This was then: Summer Toboggans, the Casino, and the North Bluff Flying Horses

A view down Kennebec Avenue.

View of the Flying Horses at North Bluff, c. 1887. —Courtesy Chris Baer

The Flying Horses, the Casino, and the Summer Toboggan Coast are clustered in the background of this late-1880s view down Kennebec Avenue toward North Bluff, as photographed from the top of the old Metropolitan Hotel (near the present Post Office.) The Highland Wharf is visible in the distance on the left just a short walk down the beach, with Lake Anthony (now Oak Bluffs Harbor) on the far left.

The Flying Horses appears here in its original location on North Bluff, behind the vast Casino, and not far from where the Lookout Tavern is today. The origins of the Flying Horses have never been conclusively determined, but evidence suggests that they were built about 1876, probably at Coney Island, but they were moved to Oak Bluffs in the summer of 1884. The Cottage City correspondent for the Fitchburg Sentinel reported that summer, “A new building, dubbed with the high sounding name of ‘The Carousel,’ has been erected near the Skating rink, in which are flying horses for the amusement of the children and sometimes for ‘children of a larger growth.’” (The massive Casino, which could house more than 1,500 people at one time, was originally built as a roller skating rink. But in 1886 it was retrofitted with a stage and scenery and renamed “the Casino.”)

Advertisement in the August 11, 1886, edition of the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, when the Flying Horses was located at its original location. —Courtesy Chris Baer

The official 1887 program for “Three Gala Days at Cottage City” — a townwide event which culminated in the Grand Illumination and the Fireworks — kicked off with a morning baseball game between the Cottage Citys and the New Bedfords and was reportedly held at “Toboggan Park” — presumably the empty field to the left of the toboggan slide. A “trotting track” was also remembered as being located here about this time.

A series of gales struck the Island during the winter of 1888-89, the worst of which is sometimes simply called “the Gale of 1888.” The violent late-November nor’easter was the extratropical remnants of a late-season Category 2 hurricane which swept the coast from New Jersey to Maine. “The Massachusetts coast is lined with wrecks,” reported the New York Times. Four schooners parted their anchors and were driven ashore on the island, including the Lizzie Young of Boston, which was blown ashore south of Cottage City.

The New York Times reported from Cottage City the following summer: “Summer visitors this year will witness the fearful results of last Winter’s storms, which visited this island with nearly as much impetuosity as they did Coney Island and the Jersey coast. The bluff on which the plank walk rested for over half a mile from the Sea View House to Cluster Village has been eaten into from twenty to thirty feet and the walk destroyed. In its place the town has built a strong bulkhead with a graded embankment, but the loss of the promenade will be seriously felt. The carousel that stood next to the Casino has been moved from the sea front to safer quarters near the main street, and the toboggan slide is a thing of memory.”

In hindsight, the move was a very lucky break for the Flying Horses. The Casino burned down three years later, in September 1892, together with the Seaview hotel and a number of other neighboring buildings. “A southwest wind is all that saved the town” reported the papers — the same wind which would have almost certainly spread the inferno to the Flying Horses to the north, had it still been located there.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.