Ask Hamilton: Carousel at Coolidge Park

Dear Hamilton,

My family has been enjoying the carousel at Coolidge Park for years, and I can’t imagine the park without it! It seems like there’s a lot of history behind the carousel, and I’m curious to know what its story is.

Curious at the Carousel

One of many hand-carved animals you can ride on the carousel at Coolidge Park

One of many hand-carved animals you can ride on the carousel at Coolidge Park

Dear Curious at the Carousel,

Though the carousel has resided at Coolidge Park for only two decades, you’re right in guessing that its history goes back further than that – more than a century, in fact!

The ride has a storied history that began nearly 130 years ago in Pennsylvania. It was built in 1894 by the G.A. Dentzel Company, an American carousel builder, in the style of the earliest and most famous carousel model in the country. The ride carries on the legacy of the company’s founder and namesake Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant and skilled woodworker who popularized the now widely loved carousel in America and revolutionized the ride’s design.

Once completed, the carousel began operating in the state of New York and was later transferred to Atlanta, Georgia. Here, the ride was enjoyed by many until a lack of funding and the sale of carousel animals as collectibles led the structure to fall into disrepair in the 1960s. It continued to be housed in Atlanta, but at the time, the ride’s future certainly looked bleak.

Carousel builders with the G.A. Dentzel Company

Carousel builders with the G.A. Dentzel Company

That is, until a local visionary stepped in. Bud Ellis was a master wood carver whose dreams of bringing a carousel to Chattanooga were realized with the purchase of the antique carousel frame. Though it was in dire need of repair – and animals – Ellis and a group of devoted volunteers were up to the task.

Over the next 12 years, Ellis and his team hand-carved and painted 52 detailed animals from scratch. Whimsical animals came to life at the hands of these skilled individuals, from traditional carousel horses to animals such as a giraffe, tiger, camel, ostrich, elephant, fish, and more. You can even ride a frog in business attire and a fantastical sea creature!

G.A. Dentzel Company’s iconic carousel model

G.A. Dentzel Company’s iconic carousel model

While these animals bring a meaningful touch of local craftsmanship to the carousel, many elements of its antique structure remain as well. The entire frame is original to the 1894 design, and a vintage sign advertising 25 cent ticket prices is on display. To ensure it keeps looking and functioning at its best, the ride receives regular maintenance and periodic touch-ups.

The carousel was installed shortly before Coolidge Park’s grand opening in 1999 and quickly became a central feature of the park. Housed in an indoor pavilion, the carousel offers a welcome reprieve from the hot sun or winter chill and accommodates all ride goers with both moving and stationary options, along with rocking chairs for onlookers.

A golden horse sits atop the carousel pavilion

A golden horse sits atop the carousel pavilion

Today, the carousel draws around 10,000 riders every month. With such talented craftmanship on display – and $1 tickets – it’s no surprise that so many people hop aboard for a ride. It’s hard not to be charmed by the carousel as its blue domed roof – complete with a golden horse – catches the eye of pedestrians on Walnut Street Bridge and pipe organ music invites park visitors inside.

Next year the carousel will celebrate a landmark 25 years of operation in Coolidge Park. With a rich history that is right at home in our own historic city, this Chattanooga treasure will continue to delight visitors of all ages for years to come!

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

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