April 17, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Carousel Number 6, the sixth carousel produced by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, was purchased by Tom and Mary Long for the 1905 season of Elitch Gardens. The 12-sided ride featured 46 hand-carved animals on a 45-foot diameter platform. The carousel was stationary (the animals did not go up and down) but it spun at 12 mph (compared to the average carousel at 8 mph). This carousel was one of the last to feature a full menagerie of animals rather than just horses and today is the only surviving one of its type. It is now located in Burlington, Colorado and is still operational. One ride reveals the 12 mph is still a thrill!
The carousel was manufactured by hand in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Toboggan Company was formed in 1904 and made carousels and other amusement rides, supplying parks throughout the United States. The original Figure Eight roller coaster at Elitch Gardens was also made by the company. Nine carousels were sold during its first two years in business, the Elitch carousel among them. In 1931, the company suspended production of carousels.
The bodies of the figures were made of poplar or basswood and consisted of a hollow box framed by two-inch pieces of lumber. The boxes were then carved into the shapes of animals. The heads and necks were assembled separately and glass eyes glued into the carvings. The work was guided by master-carver Charles Leopold and carried out by Leopold and his staff. At the time of purchase, the animals were completed and waiting for assembly when the Elitch Gardens agent made the decision to change the order and include a few different animals that had been intended for carousels 7 and 8 instead. The bear still retains its stamped mark indicating it was designed for a later ride.
The animals on Carousel Number 6 are intricately carved and painted as well as whimsical. The lion is stately with a flowing mane so intricate that no one would suspect it was made of wood. Sharp teeth and a lifelike tongue are nestled inside its open mouth, beneath nostrils that flare with feline prowess. Proud medieval horses wear bright silver armor. There are Appaloosas and pintos, fine Thoroughbreds and noble Arabians. They prance, gallop, and trot, wearing an assortment of saddles. A spirited Indian pony stands next to a whimsical creature with the upper body of a horse and the tail of a fish. The giraffe has a snake twined around its neck, the zebra has a tiny spear laden gnome hidden behind its saddle, and tiny cupids seem to float at the lion’s side. Each animal has intricate detail from real antlers to horseshoes to glass eyes. Costs were less than $17 per animal.
The craftsmanship on Carousel Number 6 extended beyond the carving of the animals. Master painter Gustav Weiss left his mark on the intricate details of the animals and the four chariots. Weiss charged $4.50 each for painting the large first row animals, $3.00 each for the second row, and $2.50 each for the smaller inside animals. In addition, there are 45 oil paintings around the center of the carousel. Max Soltman painted the scenery panels on the stretched cotton muslin while Weiss painted the frames. Assistants helped on less detailed aspects.
Elitch Gardens replaced Carousel Number 6 with a newer model in 1928. The ride was sold to Kit Carson County for $1200 (including delivery charges) and moved to Burlington, Colorado. The controversial purchase ruined the political career of at least one county commissioner. A Wurlitzer Monster Organ (built in 1909) was also sold to Kit Carson County, though the organ had most likely been used at a skating rink at Elitch’s rather than as part of the carousel. The self-playing band organ was designed by Eugene deKleist and contained 255 pipes (trumpets, trombones, clarinets), bass and snare drums, and a cymbal. The instrument used music rolls; the 1906 model sold for $3250. Its large leaded glass windows could be opened to increase the volume. Kit Carson County was forced to modify portions of the fancy cabinetry in order to fit the organ behind the inner roll of paintings at the center of the carousel.
Restored in 1976, the organ is the most complete of only three surviving Monster Organs. Restoration work was completed by Art Reblitz in Colorado Springs. More than 1000 hours of labor were put in by Riblitz and his staff to address issues with pumps, reservoirs, pipe chests, self-playing mechanisms, the wood and metal piping, drums and associated mechanisms, and roll machinery. The cabinetry was refinished by Merle Worden, a local craftsman.
Once in Burlington, Carousel Number 6 was housed in a twelve-sided wood frame building with each side opening with an awning-style upper door and the ride was operated during county fairs. The fair was discontinued during the Great Depression and the building (with the carousel still inside) was used to store corn stocks and hay as part of a government assistance program. When the feed was removed, extensive rodent damage was revealed. The carousel was scrubbed down and given a coat of varnish and was used until the 1970s. Attention to the organ restoration brought notice to the condition of the carousel. The paintings were repaired and restored in 1977, revealing their original brilliance. In 1979, restoration began on the animals.
Will Morton spent 18 months on the restoration work. Fortunately, during its years at Elitch Gardens, the animals had not been repainted. While this dulled the animals considerably, it left the original paint visible. Layers of varnish were removed and the original colors matched in the areas where paint had worn away. Other aspects of the ride have also since been restored. Today, the carousel’s original splendor has been returned and it has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
The carousel was a victim of a theft ring in 1981 when the building it is housed in was broken into during a heavy rainstorm. Three small horses and a donkey were removed. Fortunately their rarity made them too hot to sell and the animals were recovered five months later and returned to Burlington. A parade and a new alarm system welcomed them home.
The carousel operates daily each summer and a small museum houses displays on its history, construction, and operation. The Kit Carson Carousel Association loves visitors! For more information and incredible photos, visit their website at www.kitcarsoncountycarousel.com.
I’ve also included Carousel Number 6 as part of Lottie and Caleb’s story in ESCAPING YESTERDAY.
Next week, I will return to Pullman Cars to offer details I didn’t have room for last week. 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.