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I want to tell you something about fame and fortune. They beat the heck out of obscurity and poverty. As proof I give you the life of the “fearless frogman”, Paul Boyton, the Victorian era’s Esther Williams and a newspaper editor’s dream. He lived on adrenaline and publicity. One commentator described him as having a  “…gift for gab, lust for life, and the pluck to take great calculated risks.” And his life reads like a comic book adventure hero.

During the American Civil War Paul joined the U.S. Navy. He was just 15. Then he formed a life saving service on the New Jersey coast, and pulled 71 swimmers back from the brink of death. Fifty years before the first swimmer made it, Paul paddled across the English Channel while floating in an inflatable rubber survival suit. He met Queen Victoria and floated down most of the rivers of Europe. The Italians labeled him “L’uomo pesce” – the fish man. The government of Chile charged him with espionage. He wrote two autobiographies. He was a star in P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus. His image was used to sell cigars, calendars, music and playing cards – so many items that a new word had to be invented to describe his popularity; “Boyton-mania”. For some thirty years the “Captain”, as his friends called him, was the most famous man in the world. And ultimately, like all the other great forces of nature, Paul Boyton came to Coney Island.
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In 1895, when Paul Boyton stepped off the train from Chicago, his sly but unapologetic mustache was still brown. But at 48, he was getting too old to risk his life four times a day for ten cents a ticket. But Paul had arrived in Coney Island with a new idea, something he had developed at the Chicago Colombian Exposition, in 1893. It was to be called an “Amusement Park”.
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It is human nature to be attracted to novelty. And after the Civil War, as the population of New York City approached 3 ½ million, the occupants began to look for a way to escape, at least for a few hours.
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Steam powered rail lines spread out from the city, carrying the wealthy to summer mansions and genteel racing tracks on the Long Island sea shore.
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Luxury hotels sprang up in Brighton and Manhattan Beaches to house their middle class pretenders. The imitative working masses followed, and were transported at 35 cents a head by excursion boats from the Manhattan docks or the newly electrified rail lines from Brooklyn, (or “Breukelen” in the original Dutch).
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In the spring of 1884, James Lafferty spent $65,000 to build a hotel on the empty stretch of sand known as Coney Island, just across Surf Avenue from the boat pier and the railroad terminals. When finished, four months later, the wooden and tin inn stood seven stories tall and was constructed in the shape of an elephant.
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To enter you climbed a stairwell in a rear leg to reach the reception desk in the abdomen. Visitors could get an elevated elephant’s eye-view of the ocean for a penny. For the price of a full night's stay, a guest could sleep in the Shoulder Room, the Throat Room, the Stomach Room, or any of the other 27 bedrooms. The unusual structure quickly became an icon on Coney Island, a landmark, and people traveled all the way from Manhattan to be able to say they had “gone to see the elephant”.
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But financially the hotel was a disaster. Within a few years Lafferty was forced to sell his poisonous white pachyderm of a public house to a Philadelphia syndicate. And the new owners were willing to switch to a more iconic business model.
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The Elephant Hotel was converted into a bordello. And “going to see the elephant” acquired an entirely new iconic meaning. Still, it was a long train ride when you could “see the beast” a lot closer to home and save the 35 cents. So by the time the Captain arrived, although the Elephant hotel was still open, it was on its last legs.
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Paul Boyton was attracted by the 16 cheap acres directly behind the failing hotel (the above photo was taken from the Elephant's hinie). There Paul  erected the greatest innovation so far in entertainment history; a fence - with a ticket booth at one end. By selling general admission tickets to his “Sea Lion Park”, which opened on Thursday, July fourth, 1895, Boyton kept his customers captive so he could sell them food and drink all day long, pulling in around $1,000 a day during the 90 day long season. And curiosity about the elephant behind the fence kept the customers lined up at the ticket booth.
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Several times a day Boyton himself would appear to demonstrate his rubber suit, and to feed four dozen hungry sea lions in the park’s central lagoon. The performance was described by the Lubin film studios, who were selling a 30 second Kinetoscope of the show to nickelodeon operators, as “a decided novelty”. Once the pinnipeds were sated, the “Shoot-the-Chutes” took over the lagoon.
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Designed originally by Thomas Polk, for Boyton’s Chicago exhibition, it was a short but exciting ride. A flat bottomed boat was released at the top of a long ramp. Near the bottom, the ramp curved upward. This sent the boat and its passengers skipping across the lagoon. When the boat slowed, the on board operator would then pole the boat to the landing. The passengers would be unloaded, before a cable pulled the boat back to the top of the ramp for the next joy ride.
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http://www.youtube.com/...
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In addition, inside the fence Boyton had the “Flip Flap Railroad”. This was a two seat two car roller coaster, and the first in the world to feature a complete 360 degree 25 foot tall loop. It was also the first to explore the physics of inverted amusements. Unfortunately the loop contained a minor design flaw. It was perfectly circular. And it turns out that this perfection delivered 12 g’s to the passenger’s necks, equal to the maximum endured by the astronauts during a space launch. The unprepared customers, sitting upright, suffered whiplash, blackouts, headaches, nausea, tunnel vision, and loss of balance for hours afterward, not the mention the joy of losing your lunch at thirty-five miles an hour while upside down. People paid just to watch the more adventuresome ride through the loop of the “Flip Flap”, but because of injuries the amusement did not last into the Park’s second season.
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That year, to replace the nausea loop, Boyton added a mill ride and cages of live wolves. But at the end of that second season the park lost its landmark. On the Sunday night of September 27, 1896, the abandoned Elephant Hotel burned to the sand. Three years later, Boyton bought the property and replaced the elephant with a large ballroom. But he simply could not afford to add new rides year after year. And that was required to keep the curiosity level high enough to bring repeat customers behind the fence.
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The breaking point for Paul arrived in 1902. That summer saw 70 days of cold rain out of a season just 92 days long. Business at Sea Lion Park that horrible summer has been described as "macabre". Over the winter Boyton was easily convinced to lease the park for 25 years to competitors, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy.
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They renamed the 16 acres “Luna Park”, built palaces and lit the place with electric lights (still a novelty to most people, even in New York City). And then Paul Boyton had retired from the limelight.
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But his idea was developed by others, and soon Coney Island became crowded with amusement parks, fence touching fence, each competing with its neighbors for the customer’s nickels and dimes. Albert Bigalow Paine described Coney Island as where “the cup of gaiety and diversion overflows.” Thousands still went to the beach to frolic in the surf for free. But the high roller coasters, the parachute rides, the Ferris wheels and the joyful screams of patrons were a constant temptation for those masses to spend the quarter and go to “see the elephant” behind the fence.
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Having spent half his life on such a quest, Paul Boyton was no longer curious enough to look. He bought a small home in Brooklyn and died in relative obscurity in 1924. He was 77 years of age. By then his invention had been passed on to future generations, who continued to build fences around elephants. You, see in the entertainment industry, the profit is all in the fence.
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