I remember many years ago going to the Danbury Fair with my mother when I was about six years old and riding the large merry-go-round there. You could hear the calliope music all the way across the fair. As you got closer to the carousel, the colors and lights on the brightly painted horses blended with the cheerful cries of delighted children.
Tugging on my mother’s arm, I couldn’t wait to get there. All the horses were different colors; some were dappled, others brown, white, or black. The saddles and bridles were different, too. The horses all had unique faces which seemed to give them their own personalities. It was an important moment when you picked out the horse you wanted to ride; after all, you had to trust him.
As the merry-go-round began to spin my mother and the outside world dissolved. The wonderful painted horses with flowing manes and flaring nostrils on their poles going up and down transported me into a dream world where I chased dragons and rode with Indians across the great plains. Those days are long gone, but the magic of childhood memories from that time remain and lend sweet thoughts to an old man’s head.
There was a time in America when thousands of carousels across the land, bringing joy to the hearts of children. After the Great Depression and the second World War, their popularity began to wane. At the height of the merry-go-round craze there were over two dozen carousels in Coney Island alone. Some of these carousels were permanent and some were traveling.
In the summer of 1883, a traveling carnival left their carousel behind in Watch Hill and no one knows the reason why. One theory is that the merry-go-round was of an older type that required a lot of maintenance and needed extensive repairs. It’s believed that the Watch Hill Carousel was created in 1867 by Andrew Christian and the Charles W. F. Dare Co. of New York City. It is the only surviving flying horse carousel in the country and the oldest continuously operating carousel in the United States.
The Watch Hill Carousel sits at the end of Bay Street in a ten sided hipped roof wood frame pavilion. The roof originally had been canvas. The twenty wooden horses consist of two sizes, with the larger horses on the outside. The horses are suspended by chains from sweeps radiating out from the center of the carousel under the canopy. The chains are attached to the rump and the pommel.
When the carousel rotates, centrifugal force drives the horses outward – hence the name “flying horses.” A low picket fence surrounds the structure to prevent access to the space in which the horses fly. The children mounted on the outside horses have a chance to grab the brass ring. In the early days each rider was equipped with a sword to pierce the ring held in the metal slot. Today children try to grab the ring with their right hand. If a child is lucky enough to snare the brass ring, they get a free ride.
The original carousel was powered by two men turning cranks. The men were replaced by a horse a few years later. A rope was tied around the center pole which the horse unwound as he walked. The ride was over when the rope was completely unwound.
The first horse to pull the carousel so loved his job that during the winter months he would escape from his stable in Westerly and find his way to the carousel to walk his circuitous summer path. The horse was replaced in 1897 by water power and then electrified in 1914.
In 1948, Mrs. Harriet Moore found the horses in bad shape and spearheaded preservation with the Watch Hill Fire District to restore the horses. In 1961, a new roof was constructed and the sweeps were strengthened. In 1993, local artist Gary L. Anderson was hired to refurbish the horses.
He discovered that they were not carved out of a single block of wood, as previously thought, but from many sections pieced together. Originally they were carved as spring rocking horses and were adapted for use in the carousel.
Mr. Anderson painted reproductions of famous illustrations from the 19th and 20th centuries to replace the rounding boards covering the center mechanism. The Flying Horse Carousel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
The Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel has endured for over 137 years and thrives today as a simple form of entertainment that has delighted children for generations.
This treasure survived the devastating hurricane of 1938 but was extensively damaged. After the storm the horses were found buried in sand dunes. Three chariots that it once had were lost and were never replaced.
Take my advice and visit the carousel with your children. To ride the outside horses costs $1.50 and the inside horses cost a dollar. I’m sure this is the only place in America where you can buy a memory that will last a life time for just a dollar.
The carousel hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays and Holidays, and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Labor Day to Columbus Day.