Which Was The First Coney Island?

Heid’s of Liverpool, in Liverpool, NY, on April 20, 2018. While certainly not a “Coney Island restaurant” per se, it’s one of the earliest continually-operating hot dog shops in the U.S., and may be where Simion Brayan stopped near Rochester on his way to Flint.

There is constant debate about when and where the Coney Island hot dog was first served. As to current discussions and, yes, arguments, the earliest known year is 1914, with Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island Wiener Stand in Ft. Wayne, Indiana [“History page“, Ft. Wayne’s Famous Coney Island], and both Todoroff’s Original Coney Island in Jackson, Michigan [“Todoroff’s Original Coney Island“, Jackson, MI], and Virginia Coney Island [Virginia Coney Island, Jackson, Michigan] opening that year. Specific opening dates for those three locations are not known.

Discussions such as this one describe what defines either a “hot dog” or a “coney”, i.e., that it’s the sausage itself, not defined by any added buns, sauces, or other toppings. That page also shows that the Flint Coney Island initially described itself in 1920 as “Coney Island brought to Flint”, while offering New York-style Red Hots.
Considering these definitions, and in researching older newspapers, it’s now apparent the first Coney Islands weren’t where they might have been expected. It turns out they were a pair of Coney Island Red Hot stands operated by the same individual, a John L. Hay, at waterside parks in Saginaw and Bay City, Michigan.
The ad in the Bay City Times on May 31, 1907, for the opening of Wenona Beach Park that June 2nd.
Wenona Beach Park in Bay City, Michigan, which had first opened in 1900 and was expanded in 1903, opened for the 1907 season on June 2nd. An ad in the Bay City Times on May 31st described a casino, a one-act play and other entertainment, rides, restaurant, ice cream, and “Coney Island Red Hots.” How those were to be provided wasn’t quite clear in the ad.
The ad in the Bay City Times on July 4, 1908.
For the ad for Wenona Beach Park the following year on July 4, 1908, the Red Hot Stand was described as “The Original John Hay Coney Island”, with a W.W. Hodgkins being named as “Prop.” (Proprietor) This is apparently the first naming of a stand or restaurant outside the state of New York as a “Coney Island.”
The ad in the Saginaw News on July 3, 1911, for John Hay’s second location.
By 1911, Hay’s Original Cony [sic] Island Red Hots had apparently become so popular, he opened a second location at Riverside Park slightly south of Bay City in Saginaw, Michigan. The ad for that opening also included a photo of Mr. Hay, with the caption “You All Know Him.”
The ad for the baker of the buns for John Hay’s Red Hots on June 17, 1916.
By 1916, Hay’s “sugar bun” supplier Westphal’s Home Bakery advertised their cakes, breads, cookies, and other items in the Saginaw News, piggybacking their ad on his stand’s increasing popularity.
Ads for John Hay’s stands at Riverside Park in Saginaw and Wenona Beach Park in Bay City ceased after 1919 and 1920 respectively, indicating Mr. Hay had likely closed those stands.

A timeline of openings of the first two decades of the earliest coney island restaurants in widespread areas of the US is rather telling:

  • 1907 – Original John Hay Red Hot Coney Island Stand, Bay City, Michigan (closed 1920)
  • 1908 – Hay’s Cony Island Red Hot Stand, Saginaw, Michigan (closed 1919)
  • 1914 – Ft. Wayne Coney Island, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
  • 1914 – Todoroff’s Coney Island, Jackson, Michigan (closed 2008)
  • 1914 – Virginia Coney Island, Jackson, Michigan
  • 1915 – Coney Island Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo, Michigan
  • 1916 – Coney Island Lunch, McKeesport, Pennsylvania (closed 2017)
  • 1917 – American Coney Island, Detroit, Michigan
  • 1917 – The Coney Island Lunch Restaurant & Tavern, Pottsville, Pennsylvania
  • 1918 (?) – Lafayette Coney Island, Detroit, Michigan
    (The story about the American and Lafayette coney shops can be found here.)
  • 1919 – Flint Original Coney Island, Flint, Michigan (served NY-style coneys until 1925, closed 1979)
  • 1920 – Nick’s Coney Island, Fall River, Massachusetts
  • 1921 – Red Hot’s Coney Island, Highland Park, Michigan (closed 2021)
  • 1921 – Original Coney Island, Duluth, Minnesota (closed 2017)
  • 1922 – Empress Chili, Cincinnati, Ohio
    (While not specifically termed a “coney island”, the Macedonion roots and culture are uniquely similar to other coney shops of the time.)
  • 1922 – Original Coney Island Sandwich Shop, Portland, Oregon (founded by Louis Gellos, closed 1969)
  • 1923 – Coney Island Lunch, Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • 1923 – Coney Island Texas Lunch, Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • 1923 – James Coney Island, Houston, Texas
  • 1923 – Mama Vicki’s Coney Island, Port Huron, Michigan
  • 1923 – M&P Coney Island, New Castle, Pennsylvania
  • 1925 – Flint Original Coney Island, Flint, Michigan (recipe changed from NY-style to Flint style in 1925, closed 1979)
    Note: Flint Coney Island first appeared in city directories in 1926.
  • 1926 – Coney Island Hot Weiners, Tulsa, Oklahoma
    (Founder and Greek immigrant Christ Economou had opened Coney Island Lunch in McKeesport, Pennsylvania ten years earlier, which closed in 2017. Coney Island Hot Weiners in Tulsa was his 27th coney shop, and his first in Oklahoma.)
  • 1928 – Coney Island Deluxe, Duluth, Minnesota

Except for Lafayette and American Coney Islands in Detroit, Todoroff’s and Virginia Coney Island in Jackson, Michigan, and Coney Island Lunch and Coney Island Texas Lunch, both in Scranton, Pennsylvania, each of the owners would likely not have known what the others were doing, as communication between immigrants in those days was sparse. It’s also clear that the owners immigrated from various parts of Greece and Macedonia at various times. That the Coney Island phenomenon occured at all is an interesting matter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.