Friday, October 14, 2005

5 cents a ride

When we visited my hometown this summer, we had occasion to ride the Looff Carousel at Lakeside Park, "one of the oldest hand crafted wooden merry-go-rounds in North America."

This past weekend was its final run of the season. Both the summer and our carousel ride were commmemorated in a small way this week by Helena digging out her souvenir T-shirt. It's too big for normal wear, but I struck a deal with her — if she dressed in sensible clothes for daycare, she could wear the carousel shirt to sleep in.

In the evening and again in the morning she recounted her memories of that day at the park. She'd wanted to sit on the lion, but once we climbed aboard the platform, she was scared. Then she chose a horse, but even that was daunting. Finally, Helena and I settled into a bench in one of the "chariots" while my sister perched on a nearby giraffe. Babcia was there too, watching. Dizzying at first, but then smiles and giggles.

This historic masterpiece was hand-carved by the Charles I.D. Looff Company between 1898 and 1905. The carousel came to St. Catharines in 1921 when it was purchased to become a part of the Port Dalhousie amusement park. It is a Coney Island–style carousel with 68 carved animals in 4 rows (making it relatively large), 4 chariots, and a functioning band organ. Each animal has been hand-carved, and most still sport real horse-hair tails.

According to the U.S. National Carousel Association, between 3,000 and 4,000 wooden carousels were carved across North America between the years 1885 and 1930. Today, less than 150 of these original carousels are left, and only 9 historic carousels reside in Canada.


The carousel has a new lion, Paws, hand-carved and painted by the Friends of the Carousel. Paws is allegedly a replacement for a lion that went missing some 30 years ago, though some sources maintain only Leo, carved by Looff himself, was on the original roster.



History of the carousel's ownership.

In 1974, the carousel suffered a storage fire and 20 animals were damaged. It was restored and reopened 1981.

This tidbit explains to me why memories of the carousel are absent from my own childhood. It was as adolescents that we flocked to the park and thought it was cool to spend our days and our nickels there. I should note that much of the popularity of Lakeside Park, our teenage "nostalgia" for it, was owing to the fact that it had been immortalized by Rush, which one had to admit was kind of cool even if one didn't much like their music.

Midway hawkers calling
'Try your luck with me'
Merry-go-round wheezing
The same old melody
A thousand ten cent wonders
Who could ask for more
A pocketful of silver
The key to heaven's door


Since the reopening in 1981, a carousel ride costs 5 cents, same as it did in 1921. (I don't know if it ever cost more than that.)

Niagara Woodcarvers are helping the Friends of the Carousel (a not-for-profit organization) with the ongoing restoration project. There's also a gift shop now, with all proceeds helping to fund the work. In addition to the T-shirt, we bought a sticker book for Helena.

I was always in awe of these prancing beasts, but the organ is also a wonder.

Sources show it currently has a Frati band organ which plays Wurlitzer 150 rolls, and that this organ was refurbished in 1985. The Artizan organ resides in The St. Catharines Historical Museum, having been moved there in 1976.


In one of his books, Neil Peart writes:
Another important setting in my childhood and early teens was Lakeside Park, in Port Dalhousie...When I was fourteen and fifteen, I worked summers at Lakeside Park as a barker ('Catch a bubble, prize every time,' all day and night)... And there was music: some of the kids brought transistor radios to work, and the music of that summer of 1966 played up and down the midway... At night, when the midway closed, we gathered around a fire on the beach, singing... Lakeside Park resonated in my life in so many deep ways, especially those fundamental exposures to music that would be forever important... It's all gone now. All that's left, apart from memories, is the old merry-go-round...


There are current plans to relocate the carousel within the park and house it in a glass-walled structure.
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