Westerly 350th Anniversary Committee 

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© 2018-2019 by Westerly 350th Anniversary Committee.

Designed by Kayla Hedman.

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The Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel and the Watch Hill Landscape

Written by: Kyra McCormick

Watch Hill, Rhode Island has an extensive history, from a defense lookout to a premier resort town for the rich and famous. In colonial times, “a watch manned the Hill for the specific purpose of lighting a beacon fire that would warn the locals of any pending danger.”[1] Hence the name, Watch Hill. Of the landmarks in Watch Hill, one stands out, the Flying House Carousel. Left by the Charles W. Dare Company in 1879 the carousel has become symbolic in the Watch Hill landscape, weathering over 140 years of coastal weather, bringing joy to several generations of children.

The Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel is located at the end of Bay Street in Watch Hill, a village of Westerly, RI in the southwestern part of the state. The Watch Hill Carousel has the honor of being the oldest continuously operating carousel in the United States and the oldest example of the flying horse carousel still in operation.[2] It was constructed by the Charles W. Dare Company of New York sometime around 1876. It was part of a traveling carnival until it was abandoned in Watch Hill sometime around 1879.[3] Since then, the Watch Hill Fire District and the Watch Hill Improvement Society owns and operates the carousel.

The original horses that were constructed in the late 1870’s are still the same horses used today. Each horse was carved out of a single piece of wood and hand painted by Andrew Christian. Each horse is complete with a genuine leather saddle and the horse’s mane is made from real horsehair.[4] The carousel is a ‘flying horse carousel’ meaning the wooden horses hang from metal chains and as the carousel spins the horses fly outward. There is a medal shoot that dispenses brass rings. The riders of the carousel reach out and grab the rings as they ‘fly’ by. The last ring is gold, the child who grabs the last ring gets a token for a free ride (Figure 1). Generations of children have spent their summers riding the carousel, followed by getting ice cream from St. Claire’s Annex.

Figure 1. A child reaching for a brass ring.

The Carousel was originally housed under a canvas tent, as it was never meant to be a permanent part of Watch Hill.[1] Over time, the carousel came to consist of “20 wooden horses ranged 2 abreast and suspended by chains from wooden sweeps sheltered by a decagonal, hip- roofed pavilion with cobblestone piers.”[2] The three biggest changes to the carousel were technological, repairs, and restoration. The technological changes include mode of power and source of music. The Carousel was originally powered by two men turning a crank. Next, powered by a calico horse turning the same crank. Finally, powered by electricity in 1914.[3] The music was originally played by hand organ, then a band organ, finally a tape player was installed.[4] On September 21, 1938 a category 3 hurricane surprised residents in New England. Following the storm, the carousel housing was mostly intact, and all 20 horses were found in a sand dune. The only thing that didn’t survive the storm were three double seats. All that needed replacing was the roof framing and cover, along with the picket fence[5]. Compared to the rest of Watch Hill, which saw 15 deaths and 53 homes swept out to sea, the carousel was lucky[6] (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Damage caused by the Hurricane of 38. Among the debris, the roof of the carousel can be seen still standing in the distance.

Ongoing since 1961, have been restoration jobs. In 1974, the horses saw some much-needed restoration, including re-carving two missing legs, new saddles were created, and new tails and manes were created from real horsehair. Straps were also added to the horses, so children would not fly off.[1] In 1996, a major restoration project took place and the horses were analyzed by experts. The horses have seen their fair share of tough love throughout the century. Gary Anderson, woodcarver and one of the caretakers of the horses, compared removing the layers of paint to an archaeological dig, “every time you went through one of the 50 layers of paint, you could see another period of the horses’ past.”[2] The horses today look happy and docile, beneath the layers of paint the horses appearance changed and looked more wild with flaming red nostrils.[3] No matter how the appearance of the horses may have changed throughout time their meaning and significance remained.

The Watch Hill Carousel has become a permanent part of Watch Hill’s landscape. Each year, hundreds of children ride the carousel. Creating memories that will never fade. Many bring their children to the carousel, so they too can experience the magic of the carousel. It becomes a shared memory. A Facebook page for the carousel is filled with comments that talk about these shared memories. For example, Catherine Laughlin wrote, “I have ridden on this carousel many times. The best thing is knowing my mother (passed 2 years ago at 91) rode on the exact same carousel when she was a child with her mother, my Memee.”[4] It is memories like that which keep the carousel running. There is an ongoing debate among professionals whether the original horses should be retired and put into a museum or continue being used[5]. Currently the original horses are still being used. The people who work with these horses believe that if they still can be safely used then they should. They are part of the carousel and town; they represent resiliency of Watch Hill. After 140 years the horses continue to weather humidity, wind, sand, salt water, heat, hurricanes, Nor’easters, storm surge, and wear. But the Carousel remains. It has managed to stay the same while nearly everything around it has changed. The Carousel and Watch Hill has survived over 200 years and neither is backing down. No doubt they will both remain until the bitter end. Without a doubt, children today will one day watch their children on the carousel.

[1] (Lynch, 1978)

[2] (Beneath the Paint: One Man's Trip Through an Old Carousel's Distant Past , 1996)

[3] (Beneath the Paint: One Man's Trip Through an Old Carousel's Distant Past,1996)

[4] (Watch Hill Carousel, 2017)

[5] Youngken, Joan. Horsing Around in the Off- Season: Preserving the Flying Horses of Watch Hill.

[1] (Lynch, 1978)

[2] (Lynch, 1978)

[3] (Lynch, 1978)

[4] (Lynch, 1978)

[5] (Lynch, 1978)

[6] (Lynch, 1978)

[1] (Smith, 1999)

[2] (Beneath the Paint: One Man's Trip Through an Old Carousel's Distant Past , 1996)

[3] (Andrew Christian and Charles W.F. Dare, 2016)

[4] Youngken, Joan. Horsing Around in the Off- Season: Preserving the Flying Horses of Watch Hill. Watch Hill, RI: Watch Hill Conservancy, 2011.