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5 cool facts about America’s historic beaches

There’s nothing like experiencing the sun, sand, and surf of a really good beach vacation — and if there’s some history to explore along the way, even better. Some of the most iconic beaches in the United States have weird origins, forgotten wonders, quirky curiosities, and stories that changed the shape of the country.

Which seaside locale once had an elephant-shaped red-light district? What formerly domesticated animals run wild in Key West, Florida? How did Atlantic City get its famous boardwalk? These facts might make your next beach trip just a little more fascinating.

Coney Island had a 12-story elephant-shaped building

Today, Coney Island’s most recognizable features include the Wonder Wheel and the defunct Parachute Jump, but for several years, its most unmistakable structure was a 12-story wooden elephant dubbed Elephantine Colossus. The structure reached its full height (between 122 and 175 feet tall, depending on the source) in 1884, a couple of years before the Statue of Liberty went up, making it one of the first things to greet visitors approaching the New York shoreline. An outsized howdah — a kind of saddle with a canopy, frequently seen on elephants — served as its observation deck, and visitors could peer out of its glass eyes.

The building had other functions, too. Its front legs, each 18 feet in diameter, housed a tobacco shop and a diorama, while its back legs held spiral staircases to the upper floors. The Elephantine Colossus had originally been built as a hotel, with 31 rooms filling up its body, including a grand hall, a museum, and a gallery, although it was more useful as a concert hall and general amusement destination. Eventually, the elephant developed a seedy reputation, with rent-by-the-hour rooms in what one historian called a “tin, elephant-shaped red-light district.

Sadly, the elephant’s reign over Coney Island was short-lived, and it burned down spectacularly in September 1896, although with little damage to the surrounding businesses. According to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article at the time, witnesses first noticed the blaze through the Colossus’ eyes. “[In] twenty minutes, the huge beast of wood and tin collapsed,” read the report, “first falling to its knees with what sounded almost like a groan of agony, and then rolling over into a shapeless mass, where it smouldered and burned until it was finally drowned into submission by the fire department.”

Key West is full of feral chickens

A number of famous folks have lived on the distant Florida island of Key West, including the writers Ernest Hemingway, Shel Silverstein, and Tennesee Williams, musician Jimmy Buffett, and President Harry S. Truman. But locally, its most famous residents might be the feral chickens, which make up a significant part of everyday life on the key.

Key West, which is close to Cuba, saw a huge influx of residents from Cuba and the Caribbean in the 1800s. They brought along their Cubalaya chickens, which are equally useful for meat, eggs, and fighting. Even more chickens came with displaced families during the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.

Key West banned cockfighting in 1970, around the same time meat and eggs were becoming more widely available in grocery stores. Cubalaya chickens are excellent foragers, and as keeping them in coops became less of a necessity, a feral population grew around the island. The chickens are now a beloved staple of local life.

The local government has tried to address the chicken population a couple of times; once, they hired a chicken wrangler to capture the animals and transport them to free-range farms. After suspicions grew that the chickens were actually being killed at the farms, that plan was scrapped, and residents threw a four-day ChickenFest to celebrate their neighbors. Now, the island’s wildlife center sees to the welfare of the chickens.

The first boardwalk was in Atlantic City

The boardwalk is an American beach staple, inspiring popular songs and gracing iconic beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic alike. But the beach boardwalk as we know it started in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which erected its first boardwalk in 1870.

The town got an influx of tourists thanks to its beautiful beaches and a railway line, and a hotelier and a railroad conductor had the idea to build a wooden walkway to keep sand out of both the hotels and railcars. The first boardwalk was about a mile long, 8 feet wide, and just a foot off the ground; it was designed to be packed up at the end of the season and put back out once the tourists came back. As Atlantic City grew to be more than a summer destination, the boardwalk grew bigger and more permanent. A second boardwalk, built 10 years later, was 14 feet wide. By 1890, the boardwalk was a full 24 feet wide with railings to keep pedestrians from falling to the beach below, and by 1900, Boardwalk was considered an official city street.

Today, the Atlantic City Boardwalk is more than 4 miles long and is part of 32 miles of boardwalk in New Jersey alone.

Cannon Beach is named for a disappearing cannon

Cannon Beach, Oregon, is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most recognizable beaches thanks to its starring role in several films, most notably The Goonies (1985). It’s also located near one of the most dangerous stretches of water: the Columbia River Bar, where the massive river meets the Pacific Ocean. Large ships need to hire a bar pilot to guide them through safely. In the 1840s, the captain of a ship sent by President James K. Polk got impatient and decided to try it on his own. The ship wrecked, and people started picking up the goodies that washed up to shore.

A local mail carrier found one of the ship’s cannons, pulled it up, and left it on the beach so he could come back to it — only to find the tide had changed by the time he came back, taking the cannon with it. A few years later, someone else found the cannon, but before they could pull it up from the beach (it weighed about a ton), the cannon disappeared again. This happened several times over the next 50 years or so.

At the time, Cannon Beach was called Ecola, which is “whale” in Chinook, but it kept getting confused for another town in Oregon called Eola. In 1922, the beach was rechristened with its current name.

Venice Beach was developed with miles of canals

Venice Beach has its own rich history and identity today, but at the turn of the 20th century, it was a resort modeled off Venice, Italy — hence the name. “Venice of America,” developed by tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney, originally had seven canals dredged from the marshlands, wrapped around four islands and meeting in a saltwater lagoon at one end. (Six more canals popped up to the south, in a development unrelated to the resort.) Like its namesake, this Venice had gondola rides, and, since the development was not designed for automobiles, homeowners along the canals navigated with their own watercraft.

Eventually, visitors expected to be able to reach Venice by car, and after a lengthy legal battle, the city of Los Angeles filled in all the original canals and turned the former lagoon into a traffic circle. Six southern canals, which encircle three rectangular islands, were eventually preserved as a historic district in 1982, and still survive today. They’re not always easy to spot from the surface, but they’re easy to see on Google Maps.

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