Circle Back Into the Past at These Historic Carousel Destinations
Historic carousels have long held cultural value as cherished family attractions. “Everybody remembers carousels from some time in their lives,” says Patrick Wentzel, president of the nonprofit National Carousel Association (NCA), which offers grants and technical assistance, and has held an annual convention for the past 45 years. “You see very few frowns going around a carousel. They’re great to visit, and great for their communities to have.” The origins of this amusement park staple can be traced back to a combat training exercise practiced by Turkish and Arabian soldiers in the 12th century. However, carousels built for public use did not appear until the 1700s. World-class carvers such as Gustav Dentzel of Germany and Charles I.D. Looff of Denmark immigrated to the United States during the 19th century, using their creativity and technical expertise to craft the most intricate, visually impressive machines of their kind in the world.
The “Golden Age of Carousels” ended with the Great Depression. But around 215 historic wooden merry-go-rounds can still be found across the country, each with a unique story to tell.
The Kit Carson County Carousel in Burlington, Colorado, was initially constructed for the Elitch Gardens amusement park in 1905. But due to rapid advancements in carousel design, Elitch Gardens staff soon decided that theirs had become outdated. They sold it to Kit Carson County for $1,200 in 1928—more than $17,000 in 2018 dollars. Little did they know that the structure would be named a National Historic Landmark in 1987, as the oldest operating carousel produced by the prolific Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Forty-six hand-carved horses, lions, giraffes, and more are mounted on the carousel, including three horses and a donkey that were stolen in May of 1981 (but were recovered five months later).
Built by the William H. Dentzel Company of Philadelphia in 1921, the Dentzel Carousel in Maryland’s Glen Echo Park has remained in its original location for nearly 100 years. That may not have been the case, however, without the efforts of the community, which raised $80,000 in 1970 to stymie a private collector’s bid to remove it. A decade earlier, the carousel even played a role in the Civil Rights movement, when a group of African American college students entered the segregated amusement park and boarded the ride. Several were arrested, but the park was desegregated the following year. The carousel was restored in 2003.
City Park Carousel (pictured at top), built in 1910 and brought to New Orleans’s City Park in 1948, is the only historic wooden carousel in Louisiana. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with its accompanying pavilion. Many of the ride’s 53 horses possess tails made of real horse hair, and—aside from one stuntman breaking a horse’s leg during filming for the 2013 film Now You See Me—they have been immaculately maintained. They are repainted every two years, keeping the city treasure in top condition.
Much of the history of the National Carousel Association’s Primitive Carousel remains a mystery, but many experts believe the platform-free structure, thought to have been built in the 1860s, could be the oldest carousel in the country. The ride can still be operated by hand crank, and the bodies of its 12 horses were made from individual blocks of wood, unlike the standard hollow-body construction of most other wooden carousel horses. The NCA purchased the carousel in 1997, placing it on display at the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas. Though rides are not permitted, it remains an invaluable relic from an earlier period of carousel construction.
Though the carousel it originally housed—the final one constructed by Charles I.D. Looff—was removed in 1939, the Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome remains the most prominent intact structure from the days of the Looff Pleasure Pier, now called the Santa Monica Pier. Built in 1916 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987, the Hippodrome is one of only two remaining buildings of its kind on the West Coast. A different historic carousel made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company now spins inside, allowing visitors to enjoy the Hippodrome as it was meant to be experienced.
After more than a century’s worth of weather damage, improper repairs, and ordinary wear and tear, the Grand Carousel in Memphis, Tennessee, looks better than ever after a two-year, $1 million-plus restoration project. The 1909 carousel, one of Gustav Dentzel’s few remaining all-horse carousels, spent nearly a decade in storage following the closure of Libertyland amusement park, its previous home. But in December of 2017, the restored carousel reopened inside a brand-new building at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, bringing its 48 horses galloping back to life.