Oldest Carousel Platform in the United States
By: Madison Sackie
The Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs is the oldest platform carousel in the United States. The carousel has been a staple attraction in Oak Bluffs since 1884, when an investor moved it from Coney Island to the popular summer retreat destination on Martha’s Vineyard. The National Register for Historic Places designated this iconic carousel a National Historic Landmark in 1987, just one year after it was purchased by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust.
Not just a relic of history, the carousel still delights kids and adults willing to wait in the sometimes-lengthy lines to take a spin. The summer staple is charming in its simplicity, and features many of the traditional elements of a nineteenth-century merry-go-round. For example, the carousel attendant still operates a machine that dispenses metal rings as the carousel spins. Most of these rings are iron, but one is brass. People riding on outside row of horses can reach for these rings as their horses pass by the dispenser. The rider who successfully grabs the brass ring gets to ride again for free!
The carousel also includes traditional nineteenth-century horses. In the 1870s, the ride’s original craftsmen carved these horses from wood, which they painted to resemble palomino, bay, and black steeds. The horse’s manes and tails are made from real horsehair and their eyes are glass. From a historical perspective, the carousel’s spectacle is just as interesting to adults as it is to wide-eyed children.
Flying Horses Carousel opens Memorial Day weekend and expands its hours when island schools let out for the summer. Taking a spin on the Flying Horses a memorable stop on a trip to Oak Bluffs and is a fun and fascinating way to step back in time, immersing yourself in the island’s fascinating history.
This carousel is one of several well-preserved locations that serve as reminders of the booming nineteenth-century tourist industry in Oak Bluffs. At that time, organizations like the Methodist Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association began hosting summer retreats and religious gatherings in the town. These organizations transformed Martha’s Vineyard into a popular vacation destination known for its quaint architecture and thrilling diversions.
Until the 1960s, Oak Bluffs was also the only town on Martha’s Vineyard that welcomed black tourists. As a result, the town attracted many prominent and affluent African Americans from New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. through the years. The Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, the wealthy businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker, the composer Harry T. Burleigh, and the singers Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Lillian Evanti all spent time in Oak Bluffs. Then, and now, the Flying Horses Carousel was a staple element of the town’s vacation culture.