Amusements and Thrills

The decline and fall of Coney Island’s original Thunderbolt

Coney Island gets a brand new star attraction this week — the 2,000-feet Thunderbolt roller-coaster in Luna Park.  It’s “narrower than most apartments” (according to Gizmodo), a bright orange ribbon ride that squiggles, rises and plummets within a disturbingly wonky silhouette.

It also takes its name from one of Coney Island’s most famous roller-coasters, designed by famed ride designer John Miller. The Thunderbolt is considered by some to be one of Miller’s least impressive works. (The name is not even original; there are three other Miller-designed coasters named ‘Thunderbolt’.)

This jaunty “scenic railway,” as roller coasters were called then, was a huge success at its opening in 1925. One year later came the first accident, when the train “stalled half way up a steep incline, slipped back to the bottom of the dip and was crashed into by the succeeding train.”

Twenty cents a ride, but a second one for fifteen cents. (Courtesy Brooklyn Memories)

Below: Onlookers watch the cars go ’round the Thunderbolt, 1938 (Reginald Marsh photographer, courtesy MCNY)

It’s perhaps the cinema’s most famous roller-coaster thanks to Woody Allen and the Oscar-winning film Annie Hall.  John Moran and his son Fred, the operators of the Thunderbolt, really did live underneath it, “the back stanchions of the steel structure come down through the walls of the apartment.”   His home was used in the film. [source] [source]

Fred Moran died in 1982, and the ride closed later that year, in great need of repairs that never came.  It famously sat abandoned during the 1980s-90s, embraced in weeds and surrounded by a rusty fence. The land was sold to Horace Bullard, owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken fast-food chain, who intended on reopening it. 

He never managed to revive the Thunderbolt.   In 1991, the Moran house was destroyed in a fire, and the Thunderbolt itself succumbed to flames in 1998..  Its husk remained standing until it was controversially torn down (and with “deliberate indifference“) starting on November 17, 2000.

Below: The ruins of the Thunderbolt. And I believe the Moran home is also pictured her. (Courtesy the blog Coney Island Playground of the World)

Why rush the destruction of an artifact that, by that time, was one of New York’s best known ruins and a mecca for nostalgists?  The city was looking to lure minor league teams to New York, and with the construction of the new KeySpan Park, the nearby ruin was considered an “eyesore that looked dangerous.”

Ironically, the baseball team that would move into KeySpan would be named after Coney Island’s other famous roller-coaster — the Cyclone.

Less than 14 years later, a new Thunderbolt will make its debut near this very spot.

3 replies on “The decline and fall of Coney Island’s original Thunderbolt”

I’m normally against knocking down landmarks (especially on the sly, like the City did with the Thunderbolt), but the burned husk of the Thunderbolt really looked like it was beyond repair back in the late 1990s. It probably cost less to build a new coaster than it would have to refurbish the original. Compared to other destroyed landmarks it was a mercy-killing.

Can’t save them all, unfortunately.

The willfull demolition of an iconic piece of Americana, gives testimony to the eventual, if not inevitable, destruction of ourselves.

If you grew up with it, it signals how old and maybe useless you are and will become….sad, nobody cares today. Many years ago,
I worked for the Municipal Archives and record center and saw Many other things come down without a thought. the distraction of memories is sad. You can’t keep it all but the beautiful things…..sigh..they can and will never be replaced.

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