Podcast 350 – The Flying Horses of Watch Hill

In 1879, a group of flying horses was abandoned in the Watch Hill section of Westerly, Rhode Island, by a traveling carnival. They’ve remained there ever since.

In Episode 350 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit the swanky Watch Hill section of Westerly, Rhode Island, in search of some flying horses that were first reported here back in 1879 and have been seen by countless thousands of witnesses ever since.

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Flying Horses Carousel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

The Flying Horses Carousel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: What a day to be by the ocean! The weather is getting warmer, the summer season is pretty much here!
JEFF: I agree, Ray. So we’re in the Watch Hill section of Westerly, Rhode Island. You can’t go any further west in the state than this or you’re in Connecticut.
RAY: Judging from our drive in, this place is affluent to say the least.
JEFF: No kidding! We’ve passed some huge beach-side mansions on our way in. Hey, you know who has a home out here?
RAY: Who?
JEFF: Taylor Swift.
RAY: Tay Tay?!
JEFF: Tay Tay herself. The music mogul’s got a 12,000-square-foot mansion on five acres out here for when she needs to get away.
RAY: Should we stop by and see her?
JEFF: I’m not sure there’s time for that, Ray. Plus… I don’t think she’s taking our calls these days.
RAY: Got it… so we’re not here to see arguably our nation’s biggest celebrity.
JEFF: No, our destination is here by the water in the downtown historic district.
RAY: It doesn’t get more quintessential New England than this. There’s a few shops, a few restaurants and cafes, and there’s the beach. It’s really picture-perfect.
JEFF: It is indeed. However, we’re not here to see Taylor Swift, or the cute downtown. We’re here looking for something old and odd… we’re here looking for the Flying Horses of Watch Hill.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 350 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Hit subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss a single story about roadside oddities, haunts, monsters, weird history, and other strange legends. Most of our story leads come from you! So please reach out to us anytime through our Web site with a story you think we should check out.
JEFF: We’ll go searching for flying horses right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: Flying Horses?!
JEFF: Flying horses, Ray. And they’ve been sighted here in Watch Hill since 1879.
RAY: Wow! That’s a long time. Think Tay Tay has seen them?
JEFF: I’m almost certain she has.
RAY: Here’s a little more about Watch Hill section of Westerly, Rhode Island. The region was once home to the Niantic Indians. When English colonists took over they used the area as a lookout in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, which is where Watch Hill gets its name. The iconic lighthouse dates back to 1745. After the American Revolution, this small town has mostly been a playground for the wealthy. According to the 2020 census, only 212 people live here year-round. Of course, those numbers swell in the touristy summer months.
JEFF: So think Newport, but much smaller and much more exclusive.
RAY: I think that’s fair.
JEFF: So let’s head back to 1879 and search for these flying horses.
RAY: It’s June of 1879 here in Westerly, Rhode Island. The nation is just coming out of a big economic depression, and with summer finally here, people are feeling better about getting outside for a day at the beach. And they’re finally willing to part with a little bit of their money.
JEFF: And that’s good news because a traveling carnival is coming to town.
JEFF: Traveling circuses have been around for about a century now, but adding elements like rides is still relatively new. This show that’s setting up tents in rides in Watch Hill right now, features something locals haven’t seen before. A merry-go-round.
RAY: Ahhh the merry-go-round. This one was made three years ago by the Charles W. Dare Company out of New York. The horse bodies are hand-carved from a single block of wood, though the legs were carved separately and then attached. The horses have been hand-painted with horse-hair manes and leather reins added on. Some of the horses have chariots attached to them. The whole thing looks amazing.
JEFF: They do!
RAY: There are 20 horses in total, an outer ring, and an inner ring, and they’re suspended by chains from arms radiating out from a central wheel under a canopy.
JEFF: The whole thing is driven by a real horse that turns the merry-go-round in circles while the operator hand-cranks the organ. Riders on the outside of the ride get to reach for metal rings at the end of an arm that extended just within reach. If you’re lucky enough to get the brass ring…
RAY: You get a free ride!
JEFF: You do get a free ride.
RAY: It looks like these kids are having a great time! A traveling show with a ride like this is a pretty new idea to most of the locals here.
JEFF: It is! Look! Even some of the grown-ups are getting in on the fun and also riding the ride. As the ride moves faster, the horses naturally swing outward giving the rider the sense they’re flying on a horse. And thus the name is born… the Flying Horses.
RAY: Ohhhh I get it. We’re talking about an amusement ride.
JEFF: We are.
JEFF: After a few days of fun, the traveling amusement show wraps up in Watch Hill. Maybe not enough people came by and bought tickets to the rides and attractions, maybe something is wrong with the merry-go-round, maybe there doesn’t seem to be enough interest in the ride, but the strangest thing happens….
RAY: Huh… look at that! They’re leaving the merry-go-round behind.
JEFF: They ARE leaving it behind.
RAY: Think about it, these traveling shows are walking a razor’s edge as far as money and profits go. If it rains for days and no one shows up to buy tickets, it can be tough to pay your employees. If the population of the town you’re setup in doesn’t have a lot of extra money and too few people show up, again, you could be broke.
JEFF: Maybe that’s what happened here in Watch Hill, either way, the merry go round has been abandoned. So what’s a town to do?
JEFF: If you’re Watch Hill… you decide to keep it!
RAY: Why not?! This community has gorgeous beach-side real estate available, so they set up the Flying Horse Carousel as a permanent attraction… and that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay, there’s more to say on the Flying Horses Carousel. It’s the oldest continually operating carousel with horses suspended from chains in the United States and it’s officially designated as a National Historic Landmark.
RAY: The carousel was water-powered in 1897, and then electrified in 1914.
JEFF: In 1938, disaster struck the carousel and the region in the form of a hurricane. Watch Hill was pretty banged up, and their merry-go-round was basically blown apart. The horses had to be recovered from sand dunes, and three of the chariots were not replaced. Still, the Flying Horse Carousel was reborn and reopened to the point it became a Watch Hill fixture.
RAY: Today the ride sits under a gazebo with stone pillars and a proper shingled roof to protect it from weather. The ride is open daily from June 15th through Labor Day plus it’s also open other times of the spring and fall for special events. A ride on the outside horses will cost you $4 dollars, and the inside is $1 dollar.
JEFF: I love that an antique like this endures. Think of how many summer memories have been made right here for generations of kids. We’re both dads, Ray. Remember the wide-eyed wonder of your kids when they were little and you’d put them on a ride like this?
RAY: Absolutely! It was a big joy for them. And fun for me to watch them light up.
JEFF: When you’re a kid and the merry-go-round starts to whirl, and you begin to sway outward from the force, it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to think you’re truly on a flying horse.
RAY: And that takes us to After the Legends where we dig deeper into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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To see some pictures of the historic Flying Horses Carousel, click on the link in our episode description, or go to our Web site and click on Episode 350.

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