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Carousel Goes Around and Around for 80 Years

by Tom Carrier (03/17/09).

The original carousel house at Elitch Gardens in Denver Colo.

The original carousel house at Elitch Gardens amusement park in Denver Colo.

It’s an unbelievable place where you can sit and ride and dream and dream.”

It’s an unbelievable place where you can sit and ride and dream and dream.”

It was one of the most popular rides at the original Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colo. It goes up and down and round and round, but it isn’t the Boomerang, the Half Pipe or the Twister roller coaster. It is simply known as the Carousel.

For more than 80 years, the Elitch Gardens carousel, with its hand-sculpted and hand-painted horses in grand colors and wonderfully expressive features, has entertained generations of children and adults alike. Still operating in what was the original Elitch Gardens amusement park from 1890 to 1994, the carousel was bought by Mary Elitch in 1928 from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, maker of elaborate mechanical carousels.

“They got this magical world,” said Barbara Charles, nationally known expert on historic carousels. “Every surface is covered, the lights, the mirrors, even inside the trappings of the outside scenery, it’s an unbelievable place where you can sit and ride and dream and dream.

“The chariots on this carousel are particularly interesting,” added Charles. “Probably carved as many as eight or 10 years earlier, at the height of World War I, the patriotism is reflected in ‘Miss Columbia’ and the flags and the overall motif of them.”

Carver John Zalar, who worked for the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, honed his skill creating religious works for churches in Austria, created each of the two horses on both chariots. While no one knows who carved the elaborate Roman-style chariots, they are still what most people come to see.

All of the horses on the Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #51, as the Elitch Gardens carousel is known, were hand-carved by master Old World craftsmen. The “PTC” initials are visible on the horse’s shoulder.

All of the horses on the Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carousel #51, as the Elitch Gardens carousel is known, were hand-carved by master Old World craftsmen. The “PTC” initials are visible on the horse’s shoulder.

All of the horses in PTC Carousel #51, as the Elitch Gardens carousel is known, were hand-carved by master Old World craftsmen such as Frank Caretta from Italy. As head carver for the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, Caretta, a former furniture maker, created the patterns for the horses on the Elitch Gardens carousel. He used bold colors, fanciful expressions with gold and aluminum leaf, particularly on the armored lead horse that bears the company’s initials “PTC.”

From 1904 to 1934, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, based in Hatfield, Pa., manufactured the Cadillac of hand-carved elaborate carousels, like #51. While they also manufactured wooden roller coasters, the coaster cars and even skee ball machines, it is the beautiful carousels that made them famous. Today, only 28 of the elaborate, hand-carved carousels are left. At least nine were destroyed by fire, and others, particularly the elaborate ones, may have been split up and sold. Still, may PTC carousels are still operating across the United States and in Australia, a tribute to their impressive craftsmanship of their master carvers and mechanical engineers.

The current carousel house at Elitch Gardens, where the merry-go-round has been in service for more than 80 years.

The current carousel house at Elitch Gardens, where the merry-go-round has been in service for more than 80 years.

So, next time you ride a carousel, think of carousel carvers John Zalar, Frank Caretta and others like them. Could they possibly have known how much pleasure their work would bring? Just how much pleasure could that be? A billion miles and smile, or more? Enough distance to travel from here to the moon? The answer isn’t in numbers. It is in the eyes of a child on the back of his chosen steed. That’s the pleasure a carousel brings.

To view a video on the Elitch Gardens Carousel, click here.

Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.

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