As a bonus, admission was free for the 30,000 guests in attendance.
The New York Times called Happyland “an amusement park with attractions which will justify its name to lots of youngsters, to say nothing of grownups” in a story printed the next day with the headline: “HAPPYLAND IS OPEN; FREE THE FIRST DAY -- New Staten Island Amusement Resort Makes Its Initial Bow.”
“Happyland has a really fine site,” the Times reported. “Before it lies a beautiful beach several miles long with a good boardwalk and fine bathing facilities…To the rear is a vast woodland with fine green trees, and this is easily accessible from Manhattan. The trip from downtown includes a refreshing ride on the municipal ferry boat, a feature which the Staten Islander pointed out with pride yesterday in mentioning the advantages of the resort.”
The opening night feature presentation was advertised as the Carnival Of Venice, set in an amphitheater which had a “stage 200 by 80 feet and lagoon nearly as large,” the Times reported. “The show itself is operatic, dramatic and spectacular combined. It depicts a carnival in the fifteenth century. The scenery shows the Palace of the Dogs and the Bridge of Sights. There is a plot, and much dancing and singing by a chorus of 300 strong.”
But the show did not go on: A storm sent the spectators ducking for cover. They “found shelter in the ballroom and the vaudeville theater, all of which are enclosed.”
However, they did not leave disappointed -- “a large crowd was entertained by a vaudeville show and other amusements, but the main attraction had to be omitted,” according to the Times.
Other features at the 15-acre amusement park included a ballroom with “25,000 feet of floor space, large enough to let the crowd dance comfortably,” a restaurant with a rooftop garden “swept by ocean breezes,” a central lagoon with a “circular swing at one end and a bandstand at the other, and a tea garden situated in a natural grove.”
Happyland, which was constructed for $250,000, was backed by capitalists, including Staten Island’s leading brewers.
A month after the opening, the Times reported that all the rides and other attractions “are now going full blast, and the resort bids fair to gain great popularity.”
The Sun Newspaper published a one-page story on Sunday, July 26, 1908, which posed the question “New York: A Summer Resort?” They let the secret out: NYC residents didn’t need to travel outside of the five boroughs to find “breezes, rippling harbor waters, stirring palms on roof gardens, rustling trees in parks -- breezes invigorating, exhilarating -- salt breezes right in from the open ocean.”
This blurb was provided about Happyland Park: “A delightful ferry sail down the bay and trolley ride through Staten Island’s verdant hills will bring you to HAPPYLAND, on South Beach, looking out toward the ocean. The new combination ticket feature provides, for a quarter, admission to the park, vaudeville, dancing pavilion, Bills Ladder Paris by Night, Foolish House, Georgia Minstrels, Dib Dab Slide, Electric Slide, Hippodrome Circle Swing, Fat Saidy and the Human Roulette Wheel.”
But, it wasn’t all fun and games.
On May 5, 1919, a woman was burned to death in a $200,000 fire that swept through Happyland. The fire was called in at 3 a.m., but the only firefighting equipment on the property was “a small chemical engine maintained by the beach merchants.” Happyland was “well in the gripes of flames and a general alarm was turned in bringing out all the apparatus on Staten Island.”
“When the rest of the fireman arrived, they found the two-story dance pavilion, the big restaurant and the scenic railway in ashes,” the Times reported. “While the fireman worked valiantly, the flames leaped from the park to the Hotel Walnord, destroying it and Schaerfer’s Hotel. Roderick’s Restaurant, located on the sand line north of Happyland, was the next to go, and the fire got going in the bungalows nearby. The small frame structures owned Lambert O’Neill of Rosebank, Staten Island, burned like tinder.”
The park itself and 40 bungalows adjoining it were destroyed.
Mary Autenreith, 49, was killed in the fire. Her husband, John Autenreith, President of the Bay Amusement Company, had planned to open concessions at Happyland.
The couple woke to the smell of smoke and made it out of their home safely.
“Mrs. Autenreith, however, went back to recover belongings, although the house was enveloped in smoke. She did not reappear, and soon the building, eaten away by fire, collapsed,” the Times reported.
The winds fanned the blaze “so that it lighted up the lower harbor and could be seen from Sandy Hook, Coney Island, and the New Jersey shore. Hundreds of persons got out of bed and went to the shore front in automobiles to watch the spectacle.”
Happyland was rebuilt, but never regained its glory days. Continued property damage, water pollution and the Great Depression signaled the death knell and the economic decline of Staten Island’s beachfront from South Beach and Midland Beach and all the way down the shoreline to Tottenville.
In 1935, New York City acquired the property for the construction of the existing Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk. The $2 million boardwalk was part of President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration and employed 4,000 men.
The groundbreaking was held on Aug. 11, 1935, with “more than 10,000 officials, civic workers and citizens” in attendance, according to the Times. Presiding over the groundbreaking were NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Staten Island Borough President Joseph A. Palma.
“Vigorously wielding a silver pick and a shovel, Mr. Palma turned the earth and drove in the stakes at the foot of Sand Lane, South Beach; Ocean Avenue, Ocean Beach and at the foot of Lincoln Avenue, Midland Beach,” the Times reported.
On July 4, 1937, the boardwalk officially opened -- it was little over a mile long with two lanes for wheelchairs and two lanes for strollers.
“The exercises were held at the foot of Sand Lane, South Beach,” the Times reported. “About 25,000 persons attended. There was also a parade through the principal streets of South Beach in which 5,000 persons participated.”
But, just like today, big development projects for Staten Island didn’t come easy.
Mayor LaGuardia was criticized by his colleagues in government for the number of trips he took to Washington to secure the WPA funding, but he declared “as long as there were airplanes, he would continue going to the capitol to seek as much money for New York City as possible.”
“No project has given me as many headaches and heartaches as this boardwalk,” Mayor LaGuardia said at the opening ceremonies, according to the Times. “This was due, I believe, to engineering complications. These obstacles were finally removed and today you have a beautiful boardwalk.”
(Photos: The entrance to Happyland Park with the beach in the foreground, the circular swing ride, courtesy of the Staten Island Historical Society; two postcards from Happyland, courtesy of the Staten Island Museum)