Parachute Jump – Relic or Legend?

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Joan S. Davidson

The Parachute Jump is the stuff of legends. More kitsch than elegant, one Coney Island “historian” describes the 1939 New York World’s Fair relic as the “Eiffel Tower with a lattice sombrero.” How can one explain the popularity of a ride that took roughly a minute to climb and ten seconds to descend? In order to understand the Parachute Jump’s appeal during the Fair and significance after, one must look beyond the ride’s aesthetic and amusement qualities, and consider its sublimated militarism and cultural legacy.
World Fairs have always included spectacles and amusements. Mirroring the aspirations and self-image of a nation, they were a proud display for all the world to see. There was a definite one-upmanship that played out at the Fairs. The Parachute Jump was no exception, and can be viewed as the 1939 Fair’s response to the Eiffel Tower, the 1,000-foot engineering and architectural icon unveiled at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Other spectacles like the 70-foot Corliss Steam Engine, “an athlete of steel and iron,” which dwarfed visitors at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition or the 264-foot Ferris Wheel at the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair, which like the Parachute Jump attempted to rival the Eiffel Tower, show how over and over again technical ingenuity and engineering prowess were on full competitive display. The Parachute Jump distinguished itself from these spectacles by evoking a patriotism that even visitors to the Fair may have not fully grasped despite the ride’s origins.

A photographer captures a parachute mid-descent.

A kaleidoscope of views of the Parachute Jump.

The Parachute Jump was originally designed to train paratroopers in the runup to World War II. The designer, James H. Strong, a retired Naval Commander, was hoping to sell the Parachute Jump to the military, but when his experiments began to attract a lot of attention from civilians, Strong realized that one did not have to be a paratrooper to enjoy being dropped from a scarily tall tower. Once shock absorbers were installed to ensure smooth landings and a single sling seat was replaced with a more comfortable two-passenger one, the ride became World’s Fair-“friendly,” and Strong was awarded a concession to operate the Parachute Jump at the Fair.
At first the organizers of the Fair were not sure how to market the Parachute Jump to the public. On one hand, various guidebooks capitalized on its association with real paratroopers, while at the same time downplaying many of the dangers associated with real parachuting. In the 1939 Fair guidebook the organizers promoted both the thrill and the gentle landing:
"Eleven gaily-colored parachutes operated from the top of a 250-foot tower, enabling visitors to experience all the thrills of 'bailing out' without the hazard of discomfort.... An automatic release starts the drop, and the passengers float gently to the ground. Vertical guide wires prevent swaying, a metal ring keeps the chute open at all times, and shock absorbers eliminate the impact of the landing. One of the spectacular features of the Amusement Area, this is also a type of parachute jump similar to that which the armies of the world use in early stages of training for actual parachute jumping."

Women of the Sharpshooters Brigade demonstrate their ability to shoot down parachutists.

Women of the Sharpshooters Brigade demonstrate their ability to shoot down parachutists.

In contrast to the Official Souvenir Book geared toward adults, the official publicity geared to children made no mention of the military. In A Trip To The World’s Fair with Bobby and Betty, Betty and Bobby said, “Everyone wants to go up into the clouds sometimes.”
Despite Strong’s effort to make the ride safe it did have some technical problems that the organizers had to manage through public relations efforts. On several occasions, riders were suspended for hours when a chute tangled in the cables. To counter bad press, Strong awarded the rescuers at a ceremony that was attended by helmeted officials of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Police estimated that 10,000 people watched the rescue, cheering and growing silent as each rescue was made. Two months later the ride jammed again. These mishaps actually added to the ride’s popularity and the organizers started to capitalize on them as well as on the prominence that parachutes had assumed in the world news.
Height became a metaphor at the World’s Fair for a journey from the everyday into the future. While the Parachute Jump could not begin to compete with the Eiffel Tower, both were functional lattices of metal. They also allowed visitors to view the Fair from a different vantage point and actually be part of the display. The act of being raised on a cable to the top of the Parachute Jump and the act of climbing the stairs and standing on the Eiffel Tower’s two observation decks were similar. In the Parachute Jump’s case, an individual enjoyed sweeping views of the fairgrounds and New York City’s impressive skyline; from the Eiffel tower one could stand in awe of the panoramic views of Paris.

Life Savers sponsored the famous Parachute Jump at the Fair.

Up go Salli Mackenzie and Mrs. Lottie Keller for their second ride in the Parachute Jump.

Up go Salli Mackenzie and Mrs. Lottie Keller for their second ride in the Parachute Jump.

After the 1939 Fair closed and the Parachute Jump was moved to Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, it continued to invoke patriotic feelings. The ride was very popular with soldiers stationed in New York City and it was very common for them to bring girlfriends and wives to ride The Jump. The Jump operated until 1968. The subject of two battles for landmark designation, the Parachute Jump became a national historic landmark in 1989, preserving this piece of World’s Fair history and changing Coney Island’s cultural landscape forever.
The Jump did not only engage with people who came to ride the rides at Coney Island. It also engaged the imagination. A landscape that inspired so many forms of cultural expression now had a new landmark to inspire. Coney Island has always been a great place to observe people and has been captured in all its permutations: from a sedate resort for the affluent in the late nineteenth century in a William Merritt Chase painting to its most bizarre and seedy as documented in Diane Arbus photographs. The contrast of high and low culture attracted many artists as well as writers.

A couple gets hitched while on the Fair's parachute ride.

In fact, the climax of E. L. Doctorow’s novel World’s Fair is set on the Parachute Jump. The young protagonist crosses over into the glittering promise of the future and the Parachute Jump becomes the metaphor for his journey: “I heard music from a dozen directions, and then, as we rose the breeze added itself to the music like a string section, but in a mocking way of fluctuating sound, as if we would never stop rising from the earth and were bound for another realm of fierce winds and darkness, a sky life, and we would be blown about in it forever.”
The legend of the Parachute Jump lives on. A New York-based artist, William Steiger, creates stark, cool paintings of archetypical subjects including the Parachute Jump. In order to capture the Parachute’s Jump scale, Steiger has painted a vertical diptych and smaller architectural studies of sections of the Parachute Jump. Although Steiger does not reference a particular locale, time of day, or era, the Parachute Jump is recognized in its simplest form — the architectural icon it has become.

During the "Parachute Wedding," an orchestra also hung suspended in the air.

Sources

Charles Denson. Coney Island Lost and Found. Berkeley, Ca.: Ten Speed Press, 2002.

E. L. Doctorow. World's Fair. New York: Random House, 1985.

The Official Souvenir Book, New York World's Fair, 1939. New York: Exposition Publications, Inc., 1939.

"Parachute Device at Fair Booms After 2 Hang in Mid-Air," The New York Times, July 13, 1939.

"Parachute Jams Again: Two Women Kept 230 Feet in Air at Fair for Half Hour," The New York Times, Sept 9, 1939.

Grover Whalen (as told to Elsie Jean). A Trip to the New York World's Fair with Bobby and Betty. New York: Dodge Publishing Company, 1938.

Joan Davidson trained as an urban planner and spent a decade working in city government. She recently completed a Masters Degree in the History of Decorative Arts and Design and currently serves on the Board of the American Friends of the Centre Pompidou, The Studio Museum of Harlem and Coney Island Prep, a charter school in Brooklyn.

 

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