Flying Horses Carousel

Antique carousel at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard

The Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs on the island of Martha's Vineyard is the oldest operating platform carousel in America. The carousel was built in 1876, and has horses with real horsehair manes and tales. Their oxide eyes each contained a tiny hand-carved animal - traditions carried over to the current horses.
Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

There's something magical about the Flying Horses carousel at Oak Bluffs on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard.

Children are entranced by the riot of color, noise, and motion of merry-go-rounds in general. First rides are a childhood rite of passage. The sound of the band organ music, the sight of the ornate, bejeweled horses, and the smell of the engine grease can transport adults back to their maiden voyages aboard the stately steeds.

Flying Horses Carousel

The island's Flying Horses Carousel is especially prized. Built in 1876, it is the nation's oldest operating platform carousel and a piece of living history and Americana. It is listed in the National Historical Register as an official landmark. Prior to moving to Martha's Vineyard in 1884, the carousel spun on Coney Island's boardwalk. The 20 hand-carved wooden horses include real horse hair. (Speaking of Coney Island, its only remaining classic carousel is the circa-1906 B&B Carousell.)

The Flying Horses is among a few carousels that still include a ring machine. The accessory was once standard on the rides and is the source of the phrase, "catch the brass ring." Once the carousel gets up to speed, an operator swings an arm that dispenses metal rings into the path of the riders. Passengers have to reach out to grab the rings. While most riders pluck a single ring each time they pass the dispenser, we've seen experienced ring-grabbers nab as many as four at a time. And yes, lucky riders who catch the brass ring get a free ticket for another ride on the Flying Horses.

To help insure the viability of one of the island’s cherished artifacts, the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust purchased the carousel in 1986 and subsequently restored it. It maintains the ride so that current and future generations can enjoy the living piece of history.

Located at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Circuit Avenue, the Flying Horses Carousel is open seasonally, roughly from Easter to Columbus Day.

The Other Nation's Oldest Carousel

There is another ride based in New England that also vies for the title of the nation's oldest carousel. Coincidentally, it is also known as the Flying Horse Carousel. Located in the Watch Hill section of Westerly, Rhode Island, it was also built in 1876. (Although some historians claim that it dates back to 1894.) Unlike most carousels, its horses are suspended from chains, however. That's why the Martha's Vineyard Flying Horses is listed as the oldest platform carousel.

The confusion over the origin date of the Rhode Island attraction illustrates a problem inherent in trying to trace the history of carousels. Unlike most large roller coasters, many carousels were designed as portable models for carnivals (which is still the case today). Since they may have traveled from town to town before landing in more permanent locations, it can be difficult to establish when they actually began operating. While many carousel operators make claims about their rides’ ages, they often don’t have the documents to back up their claims.

Still, there is consensus that the Flying Horses Carousel on Martha’s Vineyard is, indeed, the oldest still-operating platform carousel in the nation.

Other classic New England carousels of note include the Crescent Park Carousel in Providence, Rhode Island (built in 1895), the 1909 Illions Carousel at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Massachusetts, the Antique Carousel (built in 1898) at Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, and the Antique Carousel (built in 1898) at Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire. The Antique German Carousel (built in 1880) at Story Land in Glen, New Hampshire is also unique. Instead of moving up and down, its horses rock back and forth.

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