Tilyou, George C. (1862-1914)
George C. Tilyou (1862-1914)
Junior Entrepreneur. George C. Tilyou was born in New York City on 3 February 1862. His father was a hotel proprietor at Coney Island. The younger Tilyou began his business career at age fourteen when he sold little boxes of sifted beach sand and bottles of seawater as souvenirs to visitors on Coney Island. In one day Tilyou made enough money to finance his own trip to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (1876).
Coney Island Development. With an initial investment of only $2.50, Tilyou became one of the most successful businessmen on Coney Island. He laid out the famous Bowery, a carnival amusement street barred to wheeled vehicles, and built Tilyou’s Surf Theatre, the first important show house at the resort. In 1897 he built Steeplechase Park, which quickly expanded to fifteen acres. It was wrecked by fire in 1907, but Tilyou restored it on a grander scale. He originated most of the rides used in his amusement enterprises to give patrons nervous thrills as they were whirled, tumbled, and shot down various dark chambers and hilly surfaces. Tilyou patented such rides as the Human Roulette Wheel, Human Pool Table, Earthquake Floor, Eccentric Fountain, Electric Seat, Funny Stairway, Barrel of Love, Aerial Thrill, and the Razzle Dazzle. All were clean, family-oriented amusements because Tilyou was opposed to the rowdy elements that frequently came to Coney Island. He became a reformer in politics and in 1893 helped to overthrow John Y. McKane, the infamous political boss who allowed Coney Island to become a corrupt haven for the type of crowd Tilyou disliked.
More Successes. Besides Coney Island, Tilyou operated amusement parks in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Missouri, and California; many of these were also named Steeplechase Park. Tilyou is said to have been the inventor of the hot dog. He died on 30 November 1914, and his son Edward continued to manage his amusement empire.
Judith A. Adams, The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills (Boston: Twayne, 1991).