From 1892 to 1953, Pleasure Beach was a highly popular tourist destination and amusement park located right outside of Bridgeport. In 1889, the beach’s surrounding 37-acre island was acquired by Bridgeport when the city annexed the borough of West Stratford in 1889. Three years later, with growing rumors that Captain Kidd laid treasure on the island, local liquor dealers J.H. McMahon and P.W. Wren decided to build an amusement park there. Throughout the 20th century, especially after the city completed construction of a long bridge to the mainland allowing for both foot and automobile traffic, Pleasure Beach was one of the most popular tourist sites in Connecticut. The island included a boardwalk, skating rink, a roller coaster, a miniature railroad, and more. Because of several fires, including the 1953 fire and the 1996 fire, the amusement park closed down and Pleasure Beach was abandoned. The beach was closed for many years but thanks to the city's parks department, the beach is again open to the public and accessible via a free water taxi.
Backstory and Context
History of Pleasure Beach
Pleasure Beach is an essential element of Bridgeport history. The origin of the island as an amusement park began with several legends stating that the infamous pirate, Captain Kidd, had hidden a substantial quantity of gold somewhere on the 37-acre island. Naturally, many enthusiasts and prospectors looked for this gold. Capitalizing on the pirate folklore as well as its attractive location, Bridgeport liquor dealers J.H. McMahon and P.W. Wren decided to build an amusement park by 1892. During this time, ferries brought few tourists to the quaint amusement park. By 1905, however, the owner of the Steeplechase Park on Coney Island, Brooklyn, George C. Tilyou, bought the island and greatly expanded its offerings, including the addition of a spectacular carousel.
After a fire in 1907 and subsequent dwindling popularity, the park was sold but closed down for several years.The rebirth of Pleasure Beach didn’t occur until 1919 when Bridgeport bought the park and constructed several new rides and other features, including boardwalks to the carousel, the Old Mill ride (a tunnel of love), a roller coaster, and more. By 1927, the city built a long bridge that allowed automobile and foot traffic, reducing the need for the Brickerhoff Ferry to port a few visitors every trip. The most popular attraction at Pleasure Beach was its maple dancing pavilion, which featured bell towers and glass sides. The pavilion was the largest ballroom in New England and hosted some of the largest jazz acts of the time.
A 1953 fire damaged several rides; the 1973 fire burned the pavilion down, effectively ending Pleasure Beach's highly popular status. With the 1996 fire that destroyed a portion of the bridge, and no money to repair the damage, Pleasure Beach officially closed to the public. Nonetheless, it reopened in 2014, and the old park remains a fascinating historical ghost town as well as a nature reserve.1