March 13, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Carousels were important features at many early amusement parks, Elitch Gardens included. The popular ride originated in a traditional game of Byzantine and Arab horsemen dating from the 1100s. The game was actually a combat exercise in which riders galloped in a circle, tossing balls to one another. Crusaders took the custom back to Europe, calling the game “little battle” (garosello in Italian, carosella in Spanish, and carrousel in French). By the 17th century, the game had changed. Italians and French had dispensed with the ball toss. Instead, riders attempted use their lances to spear and remove small rings that were hanging from poles.
The carrousel shifted from combat training to amusement about 300 years ago when a Frenchman built a contraption with carved horses and chariots suspended by chains. The chains were connected from arms that radiated out from a center pole. Instead of riding real horses, cavalrymen practiced on the device, which rotated, still in an effort to spear the rings with their lances. These machines were small and were powered by man, mule, or horse. It didn’t take long before the carrousel began to appear at fairs and gatherings, solely for amusement.
Once the carrousel became a popular attraction at fairs, owners spent winter months carving the wooden animals and working on the turning mechanisms. During the summer months, they would travel from fair to fair. These early rides had no platforms and the suspended horses continued to fly outward, centrifugally, as the center mechanism was spun by walking animals or hand-cranking.
By the middle of the 19th century, the carousel had become a popular fixture at English fairs. By this time, a platform had been added and the animals and chariots were fixed to the floor. The floor was now suspended from the arms that connected to the center pole. The rides were known as dobbies and were still operated either manually or by ponies.
The first steam-powered carousel was invented by Thomas Bradshaw in 1861. The ride debuted at the Aylsham Fair and was described by the Halifax Courier as “a roundabout of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuousity [sic], that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon-ball, and driven into the middle of next month.” By 1870, engineer Frederick Savage, an agricultural engineer, developed an interest in fairground machinery and became an innovator in that field.
Frederick Savage experimented with a variety of carousels in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. On one, he included velocipedes (an early form of the bicycle). He also created the “Sea on Land”, a carousel with boats that pitched and rolled on cranks. Seeing the benefits of the cranks, he adapted that technology to sets of gears and offset cranks to give carousel animals an up-and-down motion. He was also the first innovator to use an organ to play music as the carousel circled and innovated the use of electric motors and lights.
The “golden age” of the carousel was from 1880 to 1930. In the U.S., immigrants carried on traditions from Europe. Well-known American manufacturers included the (Gustav) Dentzel Company, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, M.C. Illions, Herschell-Spillman, Stein & Goldstein, Looff, and C.W. Parker. These companies created bigger, more elaborate carousels than their European competitors and were owned by or employed master carvers who created whimsical hand-carved animals. The first carousel at Eltich Gardens, Carousel No. 6, was one of these elaborate creations. I’ll detail its history in April.
Next week, I’ll look into the history of roller coasters! Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.