Information To Know About Pleasure Beach

Father's Day of 1996 was a bad time to visit Bridgeport's Pleasure Beach. Sometime during the course of the warm summer afternoon, a motorist passing over the wooden bridge connecting the 65-acre island to the city's east side didn't think twice before tossing a lit cigarette out his or her window. The already decaying bridge ignited and 125-feet of its span was burnt so badly that visitors relaxing at the beach or at the Polka Dot Playhouse had to be brought back to the mainland by ferry.

Today, the bridge remains charred and closed. It's been so many long years that this prime chunk of waterfront property was entirely disjointed from the urban wasteland across the way whose residents desperately need an open space on which to unwind. To get out there, one must either row across open water or walk down a narrow strip of land extending from the Lordship section of Stratford. (OK, so it's a peninsula, not a real island.) Fixing or replacing the bridge is estimated to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million and given the economy and the budget deficit well, that's not going to happen.

At this point, there's nowhere to go but up for Pleasure Beach. A few dedicated city councilmen have been sifting through various grants and outside sources of funding in hopes of establishing a water shuttle that would, at the very least, put the island's beach back into use. The addition of some other modest attractions on the peninsula could generate revenue and give the city a reason to pursue revitalization. The councilmen hope that eventually it will grow into its full potential and become one of the most desirable plots of land on Long Island Sound, but they know this can only be achieved through humble beginnings.

There was a time when such neglect would have been unheard of. Younger generations remember the park from its later, sketchier years, but to anyone who resided in or around the Park City in the earlier half of the 20th century, Pleasure Beach was an island resort that fully lived up to its name. "In the 1940s, Pleasure Beach was jumpin'," says Morgan Kaolian, aerial photographer, longtime WICC traffic reporter and former director of Long Island Sound America. "I mean, it was the place to be. I can't understand the complete sense of apathy that has fallen on that island. No one seems to care."

The first attraction Kaolian recalled was the famous Pleasure Beach Ballroom, which hosted the top Big Band heroes of the day like Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. It also had one of New England's best amusement parks with a popular roller coaster called the Sky Rocket, high-tech water rides, a top-of-the-line carousel, a kiddie park, a mini-railroad, a fun house and all sorts of typical carnival attractions. It was home to the Polka Dot Playhouse and the WICC transmitting facilities. At various times in its history, it also had softball and baseball fields, restaurants, an open-air arena, a bowling alley, a mini-golf course and a roller skating rink. Forty-five cottages extended down the Stratford side of the peninsula where their owners found a Martha's Vineyard-style beach escape at an affordable price.

A trip to the Bridgeport Public Library reveals just how "jumpin'" the park really was. On Memorial Day weekend of 1938, for example, 30,000 Fairfield County residents flocked to its sandy shore. Not just native Bridgeporter's, either. Yes, believe it or not, there was a time when out-of-towners actually wanted to visit the "armpit of Connecticut" and went out of their way to do so.

"For the factory workers of Bridgeport, Pleasure Beach was a terrific place for ordinary working class people to spend the day in a resort-like atmosphere," notes Mary Witkowski, the library's head of historical collections and author of Bridgeport on the Sound. "With a long stretch of beach, wonderful amusement rides and tons of good food, Pleasure Beach was a nice haven away from the sooty, hot city."

Beginning somewhere in the 1950s, the park slowly fell into disuse and disrepair, which only increased over the coming 50 years. The rides were discontinued. The isolation that made the land so special also became the cause of most of its problems, particularly fires. Emergency personnel simply could not get out there in time. Whenever something caught fire, it would burn to the ground before anything could be done and burned buildings were not replaced. This was the fate of many of the concessions, the old midway, the bridge, of course, and most spectacularly, the ballroom in 1973, which lighted up the sky and drew thousands of spectators in the middle of the night watching it fall to pieces.

By the 1980s, Bridgeport had quietly morphed into the graffiti-covered, crime-ridden drug capitol of Connecticut, and the Pleasure Beach bridge linked to the heart of it all, the city's notorious east end. Needles and crack vials littered the landscape. The carousel was disassembled (the horses, however, were rescued by conservationists and sent to the Beardsley Zoo).

By the time of the 1996 bridge fire, the Polka Dot Playhouse and cottages were just about all that was left. The pier was still popular among fisherman, though, and at least people could still get out there. In all fairness to the cigarette-tosser who finalized the deal, the bridge was on its way out anyway. The state Department of Transportation advised Bridgeport that it had set federal and state funding aside to build a new bridge in 1994, but in a blatant show of apathy Bridgeport didn't respond in time and the money was allotted to another project.

When the existing bridge did burn down, the Polka Dot was forced to relocate downtown. Stratford decided not to renew the leases on the cottages (the land was public, but the cottages were privately owned) and residents were evicted in 1997. Some refused to leave and some unsuccessfully sued the town, but now in 2003 almost all of the dwellings are abandoned and being taken over by nature.

The piping plover and other wild animals are moving in. As an endangered species, once the plovers settle in, it is illegal to move them out. Every summer a little bit more of the beach is claimed by the birds, making the island's comeback that much more urgent.

A couple of years ago, Stratford City Council member "Doc" Gunther held a public hearing to consider the construction of a more economical bridge crossing Johnson Creek, on his side of the town line. Morgan Kaolian was in attendance, and he recalled that one of the co-chairs of the metting (whom Kaolian chose to leave unnamed) exclaimed, "Why build a bridge to Pleasure Beach? No one ever goes there." Move over Yogi Berra. In fact, aside from a few city council members from Stratford and Bridgeport, no one really talks about the future of Pleasure Beach.

A water taxi was proposed by Curwen and fellow Bridgeport councilman Don Clemons last year. It would depart from the Port Jefferson ferry terminal, giving Bridgeport residents direct access to their beach in lieu of a bridge, and according to Curwen, there's a feasible chance the service could begin this summer. New ideas have been kicking around for use of the island itself, including a par three golf course, a driving range, a batting cage or maybe a summer camp, but so far these are only ideas.

"If the way we're putting things together now works and we can generate enough revenue, it would offset the amount of money needed to keep the park open," explained Curwen. "The catch-22 is that we have to go out and borrow some money right now to get the park cleaned up, to repair the bathhouse and build a few other small buildings to house our equipment so it doesn't get vandalized. Long term, we're looking to rebuild the bridge somehow, someway, but I don't think that's in the immediate future because it's going to require $30 million.

"The city is in hard times just like any other municipality in the state. I don't want to disillusion the people that there is a pot of gold out there and that we're taking money away from education or out of taxes or something like that and putting it towards the opening of a park, because that's not what we're doing."

Bridgeport City Council President John Fabrizi isn't quite as optimistic. "It's critically dependent upon the available funding," he said. "With a budget deficit in Hartford and a real, real tight budget here in Bridgeport, it's a great challenge to try to identify the funding to make that happen."In addition to the funding for the water taxis you have to talk about police protection and fire protection, running water, electricity and issues of that nature. It's not as simple as just finding funding for water taxis. The city has other obligations if it's going to allow people to use the beach there."

One might think that there would be a public outcry for the reopening of a once-thriving island resort off the shore of a city that the rest of the state mocks because it has no redeeming qualities. This is not the case. "Unfortunately, I think on the most part people have not been thinking about it," Fabrizi admitted. "It's an unpolished gem over there, and it's a darned shame that we can't find the funding to build a new bridge or rebuild the old bridge for access, but unfortunately, until times get better economically, it's doubtful that anything will be happening at Pleasure Beach."

Below is a short video documentary lamenting the loss of nice historical key structures of Pleasure Beach



History Timeline of Pleasure Beach

1889: The growing city of Bridgeport annexes the borough of West Stratford; it included a triangular island of thirty-seven acres.

1892: The privately owned park opens with the name Pleasure Beach.

1905: Owner of Steeplechase Park on Coney Island in Brooklyn, George C. Tilyou buys the Bridgeport park and the name temporarily changes to Steeplechase Island affter the unique ride which carousel-style horses raced down a metal track.

1907: Chicago National League beaseball team and the Bridg eport team were warming up for a game and a player threw a lit ciggarette which caused a fire that burned much of park includin the steeplechase ride.

1908: A new drawbrige is built for Pleasure Beach and replaces the ferry service for the island.

1910: Tilyou sells park and the name changes again to Sea Breeze Island. Attendance was poor and park closes for several years.

1919: City of Bridgeport buys the park and improves it building Boardwalks leading to carousel, roller skating rink, mini railroad, roller coaster and the "Old Mill" ride that was a popular romantic ride for couples

1920: Park grand ballroom is built that was the largest in New England. Stars of the Jazz Age such as Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw played here. The dancing pavillion had a beautiful maple floor and bell towers with glass sides.

1927: Wooden swing bridge open for use

1938: The city of Bridgeport takes over the park. New pier built on the west side of the island.

1939: New convention hall built for the beach with 2,000 seat occupancy.

1941: A barge crashes into Pleasure Beach bridge ramp though no serious damage to bridge.

1947: Island is connected to the Stratford mainland by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

1953: Bad wiring sparks a fire that destroys the concessions, the fun house and penny arcade, damaging the rolller coaster and several other rides.

1957: A discarded cigarette sets the bridge ablaze.

1959: Plans proposed for a year-round resort/casino.

1961: Six rides, including the roller coaster, are auctioned off.

1961: Bridgeport acquires roller coaster at a bankrupcy auction for $100 and with plans to demolish it.

1962: Roller coaster burns as it is in process of demolition.

1963: The Ballroom is rennovated and painted and restored to give it a fresh look.

1964: Oil tanker crashes into bridge, Bridgeport pays $30,000 in repair costs.

1965: Fire destroys a section of the bridge.

1967: The beer garden which had been abandoned becomes "Polkadot Playhouse" theatre.

1972: Much of the old "midway" burns, to blame was a liquified gas fuel portable stove.

1973: The great ballroom burns down and remains a mystery how the fire started.

1980: Hotel/conference center proposed.

1983: Nudist camp proposed.

1984: Disney shows interest in the property for a "regional entertainment center."

1987: Donald Trump wants to open a world-class theme park and casino in this location.

1987: Steve Wynn wants to build luxury condos.

1988: Maritime "Amazement Park" proposed.

1990: A tugboat hits the bridge.

1990: Aquarium, nightclub and shops proposed.

1990: A man and his children go for a walk and discover 72 empty crack vials in the parking lot as well as several used hypodermic needles.

1990's-early: The Bridgeport Parks Department builds the "Harbor Hut" which provides consessions and restroooms.

1996: A new $2 million bathhouse and restaurant facility called the "Pavillion" is completed built by the Bridgeport Parks department. Unfortunately due to the bridge burning it is never opened to the public.

1996: Vandals burn the boardwalk from the bathhouse to the beach.

1996: 150-feet of the bridge burns making it uncrossable and stranding about 200 cars. $20-$30 million needed to repair. New York Times Article

1996: City of Stratford decides not to renew the leases for cottages on the beach. Some owners refuse to leave.

1999: New bridge proposed on Stratford side of the park. It would cost $8 million.

2002: Water taxi proposed to allow beach access from Bridgeport.

2007: Three squaters are forcifully removed from three houses by police.

2007: In May owners were forced to give the houses back to the town as the town owns the land under those houses.

2008: Arson destroys 4 large houses; house numbers 36, 37, 38, and 39.

2009: Arson claims 3 more houses, numbers 1, 1a, and 2.

2009: City recieves $1.9 million grant to establish ferry service to the park.

2010: The carousel house and bumper car pavillion are mysteriously demolished without the approval of the town. All structures are collapsed on the ground. It is later discovered that

2011: Houses are all demolished and debris removed completely. The left standing structures are the Polkadot theatre and the restaurant structure as well as the bandstand.

Future Plans: Here's an article of the master plan for the park put together in June, 2012. Master Plan



Aerial Maps from History, Today and More

Here's a way to envision how this place once existed and how it was all laid out. Also check out how the cottages were situated only a couple years before they were leveled. We can see such deterioration over the last few decades and such a reduction of structures on this peninsula. In the late 1930's millions of cubic feet of land was deposited as filler around the outskirts of the peninsula to add more space for the park and beaches and this is apparent in the overhead aerial views. In the early '60's an office building was even proposed for the park which thankfully wasn't approved!

Click Below!


The Many Views of the Pleasure Beach Peninsula

Below are all the galleries of various points of interest on Pleasure Beach. You will find detailed views of the summer houses through their decay and vandalizism over the years that they have been abandoned. You will also find old postcard images and historic aerial images of the peninsula. The photos of the cottages were mostly taken between 2007 and 2009 and you can notice the deterioration over time looking through each series. The photos of the cottages aren't professional photographs and most are low resolution due to an older camera. I want to include all of them for documentation purposes. Some may be very blurry and some may look like doubles though they are not; I know these structures no longer exist so any record surely counts! I certainly love how each cottage has its own unique style and they display styles from many eras of time. The houses at first represented nice time capsules but that sadly changed when they were completely mutilated.



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