William H. Reynolds was a turn of the century mover and shaker in Brooklyn. One hundred years later, he is hardly known, but in his day, this Brooklyn native was an influential builder, real estate developer, politician, and entrepreneur. The last Walkabout chronicled his early days as a young and successful real estate broker and developer in Bedford Stuyvesant and Prospect Heights.
He was responsible for building much of Prospect Heights, also while serving in the New York State Senate as its youngest member.
He didn’t stay in the Senate very long, only one term, but that job gave him political connections, name recognition, and the right to call himself Senator for life, always a handy title to impress potential business partners and investors.
By 1898, Reynolds had more or less finished up his work in Prospect Heights. His row houses, centered primarily on long stretches of Park and Sterling Places, were almost all sold, and he had built successful apartment buildings on Vanderbilt and Underhill, as well as his own palatial home on the corner of Underhill and Eastern Parkway.
He needed a new challenge. The suburban reaches of Brooklyn were still out there, especially in the more southern areas of Brooklyn, so he bought up a large parcel of undeveloped land, and carved 4,000 lots from it, sold lots to investors, and started building on them himself. He called his new neighborhood Borough Park.
By 1899, Borough Park was in full swing. The Brooklyn Eagle had daily ads advertising Reynolds’ newly built homes, most of which were large, detached suburban looking homes. He built himself a new house there, as well, on 49th St and 15th Avenue, where his wife organized community events.
Not content to just develop, Reynolds was very instrumental in shaping his new community, as well. In 1899, he fought another builder’s desire to build four story tenement buildings with ground floor storefronts, specifically a butcher and a grocery.
The injunction he won prevented stores from being built in Borough Park, calling them detrimental to the interests of the neighborhood. One of his biggest public relations stunts, used to sell homes and lots in Borough Park, was to bet on the presidential election of 1900.
The candidates were William Jennings Bryan, Democrat, and William McKinley, Republican. Reynolds, a life-long Republican, made a wager, as advertised in the Eagle, that McKinley would win. If he didn’t, any buyer of one of his properties in Borough Park, who chose to take up the wager, would receive his property free and clear.
The property had to be purchased because of the wager, and before the election. He advertised this wager frequently in the Eagle, daring anyone to come forward, and perhaps receive a free house. It is not known how many took him up on the offer, but they all lost. McKinley won the presidency, only to be assassinated a year later. Reynolds sold a lot of houses.
With Borough Park developing nicely, Reynolds started looking around for more projects. He developed in Bensonhurst and in Westminster Heights.
He already owned a couple of theaters, the most important being the Montague, in Downtown Brooklyn, and he had another Montague Theater on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville. He loved musical extravaganzas, and in the late 1890’s added the Casino Theater in Manhattan to his list of theaters.
But even the largest theater can only hold so many people. Why not build something that can entertain thousands at one time, and have the most impressive show of all? What could be better than an amusement park?
On May 14, 1904, William H. Reynolds opened Dreamland, his $3.5 million dollar amusement park at Coney Island.
Thousands of workers worked day and night to complete the project in less than six months, making it the largest entertainment project of that magnitude to be constructed in so short a time.
The most spectacular feature of Dreamland was it enormous tower, which stood in the center of the park, in 1904, one of the tallest structures in the United States. The tower was 375 feet tall, studded with 100,000 electric lights, and it dominated the entire Coney Island landscape.
Elevators took people to the top, where they could see for miles around, including all of the Coney Island attractions. The best approach to the park was by steamboat, where the impressiveness of the Dreamland tower simply took people’s breath away.
Dreamland had plenty of other attractions, as well. The Dreamland Ballroom was on the pier, the largest in the world at 25,000 square feet, and the most popular ballroom on Coney Island. It was connected to a restaurant, almost as large, which served the finest cuisine.
Other attractions included Shoot the Chutes, a flat bottomed boat ride, Leap Frog Railway, a roller coaster type ride with trains that crossed each other at the same time on separate tracks, one above, one below, and Coasting through Switzerland, which featured cars on tracks that passed through realistic depictions of Swiss villages and the Alps.
The ride would pass the Matterhorn and Mount Blanc and quaint Alpine villages. Electric lights would recreate sunrises and sunsets, and fans blew across dry ice to deliver cooling Alpine breezes, making this ride a favorite in the hot summer.
Another popular attraction was Fighting the Flames a realistic reenactment of fire and rescue on a city block. The show opened with a hotel on fire and trapped people screaming. The fire alarm sounds and firemen are shown waking up and sliding down the pole in the firehouse and racing to the fire.
As the fire progresses up the building, the people are forced to the roof, where they jump into nets and are rescued while the fire is put out. All in time for the next show.
Dreamland also featured a wild animal act, and saw the display of the first human baby incubators. A Paris pediatrician named Dr. Martin Arthur Couney brought his incubators from Paris and Berlin, where they were not accepted by the medical community, eventually finding his way, first to Coney Island’s Luna Park and then nearby to Dreamland, in 1904.
His incubator building looked like an old German farmhouse, and as the years went by, he saved more and more babies through this technology, so that by 1941, at the end of his career, his Coney Island incubator clinic had seen more than 8,000 babies, of which he was able to save over 6,500.
In addition, Reynolds had his new manager of Dreamland, Samuel Gumputz, travel to World Fairs and other exhibitions to bring back the best to Coney Island. In 1904, he purchased the attraction called Creation from the St. Louis Worlds Fair for the 1905 season. It was not only an attraction, it became the entrance to Dreamland, the grandest entrance ever.
Creation was the largest illusion ever constructed for its time. It was the Genesis story of creation, with a boat ride around the firmament of heaven, with The Great Dome, where the world was created, including the land and the sea, ending with The Garden of Eden, where man was created.
The ride was immensely popular, leading to the building of more Biblical attractions, including The End of the World, where Gabriel blew his trumpet, causing the world to quake. Another part of this attraction was called The Hell Gate, a realistic depiction of an ocean whirlpool.
Passengers sat in boats which began to swirl around a 50′ whirlpool, which carried the boats down to the center of the maelstrom. At the last minute the slope would dip, and allow the boat to slip into an underground canal complete with rocks, reefs and shipwrecks, all on the bottom of the ocean floor. It must have been quite the ride.
See the Flickr page for more photographs. Unfortunately, Hell Gate turned out to be a prophetic and tragic name. On May 27, 1911, at 1:30 in the morning, some workers working on this ride started a fire that spread, and soon destroyed the entire Dreamland park. It was the largest fire in New York State history. William H. Reynolds’ Dreamland was no more.
Part 3, Conclusion: William H. Reynold’s career continues. From real estate developer to senator to entrepreneur to convicted felon, and beyond.