1905: City Park Carousel and its ‘flying horses’ are cleared for takeoff
It started with a nondescript ad buried in the classifieds in The Daily Picayune on the morning of Oct. 17, 1905: “Sealed proposals for the privilege of a Carousel or Flying Horses in the City Park will be received … until Nov. 7, 1905, at 8 o’clock p.m. sharp.” It wasn’t the first carousel the city would get, or even the first in the City Park area. But it would be the most enduring, galloping its way into the hearts of New Orleanians young and old over the next century-plus.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 as one of 100 antique carousels in operation in the United States, the flying horses are the whirling heart of City Park’s Carousel Gardens, a seasonal amusement area that also includes bumper cars, a Tilt-A-Whirl, a Ferris wheel, a miniature train and about a dozen other kid-friendly rides.
- Of the 56 animals on the carousel, 53 are horses. The other three are a camel, a giraffe and a lion. The carousel also includes two chariots.
- The horses — which include standers (those with three feet on the ground), prancers (two hind legs on the ground) and jumpers (no feet on the ground) — have tails made of real horse hair.
- Many of the horses were carved by carousel masters Charles Looff and Charles Carmel, famous for creating the Coney Island style of carousel carving, according to City Park. Some are also believed to have been “borrowed” from a carousel at the old Spanish Fort amusement area, according to “New Orleans City Park” by Catherine Campanella.
- Wondering about the dollar value of the carousel or the animals that make it up? Keep wondering. “We don’t place a number price on the horses,” reads a City Park carousel brochure. “They are considered ‘priceless.'”
Every two years, the carousel animals are given a fresh coat of paint, applied by hand.
- The carousel was originally located along City Park Avenue. In 1928, it was disassembled and moved to its current location.
- It is still powered by the original 1906 motor and gets its tunes from a 1915 Wurlitzer 105 band organ.
- For a time, the City Park carousel was owned by Harry Batt Jr., who also operated the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park. In 1986, he sold it for $300,000 to Friends of City Park. The group paid for it with a loan — later forgiven — by William B. Hines, after whom Carousel Gardens is named.
- New Orleanians were referring to carousels as “flying horses” long before the City Park carousel came along. On Dec. 3, 1848, a Daily Picayune essay gushed about a similar ride that had been operating “for years” on the French Quarter levee. “What brilliant coats the flying horses possess, as mottled as any circus horse; and their trapping magnificent beyond comparison,” it read.
City Park’s flying horses were stilled in 2005 after the carousel took on 10 inches of water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The platform and deck buckled and had to be replaced. Some of the horses were sent to Connecticut for restoration. A half-million dollars and two years later, it reopened — in the process returning to storm-wearied New Orleanians the source of countless treasured memories as well as a much-needed sign of hope for the future. “The carousel is an iconic part of the park,” City Park CEO Bob Becker said in 2015. “It’s something that everyone recognizes from childhood through adult years. Its restoration and reopening were important signs that the park was going to come back and be better than ever.”