New Yorkers might be surprised to learn that not all carousel horses look as fierce as those in Central Park – although perhaps they should. The Cid, Jagiello, and Joan of Arc rode into battle on warhorses that were armored and bedecked in dazzling colors.
To hone their battle skills, rulers and noblemen held jousting tournaments. By the 18th century those who weren’t high-class enough to join in such pageantry had invented an alternative: the circle of gaily decorated wooden horses known as a carousel.
In 1871 Boss Tweed’s cronies, knowing that the way to many voters’ hearts is through their children, gave permission for a carousel to be built within the pastoral precincts of Central Park. A mule and a blind horse powered the carousel, stopping when the operator stamped his foot. Although the Tweed Ring was ousted after only a few years, the carousel was by then so popular that the Board of Commissioners decided not to herd the “flying horses” out of the park.
The horse-driven carousel, destroyed by fire in 1924, was replaced with a carousel powered by an electric motor. That one burned down in 1950. It was promptly replaced with this spectacular carousel whose native habitat was the far reaches of Brooklyn.
Why Brooklyn? In the late 19th century, Coney Island was at the end of several railroad lines – distant from Manhattan, yet accessible. An upscale vacation destination, it was filled with hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks. Dozens of carousels were created there in the distinctive “Coney Island style.” The glaring eyes, muscular bodies, and wind-whipped manes and tails of these horses made them worthy descendants of their jousting forebears.
But when automobiles became more common after World War II, New Yorkers started to spend their vacations in ever more distant places. The carousel that used to entertain children at the end of the BMT line was left to gather dust until it was relocated to Central Park.
- This narration was written for the Guides Who Know videoguide app on Central Park, now in production. See here for samples of the Monuments of Manhattan app.
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