BIRTH OF BROOKLYN’S “EIFFEL TOWER”

What became known as Coney Island‘s “Parachute Jump” was originally a ride at the Life Savers Company exhibition at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. The fair was held in the Flushing Meadows section of Queens, New York (where the 1964-5 Fair would later be held); it was one of the 20th century’s most splendid yet most poignant marvels, inauspiciously occurring as it did amidst the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II. Billed as the “World of Tomorrow” by its optimistic promoters, the Fair displayed a past and present desirous of a peaceful future. Standing alongside testaments to human civilization’s Art and Science, Life Savers’ 262-foot tall Parachute Jump became one of the most popular attractions at the Fair.

Ironically, the Jump was not originally designed as a ride but rather as a training device for the military.  In the 1930s, air power and a more effective airborne infantry were given increased priority; an imminent war, unparalleled in its scope and intensity, was foreseen by military experts. Whereas actual jumps from airplanes were considered too risky for initial training purposes, a jump simulator could make them faster and safer.

Retired Naval Air Commander James H. Strong, while touring a Russian military base, observed a wooden tower being used to train paratroopers. Trainees were suspended by a cable and guided in a simulated jump off the apparatus, oftentimes crashing against the tower’s side.  In fact, several of these devices were being used throughout Russia…often as amusement rides.  While Strong dismissed the device he had viewed as being too dangerous, he saw in it the seeds for an improved design.

On 7 August 1936, Strong secured a patent and built a strong 250 foot, steel tower that included electric motors controlling 8 circularly arranged guide cables, these situated at angles that would avoid contact with the tower’s center. He built various versions of his Jump at his estate in Highstown, New Jersey. To his surprise, Strong discovered that soldiers weren’t the only ones interested in being paratroopers but, if only briefly, civilians as well. More and more motorists, on their way to elsewhere, spotted his Parachute Jump and were stopping to ask a ride.

Strong instantly perceived that while necessity was the “mother” of his invention, his invention was attracting more notice (and a better chance for profit) not from necessity but from a delighted public. Strong modified the Jump for general use: shock absorbers to ease landings, double and not single seats, broadening the overall diameter of the chute, etc.  After successfully debuting the Jump at Chicago’s Riverside Park, Strong obtained a concession at the 1939 World’s Fair and had the Life Savers Company sponsor his Jump for $15,000, dotting the tower with brightly colored lights resembling the candy rings it marketed.

When the Fair closed,  the Jump was purchased (for $150,000) by Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park and opened there in the summer of 1941.

The Jump, which attracted as many as half a million riders annually, was described as ‘flying in a free fall’. Occasionally, riders could get ‘stranded in mid-air or tangled in cables’, although sometimes this may have been for the amusement of operators. Nevertheless, the ride was fickle and subject to shutdowns on windy days, and was not very profitable.[7] During World War II, when much of the city adhered to a blackout, the ride stayed lit to serve as a navigational beacon .[5]   {Wikipedia}

While the war raged in Europe and in the Pacific, kids could feel like paratroopers; but when the war ended, the Parachute Jump’s appeal slowly waned. In the 50s and 60s, jet and rocket travel made a paratrooper ride seem less exciting and, while the Parachute Jump managed to struggle along, the ride closed in 1964 (coincidentally, the same year that the ’64 World’s Fair opened).

Nevertheless, it became one of Brooklyn‘s most beloved and familiar sights; a silent sentinel to New York City‘s simpler yet turbulent past as it entered upon the modern stage towards the present. In July 1977, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Parachute Jump a city landmark; the chairwoman of the commission calling it “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower;” not as elegant as the original, but suitable for Brooklyn kids of all ages.

Source: Coney Island’s Parachute Jump

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