In a small city in western New York State, only 10 miles or so from Niagara Falls, there was a hotbed of manufacturing: Wurlitzer organs, Richardson Boats, Buffalo Bolts, International Paper, Tonawanda Iron & Steel, and 150 lumber mills kept the place humming from the 19th and well into the 20th century.
Still, with all this bustle, business and building going on, the official sign that greets you coming into town says “Welcome to North Tonawanda: The Home of the Carrousel.”
From 1883 to 1955, the Herschell Company made roller coasters, carnival rides, narrow-gauge trains, and most famously, carousels. The jumble of buildings on Thompson Street, where Herschell designed, carved and assembled thousands of beautifully made merry-go-rounds, is a perfectly preserved factory and now museum, dedicated to the rides and amusements of a dreamy, sepia-toned childhood.
The factory complex was built between 1910 and 1915, and turned out state-of-the-art rides until 1955 when the company moved to Buffalo. Open to the public as a museum since 1983, in addition to exhibits and vintage displays there are two wooden carousels with band organs still in service. There is also a “Kiddieland,” where helpful volunteers from the younger crowd are enlisted to help test out vintage rides that have been recently restored.
The old factory is listed on both the New York and National Registers of Historic Places, honoring what is one of the only surviving examples of a manufacturing plant from the glory days of wooden carousels. Because once you’ve ridden the real thing, those clangy metal ones just don’t measure up.
Know Before You Go
North Tonawanda is about half-way between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, about 10 miles in either direction. The Museum is closed for general admission from January 1 to April 1, but tours and parties can be booked (call to arrange at (716) 693-1885). For hours the rest of the years, see website at upper right. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for kids (under age 2 are free).