The Flying Horses of Watch Hill

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I fell in love Watch Hill, Rhode Island when I was just a child and have had a love affair with it ever since. While Newport, RI can sometimes feel too grand and busy, the ambience of Watch Hill is dignified, serene and timeless.

The town is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and is a small seaside community best known for its quiet charm and affluent “cottages”. The downtown historic district of Watch Hill gently hugs the waters of Watch Hill Cove, with some of its buildings dating back to the colonial period. It is a haven for art, nature and history lover’s and a small piece of paradise to all who visit.

This quaint village is a place that has made many wonderful, cherished memories for generations of people. To this day, Watch Hill is still as captivating to me as it was as a child.

Every summer, many years ago, my lovely Aunt Nita would bring a gaggle of us children here to walk around the village, and window-shop the eclectic, artsy waterfront stores along Bay Street. Occasionally, she would buy us candy or popcorn to keep us happy while she shopped and we patiently waited outside the stores. And sometimes we would sit on the grass in front of the cove and just enjoy the not too distant views of Little Narragansett Bay, strewn with spectacular sailing yachts, while relishing an ice cream cone as a lazy summer afternoon turned to evening.

However, the most exciting and anticipated part of our visit to Watch Hill was always the joy of seeing the carousel. We never ended our visit to Watch Hill without taking a ride on the “Flying Horses” considered to be the oldest continuously operated carousel in the United States and an National Historic Landmark.

The "Flying" Horses of Watch Hill

The legend of The Flying Horses Carousel is that in 1883 it was abandoned by a traveling carnival which could no longer afford to continue on its way. Back then, the carousel was powered by horses, which propelled the ride forward by pulling on a line. The folk tale goes on to say that one horse was so good and faithful to the carousel, that when it died, its tail was cured and inset into one of the Flying Horses as a permanent memorial.

The horses were the creation of carousel-maker Charles Dare of The Charles W. F. Dare Carousel Company. The carousel was constructed sometime after the Civil War and while the exact date is unknown, the design of the horses indicates to some researchers that it may have been built as early as 1867 ~ making the carousel over 144 years old!

Unlike other carousels with large, ornate animal replicas that go ‘up and down’ on a pole and are attached to a floor, the Watch Hill horses are suspended off the ground by chains with an overhead central platform called ‘sweeps’. As the ride rotates faster, they swing slightly outward and “fly”. Once the carousel has reached its full speed, children then lean out in hopes of grabbing the brass ring and a free ride! Yippie!

The Watch Hill Flying Horses are unique in many ways. They are magnificently decorated in detail with actual leather saddles, real horse hair manes & tails and sulfide marble eyes! Another distinction is that they are small in comparison to the usual carousel steed. Each of the 20 Flying Horses is carved from a single piece of wood with its front legs outstretched as if they were in the midst of a steeple race. Remarkably, during a maintenance program launched in 1993 by the Watch Hill Fire District and Improvement Society to help preserve the horses, it was discovered that the horses were hollow.

Set in a dune for over 128 years, The Watch Hill Flying Horses Carousel has endured time and nature. It has withstood harsh weather conditions ~ salty, wind-driven sand, driving rains, damp, misty fog and the blistering summer heat.  Miraculously, the horses survived the 1938 hurricane which demolished the coast of Rhode Island and were discovered buried, intact, beneath the sand dune.

Someday, these delightful horses from a by-gone era will have to be placed in a museum to preserve them for future generations, but for now the people of Watch Hill have committed to keeping the Flying Horses Carousel as a town centerpiece and public treasure.

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