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115 Years of Historic Carousels in San Diego Print E-mail
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Saturday, 12 November 2011

By Eric C. Pahlke
Author of “Treasures from the Golden Age, West Coast Carousels”

San Diego is California’s oldest city, first discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. The city’s development lagged behind that of its northern neighbors, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and it remained a sleepy outpost until the Southern Pacific Railroad came to town in 1885. San Diego came into its own at about the same time that hand carved wood carousels became popular during the Golden Age of the Carousel.

Twelve Carousels in 115 Years
Over the past 115 years, San Diego County has been home to at least eleven hand-carved wood carousels and one metal machine. Two of the wood carousels are still operating in the city of San Diego. Four other wood machines are still running along the West Coast, as is the one metal carousel. In total, there are twelve classic carousels with some San Diego heritage. Here is some background on these machines.

The Coney Island, Salisbury Beach 1890 Mangels-Looff at Seaport Village in the late 1990s.

Bluffs Amusement Park

The first carousel set up in San Diego was in the Bluffs Amusement Park overlooking Mission Valley, in 1895. The small, now defunct “trolley” park, was at the end of a cable car line that the San Diego Cable Railway Company had extended from downtown San Diego in 1892. There are no records of the origins of this first carousel. The cable car line was upgraded to an overhead trolley line by the Citizens’ Traction Company in 1896.
The park was renovated at that time and it became a very popular recreation center. A newspaper article referred to a merry-go-round with a ring machine.

Arguably the most prominent San Diegan of his time, John D. Spreckels purchased this trolley line in 1898, adding it to his San Diego Electric Railway Company. With this acquistion, Spreckels also became the owner of the Bluffs. But Spreckels was not interested in operating an amusement park and in 1902 had it converted to a botanical garden. The park was renamed Mission Cliff Gardens. There are no further references to a carousel at this location.

Originally from Coney Island, the 1890 Mangels-Looff Broadway Flying Horses operated in Salisbury Beach, MA, from 1905 to 1976 when it moved to Seaport Village in 1977. The carousel was sold in 2004 and now after a museum quality restoration, the carousel is available to a new home.

Balboa Park
San Diego’s second carousel was a large Dentzel machine installed in the Fun Park area of Balboa Park in 1913. The installation may have been in anticipation of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, the planning for which began in 1909. This carousel was sold in 1915 and moved to San Francisco for their Panama Pacific International Exposition.

The third carousel installed in San Diego was a 1910 2-level platform, 3-row menagerie machine built by the Herschell-Spillman Company of North Tonawanda, NY. This was the first “park machine” that the company built for Oliver Funk Davis of Redlands, CA.

Davis originally located the carousel in Luna Park near downtown Los Angeles, CA. It was relocated to Tent City, south of the world famous Hotel del Coronado, across the bay from San Diego, sometime before Luna Park closed in 1914.

The carousel was moved to Balboa Park, northeast of downtown San Diego, in time for the Panama-California Exposition which opened in March 1915. The carousel operated on the west side of the park until 1968 when it was moved to its current location on the east side near the world famous San Diego Zoo.

The Balboa Park Carousel has one of only two historic ring machines still operating along the West Coast. The other historic ring machine is at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.

As an aside, it is noteworthy that the San Diego Zoo, also located in Balboa Park, within view of the 1910 Herschell-Spillman carousel, does not have its own carousel. More and more of the major zoos across the country have introduced carousels, usually featuring endangered species carvings. Some of these carousels are historic, some are newly carved, and a limited number are fiberglass. An affiliated zoo property, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, located in a rural area of the county, has a three row fiberglass carousel that features endangered species. Click here for more information and to plan a visit to the Balboa Park Carousel.

Patriotic jumpers on the century-old Balboa Park carousel. One of just two antiques left in San Diego. Eric Pahlke photo

Wonderland Park
The second “park machine” that Herschell-Spillman built for Oliver Funk Davis ran in Wonderland Park in the San Diego neighborhood of Ocean Beach from 1913 until 1916. It was a single level, 3-row menagerie machine. Davis initially set this 1911 carousel up in Urbita Springs, a “trolley” park built by the Pacific Electric Railway Company along its line between San Bernardino and Corona, CA. The Urbita Springs park was not as successful as Davis had anticipated and he moved the carousel to San Diego. It operated at Wonderland Park, which also featured the largest roller coaster on the West Coast and a water slide.

The 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition drew patrons away from Wonderland and a major flood in 1916 spelled the park’s demise.

Davis sold the 1911 Herschell-Spillman machine to a gentleman who relocated it to an undisclosed location south of Long Beach, CA. The next record of this machine is in 1935 when Oliver Davis and his son, Ross, reacquired the carousel. They set it up under a tent in Griffith Park in Los Angeles while a new building was being constructed. This carousel operated in the new building for only a short time before it was replaced by a larger Spillman Engineering Company machine in 1937.

The Davises put the 1911 machine in storage, where it sat until Ross’ son, John, moved it to Tilden Park in Berkeley, California, in 1948. This carousel still operates in the park. When John Davis set up the 1911 Herschell-Spillman carousel in Tilden Park, he added a fourth, inner row to the original three row platform. He had the platform widened to the inside for an additonal row. All of the 14 inner row horses are aluminum figures manufactured by the Allan Herschell Company, also of North Tonawanda, NY.

Mission Beach Amusement Park
In 1924, John D. Spreckels extended a trolley line across the San Diego River, connecting the communities of Ocean Beach and Mission Beach. In May 1925 he opened the Mission Beach Amusement Center, which included a dance casino and the world’s largest salt water pool. Two months later, the now famous Giant Dipper roller coaster was unveiled.

Spreckels hired the Spillman Engineering Company of North Tonawanda, New York, to build a 4-row carousel for his new amusement park. Spillman Engineering delivered a 68-horse machine in 1926 and it included some of the most ornate carvings ever produced by the company, along with several Charles Looff and Charles Carmel horses.

The Spillman Engineering carousel was moved to Balboa Park in 1935 for the California Pacific International Exposition where it ran for two years. Ross R. Davis purchased the machine after the exposition closed and relocated it to Griffith Park near downtown Los Angeles, CA, in 1937. This machine has operated in the same location in the park ever since.
The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round shares some history with Disneyland. In the late 1940s, Walt Disney brought his two daughters to ride the merry-go-round almost every weekend. The girls loved the carousel and the experience led Disney to want a carousel for his new amusement park in Anaheim.

Belmont Park
In 1939, a Charles Looff carousel was set up in Belmont Park, the northern remnant of the original Mission Beach Amusement Center. This machine was originally installed on Santa Monica Pier in Santa Monica, California, in 1916. It ran at Belmont Park until 1977, when the owner informed the city of San Diego that he wanted to remove the machine, but would not break it up. The city only agreed to his proposal after he assured them that he would store it “in a very safe place.”

The only carvings from that machine still in public use are a few jumpers now on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Carousel in Santa Cruz, CA. The other carvings from this Looff machine are either in the hands of private collectors or lost forever. There is a small fiberglass replica carousel currently operating at Belmont Park. Belmont is still one of America's great old amusement parks, click for more information.

The back of this photo reads “Ocean Beach Carousel. Opened for business, April 21 - 1918. O. F. Davis & Son. 156 Abbot St., Ocean Beach, Calif.” The carousel and the modular building, designed and built by Davis were moved here from Urbita Springs. The 1911 carousel inside is now at Tilden Park in Berkely, CA, celebrating 100 years. Davis Family Siblings Archive photo

Seaport Village
The Seaport Village shopping mall along the east shore of San Diego Bay, south of downtown, opened in 1980. During the past 30 years, two Looff carousels have operated at the mall. The first machine at Seaport Village was the Broadway Flying Horses carousel, built on a William Mangels frame with Looff carvings in 1890. It ran at Coney Island, NY, until 1905, when it was placed in storage. It next operated in Salisbury Beach, MA, from 1914 to 1976. This menagerie carousel was sold to Seaport Village in 1977. It took three years to restore the carousel and it began operating at the mall in 1980.

This 3-row menagerie machine was auctioned off in 2004 and is currently in storage. The carousel has undergone a complete museum quality restoration and is seeking a new home.

The current carousel at Seaport Village has a frame built in 1905 and a collection of Looff and Charles Carmel carvings, both older and newer than the frame.

The 1905 carousel first operated at Fair Park in Dallas, TX. It subsequently ran at amusement parks in Ocean Park, CA, Spanaway, WA, Portland, OR, and Columbus, OH. Before making its debut in San Diego, it operated at the Media City Center in Burbank, CA, from 1997 to 2004.

The Seaport Village machine has three rows of horses and menagerie animals. There are 30 jumping horses and 12 standers in addition to 13 menagerie animals.

A third carousel was purchased by the mall owners with the intent of restoring it and placing it at another of their centers. It is a 1917 Allan Herschell Company carousel. The mall owners kept this machine in storage for several years and finally decided to sell it. Historic Carousels, Inc. purchased the machine in 1994, restored it, and in 1999 placed it in Chase Palm Park along the coastline in Santa Barbara, CA. This machine is a 3-row carousel with 36 jumpers. It is one of a very few carousels built in the early years of the Allan Herschell Company.

Parkland Plaza
Parkland Plaza is a shopping mall in the city of El Cajon, east of the city of San Diego. The mall was opened in 1974. In 1991, a 1926 carousel built by the Allan Herschell Company of North Tonawanda, NY, was placed in the mall. It operated in the mall until 2003. This machine was first owned by an amusement company in Salem, OR. It was sold to a local dairy in the late 1960s when the amusement park folded. In 1987 it was sold and moved to Seaside, OR, where it ran until it was moved to El Cajon.

After Parkland Plaza, this carousel was relocated to Elyria, OH. It is now in storage. There is a fiberglass carousel currently operating at Parkland Plaza.

Marshall Scotty’s Playland
Marshall Scotty’s Playland was an amusement park located east of El Cajon in the unincorporated community of Lakeside. It operated from 1956 to 1983 when it was sold and converted to a replica frontier town. That enterprise closed its doors in 1992.

The amusement park included an Allan Herschell Company wood carousel and a metal kiddie carousel built by the H.E. Ewert Company of Compton, CA. Where the Allan Herschell machine ran before El Cajon is unknown. It was purchased and removed from the park in 1992 by the current owner. It is in storage at the present time.
The Ewert carousel ran at the park from 1956 to 1992. When the park closed, the carousel was sold and set up at Running Horse Studio in Irwindale, CA. It ran at the studio until 1998, when it was loaned out to Remlinger Farms in Carnation, WA, east of Seattle, where it still operates during the summer months.

This article is based upon information presented in “Treasures from the Golden Age, West Coast Carousels” by Eric C. Pahlke as well as his further research into the history of carousels in San Diego County, California with assistance from Lourinda Bray, Brian Morgan, Duane Perron, Brad Perron, and Rol and Jo Summit. Copies of Pahlke’s book can be ordered from

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