Lighthouse Point Carousel
The Lighthouse Point Park carousel building and ride were constructed in 1916 in the Renaissance Revival style. Located at the southernmost tip of Lighthouse Point Park, an 80-acre recreation area along the east side of New Haven harbor, the building contains one of the largest still-operating carousels, being 60 feet in diameter and containing many animal figures, including horses, two dragon-chariots and a camel, as well as a representation of George Washington. The structure has two sections: a square pavilion which houses the carousel itself, and a section lower in elevation which houses concessions and other amusements. The carousel is of considerable historical significance, as it was a main source of amusement for working class families in the early 20th Century, who took the trolley to the end of the line to reach it. It is also an outstanding example of carving and painting in merry-go-round design and workmanship. After the hurricane of 1938, neither the carousel nor the building were fully repaired for years. The carousel was closed and boarded up in 1977, but restored beginning in the 1980s, and today is one of less than 100 such carousels still in operation. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
Backstory and Context
Early in the 20th Century, Lighthouse Point Park was built and operated by a trolley company seeking new ways to increase ridership. The park represented a cheap way for working-class families to seek amusement in their sparse leisure time. Both the Five Mile Point Lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s cottage are located within 200 feet of the carousel.
The original building of 1905 was replaced in 1916 by Thomas Shanley, head of the East Shore Amusement Company, the original developer of the park. The carousel was run by Timothy Murphy of the Murphy Brothers and constructed in the brothers' Savin Rock workshop. (Murphy operated a series of such carousels all along the East Coast.) Murphy had been trained by Charles Looff, the famous Danish-born woodcarver and creator of carousel animals. Some of the horses in the Lighthouse Park carousel may have been carved by Looff himself; others may have been made by Charles Carmel of Brooklyn, another well-known carver of such figures. In 1927, Murphy sold the carousel to the New Haven Parks Commission for $8500.
The approximately seventy horses and two dragon chariots that comprise the carousel are high-quality samples of carousel sculpture. The horses are shown either standing or jumping, and wear a bridle, harness, blanket, and saddle carved in wood. The tails are made of real hair. The figures have been carved in two distinct styles, one much more elaborate than the other, which points to the probability that more than one carver was involved. A carved figure representing George Washington in the center of the carousel is shown "leading" the band organ. The inner housing of the carousel contains elaborate paintings showing scenes in and around New Haven Harbor. The carousel building itself is also considered a fine example of seashore amusement architecture from the early 20th century.
As the popularity of carousels in general began to decline in the 1930s, and as the structure was badly damaged by the hurricane of 1938, the site eventually fell into disrepair. In 1957, the possibility of demolishing the carousel was considered. This didn’t happen, but all other sections of the original amusement park on the Lighthouse Point Park site were destroyed. At last the structure was boarded up in 1977. However, after the building and carousel were both placed in the National Register of Historic Places, a restoration campaign was established - including an "Adopt-A-Horse" program - which was ultimately successful. Today, the carousel building is frequently rented out for weddings and other events. However, there persist to this day rumors that the carousel is haunted, and it has been claimed that on some nights, after midnight, the music of the motionless carousel, and a child's laughter, can still be heard.