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Rockaways' Playland thrilled New Yorkers for nearly a century, then it was gone

For generations of New Yorkers, the Rockaway peninsula was as much a summer destination for the thrill of roller coasters and other amusements as Coney Island is today.

But no other place on the peninsula set the imagination afire as much as Playland, a celebrated amusement park that lasted over 80 years and "symbolized the glory days of Rockaway Beach as a tourist mecca" during the 20th Century. Famed for its Atom Smasher wooden roller coaster, featured in the 1950s film "This is Cinerama," Playland endured until the early 1980s.

"When I turned 12, my world opened up when I was given permission to visit Rockaways' Playland, a glorious amusement park on Beach 98th Street," recalled Edward Rohs in his memoir "Raised by the Church: Growing Up in New York City's Catholic Orphanages." "Even the entrance was thrilling -- a huge grinning clown face that promised untold joys. Visiting Playland gave me a giddy sense of freedom."

La Marcus Thompson, who introduced the first roller coaster at Coney Island, established what would become Playland as the L.A. Thompson Amusement Park in 1901. The park was sold to new owners in 1928, who renamed it Playland and brought in new rides including a roller coaster and a 165-foot-long swimming pool that would later be used for Olympic trials.

With the end of direct rail connection to the peninsula in the 1950s, the Rockaways were no longer New York's "favorite beach resort" and Playland suffered. Demographics changed, and fewer people went to the amusement park each year. An attempt at a turnaround with new owners in the early 1980s was short lived. By 1986, the Atom Smasher had been demolished and insurance rates were so high that the owners felt they had no choice but to shut the park down.

Here are rare photos of Playland from the 1950s to the 1980s, showing the fun and excitement at one of the city's last large amusement parks -- and its eventual razing to make way for a development.

Rockaways' Playland is seen in this undated photo.
Photo Credit: Newsday

Rockaways' Playland is seen in this undated photo.

Opening day at Rockaways' Playland finds Robert Lester,
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Jim Nightingale

Opening day at Rockaways' Playland finds Robert Lester, 9, of Lynbrook, enjoying a giant batch of cotton candy while waiting for his turn on the ride. (May 24, 1952)

A clown sign, seen on July 29, 1977,
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Barry Wong

A clown sign, seen on July 29, 1977, points the way at Rockaways' Playland.

Two women try out this Rockaways' Playland ride
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Barry Wong

Two women try out this Rockaways' Playland ride on July 29, 1977.

Visitors sample the attractions along the midway at
Photo Credit: Newsday

Visitors sample the attractions along the midway at Rockaways' Playland on July 29, 1977.

Richard Geist takes in the view of his
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Bill Senft

Richard Geist takes in the view of his Rockaways' Playland on July 29, 1977.

Maintenance man William Dauth, of Brooklyn, tightens nuts
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Bill Senft

Maintenance man William Dauth, of Brooklyn, tightens nuts and bolts on roller coaster ride from the top of Rockaways' Playland on July 29, 1977.

Tillie London and her granddaughter Jodi Geist work
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Barry Wong

Tillie London and her granddaughter Jodi Geist work at the ticket counter at Rockaways' Playland on July 29, 1977.

Mechanic Michael Magro, of Rockaway, works on the
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Bill Senft

Mechanic Michael Magro, of Rockaway, works on the merry-go-round at Rockaways' Playland on July 29, 1977.

People leave the elevated train at Beach 98th
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Jim Peppler

People leave the elevated train at Beach 98th Street, the Rockaways' Playland exit, and head for the beach on June 25, 1978.

Roller coaster ride, 1979

People ride the roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland
Photo Credit: Newsday

People ride the roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland on July 3, 1979.

The roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland gives a
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Gary A. Cameron

The roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland gives a view of the neighborhood below on July 3, 1979.

Mrs. Hanney, 71, has been the operator of
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Gary A. Cameron

Mrs. Hanney, 71, has been the operator of the "Kiddie Whip" ride at Rockaways' Playland for the past 25 years. (July 3, 1979)

Longtime
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Gary A. Cameron

Longtime "Kiddie Whip" operator Mrs. Hanney helps some of the children out of a car. (July 3, 1979)

An aerial view looking north of Rockaway Beach
Photo Credit: Newsday

An aerial view looking north of Rockaway Beach at Beach 98th Street shows Rockaways' Playland. (July 20, 1980)

A view from Rockaway Beach looking north at
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Don Norkett

A view from Rockaway Beach looking north at Beach 98th Street shows the boardwalk and part of Rockaways' Playland. (July 20, 1980)

Photo Credit: Newsday/ Dean Rutz

"That's no kid's ride," said Mrs. Kay Moody (rear car) as she and her niece, Rasheedah Brown, and nephew, Damien Robinson, climbed off a miniature roller coaster at Rockaways' Playland. "I think I was more scared than the kids," she said. In the front car are two more of her relatives, all from New Jersey, Christopher Ancrum and Jebon Perry. (July 18, 1981)

Photo Credit: Newsday/ Ken Sawchuk

"Smiling Josh the Clown" practices his juggling act for the opening of Rockaways' Playland. "Josh the Clown" is really Josh Herman, of West Paterson, N.J. (May 16, 1984)

Jimmy Carter, 11, holds up an old postcard
Photo Credit: Tom Kitts

Jimmy Carter, 11, holds up an old postcard he found next to the giant slide at the Rockaways' Playland amusement park. (June 1, 1987)

Joe Prout, a maintenance man at Rockaways' Playland,
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Ken Sawchuk

Joe Prout, a maintenance man at Rockaways' Playland, adjusts door hinge on the premises. (April 3, 1986)

Rockaways' Playland, eerily quiet early in the morning.
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Bill Senft

Rockaways' Playland, eerily quiet early in the morning. (July 29, 1977)

John Miller, of Rockaway Park, Queens, polishes up
Photo Credit: Newsday/ Ken Sawchuk

John Miller, of Rockaway Park, Queens, polishes up clown face at Rockaways' Playland at the pre-grand opening on May 16, 1984.

The demolition site of Rockaways' Playland has become
Photo Credit: Tom Kitts

The demolition site of Rockaways' Playland has become a hangout for many locals as they come to watch workmen bring down the old roller coaster. (June 1, 1987)

Mike Fanning, a New York Transit cop, takes
Photo Credit: Tom Kitts

Mike Fanning, a New York Transit cop, takes a Rockaways' Playland ticket sign away from the demolition site. Fanning has this sign and several others he found at the site, and he intends to keep them as souvenirs. In the background is the old roller coaster and landmark tower. (June 1, 1987)

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