After 98 Years Underwater, a Coney Island Bell Is Back
In the early evening of May 27, 1911, an electric light fell into hot tar and exploded on the Dreamland amusement pier at Coney Island.
Overnight, the pier’s ornate white buildings, restaurants, thrill rides, ballroom and tents — which attracted 40,000 people a day — were vaporized in the ensuing fire, said Charles Denson, a Coney Island historian. By the time the sun rose on what would have been the opening day of the season, the 1,200-foot-long iron pier had melted into the ocean, taking part of New York’s history with it. “This is the only major item to survive; there aren’t even photos of the fire,” Mr. Denson said on Tuesday morning, gesturing to a 500-pound bronze bell, 3 feet high and 3 feet wide and flecked with the remnants of barnacles, that was recovered by divers last month.
The bell was unveiled at Brooklyn Borough Hall, and there are plans being discussed for a tour of other city buildings, including City Hall and the New York Aquarium.
The bell, marked “James Gregory, New York, 1885,” for its maker and casting date, is suspended in a wooden frame above a bucket of water, which, in a preservation effort, is pumped over the bell to keep it wet.
“It was on the tip of the pier and used to announce the arrivals and departures of steamships from Brooklyn and the tip of Manhattan,” said David Grider, an architect and amateur historian who helped trace the origins of the bell to a foundry on the Lower East Side.
Mr. Denson added, “Millions would have heard this bell during Coney Island’s heyday.”
A picture mounted in Borough Hall shows men in stiff suits, corseted women and excited children as they debarked from boats run by the Iron Steamboat Company between the two boroughs: 35 cents one way and 45 cents round trip, according to a timetable on display.
The pier, and its artifacts, were thought lost forever until Gene Ritter, a professional diver in Brooklyn, discovered remnants of Dreamland in 1990. Many dives later — in the warm, clear water of an afternoon last November — Mr. Ritter and one of his diving partners, Louie Scarcella, found the bell. It sat 25 feet down, upright but tilted slightly in the sand, Mr. Ritter said. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said.
The bell was lifted from the sea with inflatable bags last month and towed to the Gateway Marina on Flatbush Avenue. It was then hauled by crane onto land. The bell was in good condition and had mostly “resisted marine growth,” said Mr. Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Mr. Ritter said he wanted to return to the dive site in a bigger boat to check for other items. “Every single artifact we find will stay here,” he said. “They belong to the people.”
Other scuba enthusiasts may have different aims. “There are so many scavengers who would steal something like this and sell it,” said Mr. Denson. “Some people think the bell is worth up to $1 million, as it’s so old and so representative of Coney Island’s history.”
Mr. Ritter said he was pursuing legal means to preserve the underwater find, declining to elaborate for fear of jeopardizing those safeguards. In the meantime, he maintains a network of local spies who inform him when any activity is spotted on the water near the site.
Mr. Denson indulged in a fantasy: “It would just be easier if we could clone this like the DNA of a dinosaur,” he said, looking at the bell, “and grow the whole of Dreamland back.”
By RAVI SOMAIYA