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Elitch Gardens’ Carousel #51


September 11, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

In 1928, the original 1906 carousel at Elitch Gardens was replaced. Owner John Mulvihill ordered the ride from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the same company that manufactured the original Elitch carousel, in 1927 as part of a plan to update the park with more modern attractions.

According to national experts on carousels, #51 was a gem. Lights, mirrors, and scenery panels covered every surface. Elaborately hand-carved jumper (going up and down as well as around) and stationary horses circle the center, four abreast. Gold and aluminum leaf embellish the ride, which took nearly three years to craft.

Mulvihill paid a shocking $20,000 for the work of art; seventy-five years later it was appraised at over $200,000. It still operates at Elitch Gardens today, moved to the new site in 1994/95.

Carousel #51 includes sixty-four horses—carousel number six was among the last of the carousels that featured a full menagerie of animals. But what grand horses they are. Forty-four of them are jumping horses, in the inner rows. The outer row contains twenty larger stationary horses and two Roman chariots.

The horses are carved from yellow poplar. Carvers first created hollow boxes to keep the horses light then carved the laminated box frames into shape. The joints were pegged and glued (with animal hide glue); very few nails or screws used.

Individual carvers created each horse differently. All have different positions and unique embellishments, many with the whimsical details Philadelphia Toboggan Company was famous for. Carousel #51 was carved by three of the industry’s best known old-world carvers.

Most of the sixty-four horses were carved by the Italian master, Frank Caretta. Caretta was the head carver for Philadelphia Toboggan Company at the time. He was a former furniture maker and favored strong, powerful horses. His creations for Carousel #51 were no exception. The large animals are each unique, with elaborate carving and fanciful detail. The lead horse, larger than the others, is a knight’s armored charger. Prancing as if on parade, the charger is cloaked in flowing robes and adorned with a feathered plume. It’s shield contains the monogram PTC. The rich details are painted in bold colors.

The second master craftsman to work on Carousel #51 was John Zalar, who created the two large chariots and the chariot horses. Zalar had previously carved church religious works in his native Austria and was known as the “Michelangelo of Carvers.”

One of Zalar’s chariots, known as “Angel” is decorated with a life-sized angel. The angel’s wings stretch across the top of the chariot while a fanciful cherub attends her at the front. A garland of roses drapes across the angel. The second chariot is known as “Columbia” and is patriotic in nature. Lady Liberty, wrapped in an American flag, forms the front-piece. A bust of an American Indian in a full feathered headdress sits above her. Experts believe “Columbia” was likely carved some ten years prior to the 1928 sale, during World War I. Zalar also created the two horses pulling each chariot, adorning them with rose-draped harnesses and feathered plumes.

The third carver to make his mark on the carousel was Gustav Dentzel. Dentzel had long been regarded as the “Master of all Carvers” by industry professionals. The son of a master carver in Germany, Dentzel came to America around 1860, beginning his own cabinet-making and carousel business in 1867. His son, Bill, took over his company in 1909 when Gustav died and when Bill died in 1927, much of the remaining inventory was sold to the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Two of the smaller, inner row horses were crafted by Dentzel and added to the carousel. Their true significance was unknown until discovered years later when paint layers were cleaned off and the original brilliance revealed.

Eighteen scenery panels also adorn the carousel’s center. They are decorated with painted scenes and beveled mirrors. A domed ceiling is painted with a peaceful sky scene, full of birds, clouds, and butterflies. A few sliver cherubs, with their musical instruments, also peer down on riders.

Elitch’s Carousel #51 is one of only twenty-eight hand-carved Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousels remaining. The company manufactured such carousels (along with wooden roller coasters and other amusements) from 1904 to 1934. Nine of the carousels are known to have been destroyed by fire while many others were disassembled, their horses and scenery sold to collectors. A few, such as Carousel #51 and Carousel #6 (Elitch’s 1906 carousel, now at Kit Carson County fairgrounds) are still in operation today.


Next week, in honor of my September 16 release day, I will share a bit about the characters in Escaping Yesterday. 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 (

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.

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