railroad. He opened his Sea Lion Park on July 4th of that same year.
Paul Boyton demonstrates life-saving suit
Paul Boyton would demonstrate the life-saving suit by paddling like an otter down the rivers of Europe. The Italians labeled him “L’uomo pesce” – the fish man. In this drawing from the Illustrated London News in November 1874, Boyton demonstrates the suit in Cork Harbour, Ireland.
Sea Lion Park was a fenced-in amusement park that featured a broad lagoon where Captain Boyton would demonstrate his rubber suit and show off his performing sea lions.
The one-price admission also gave people access to the old-mill water ride, the famous Shooting-the-Chutes ride designed by Boyton and Thomas Polk, and the Flip Flap Railroad ride.
Sea Lion Park, Coney Island
This photo of Sea Lion Park was reportedly taken from the rear of the Elephant Colossus hotel across from Surf Avenue, between W. 11th and W. 12th Street. The Shooting-the-Chutes is on the right and the Flip Flap Railroad is near the entrance on the left.
I’m not sure why Police Captain Lawson or Captain Boyton thought Sea Lion Park would be a good place for an alligator, but it was here the alligator – which they named Cap Lawson — made its brief stay on the island.
The Grizzly Death of Cap Lawson
On July 14, 1896, Cap Lawson decided to break through the wires of his enclosure and make a meal out of Captain Boyton’s Newfoundland, Nero, who was sleeping nearby. As several attendants watched in horror, the alligator and dog engaged in a fierce battle.
Although the men tried to separate the two with clubs, their efforts were to no avail. Finally, Nero seized Cap Lawson by the throat and killed him. The poor alligator who was taken from his river home and survived a train crash never had a chance against the Coney Island Newfoundland.
Shooting-the-Chutes was an aquatic toboggan slide with flat-bottomed boats that slid down a long steep slide into the lagoon. An up-curve at the lower end would launch the boat into the air before it hit the surface, resulting in a series of hops and skips that heaved the passengers from their seats several times. The boat was guided to a landing by a boatman on board, then pulled up the ramp by cable and turned around on a small turntable to be ready for the next group of passengers who arrived at the top by elevator.
The Demise of Sea Lion Park
Although Captain Boyton enjoyed a few years of success – especially after he built a large ballroom on the former site of the Elephant hotel in 1899 – he couldn’t entice repeat customers on an annual basis.
Flip Flap Railroad
The Flip Flap Railroad was a dangerous ride that featured two-passenger roller coaster cars that descended from a high lift hill and sped through a vertical 25-foot diameter loop. The cars were held in place at the top by centrifugal force only. The ride’s abrupt high G-forces sometimes caused whiplash as the cars entered the circular loop.
Following a dismal rainy season in 1902, he offered a 25-year lease to Frederic W. Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, proprietors of the “Trip to the Moon” attraction at Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. A year later, they opened the spectacular Luna Park on the site.
Still drawn to the water, Boyton spent the rest of his life building houseboats along the Mississippi River. He retired in 1912 and returned to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn.
On April 19, 1924, he died of complications from pneumonia in his new home at 2649 Manfield Place (today’s East 24th Street). He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery on Long Island.
Sea Lion Park
The feeding of the sea lions at Captain Boyton’s Sea Lion Park.
For more about Captain Boyton, check out this article by his great grandson, Craig Dudley, on The Coney Island Blog.