Atlantic City, New Jersey! The biggest show in the Garden State. Once, decades before Disneyland, it was the playground of America; the city of the original Monopoly board, because Charles B. Darrow, that game’s unemployed inventor, had spent so many happy summers there in his childhood (the board’s original shape was circular, interestingly enough).
The greatest attraction in Atlantic City was the Steel Pier, which featured a host of extraordinary side shows, and where stars of stage and screen regularly performed at the Marine Ballroom. But the most popular, and the most indelibly remembered, act on the Steel Pier was the Diving Horse. For children especially, the diving horses were for decades a mesmerizing and never-to-be-forgotten experience.
The Steel Pier was opened on June 18 1898, and was originally built by the Quakers, as a private resort. However, it was soon open to the public, as “the handsomest and most luxuriously appointed pier in the world”, and this was no idle boast. Later it was owned by the Hamid family, who maintained the Steel Pier’s high standards.
The venue’s most fondly remembered act began in the 1920s. Dr W. F. Carver, a noted sportsman, was returning home on horseback one night in 1924. The bridge he was crossing collapsed, and he and his horse plunged forty feet into a raging river. The horse executed a well-balanced dive, and both swam safely to shore. Dr Carver wondered later whether a horse could be trained to do this. Dogs could certainly be trained to dive…but horses?
One of the original riders, and certainly the most famous rider of all, was Sonora Webster Carver, Dr Carver’s daughter-in-law. Her husband Al Carver had been the original horseman, but Sonora made a female rider a traditional part of the thrilling show. Her sister Annette was also a rider of the diving horses in their forty, and sometimes sixty, foot plunge into a special tank. At first Dr Carver had thought that Sonora Webster, who had her heart set on riding the horses, was too small for the task, and he gave her a job as a stable hand. But she persisted, and was finally given the chance to fulfill her dream.
Tragedy struck Sonora Carver in 1931. After a bad dive she suffered from detached retinas and was blinded. Incredibly, she continued to take part in the show for another ten years. She published her memoirs in 1961, in a book entitled ‘A Girl and Five Brave Horses’, which inspired the film ‘Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken’, about Sonora Carver and the diving horses. She died only this year, in Pleasantville New Jersey, at the age of 99. She had been blind for 72 years.
Many people have written about the extraordinary experience of seeing the famous diving horse during a childhood holiday in Atlantic City. John B. Abbott writes:
‘Thinking back on that day, I remember the windburn I got on my forearms from the cool salty breeze off the Atlantic—a first for me. And to this day, I can’t go to the Jersey Shore without bringing home a box of fresh saltwater taffy.
‘But above all, I remember anxiously getting bleacher seats to see the Diving Horse. As we took our seats, the horse, with a girl named Arnette Webster (clad in a rubber wet suit) on its back, was about to jump from a platform roughly thirty feet high into a pool. I recall staring at the odd sight of a horse standing as calmly as you please on a platform above a pool just like the kind I swam in at my Aunt Anne and Uncle Leo’s house. To a recorded drum roll and cymbal crash, Webster urged the horse forward, and the two fell through space, to make the biggest splash I’d ever seen—even bigger than the cannonballs my uncle could make in his own pool. Wow! And then both horse and rider surfaced, though for the life of me, I can’t recall how they got out of the pool.’
(The diving tower, originally some sixty feet high, was later lowered to forty feet, and finally to thirty feet).
Another memory, from a very dear reader of ‘Petticoat Discipline Quarterly’, recalls a special summer in 1952, when she and her brother were staying with their uncle and aunt in Atlantic City:
‘The rest of the day was filled with exciting sideshow acts, such as Mr. Johnson’s Boxing Cats; Elsie the Cow and her son Beauregard, and Captain Kelly and his sea lions. Best of all was Dimah the Diving Horse, named after Steel Pier owner Mr. Hamid, but spelled backwards.
‘Dimah was a beautiful jet-black filly. Her rider, a pretty young woman, stood on top of a high diving platform waving to the crowd as the announcer called our attention to the small water tank.
“Ladies and Gentleman, Dimah the Wonder Horse is going to dive into this small tank of water. Her rider Miss Olive Gelnaw will guide Dimah during her sixty-foot drop in to the tank. Now we need you to be very quiet, it takes all of her concentration to get it right, or they will miss the tank and fall to their death in the ocean.”
‘The crowd grew silent. Dimah, standing at the bottom of the ramp, was released from her trainer and trotted up the long ramp to the top of the diving platform, and her awaiting rider. Miss Gelnaw, standing on a side railing, sprung effortlessly over to the filly’s back landing just behind the harness. She took hold of the leather strap cinched up around Dimah’s huge girth, before making the big jump.
‘We held our breath as the filly walked to the edge of the platform and looked out over the crowd. Just then a sea gull flew by catching her attention. She lifted her head and sniffed the air, curling her upper lip over her nose. It looked as if she were smiling at us. In a blink of an eye, she slid her two front legs down the ramp, and jumped off the platform. Down she came!
“Sp–lash!” Most of the water in the tank came rushing up in a huge wave, spilling over the sides of the tank, leaving it less than half full. The crowd went wild; Dimah and her rider did a perfect dive. They emerged from the tank and took a bow, the filly’s coat wet and shiny, gleamed in the sun as they led her back to her stall.
“Wow, I want to do that when I grow up!” I said to the gang dressed in old-fashioned bathing suits climbed up a ladder to the top of the diving platform and announced that they were going to do a dive better than Dimah. The fat man was going to play the part of Dimah, and the skinny fellow was going to be the rider. We all laughed and booed them, saying they couldn’t do it. The announcer gave them a count. On the count of three the fat man dove off the platform leaving the other man behind. “Hey dummy, you forgot me!” he hollered to the man below in the tank. The fat man climbed back up the ladder complaining all the way, telling the crowd, “And they call me the Jackass, why he can’t even count.”
And another reminiscence:
‘The High Diving Horses were always my favorite. I must have seen at least six of them over the years. They each had their own style of diving. One would wait a good five minutes before jumping – he would hold his head up and watch the seagulls fly by. Some dove with their front legs straight out, while others tucked up their legs as if they were going over a jump. One horse would twist in the air and land on his side, making it dangerous for his rider.
‘The riders (all women) would suffer one or two broken bones a year. Most of the injuries came from getting out of the pool of paddling hooves. They made it look easy, but it wasn’t. Years ago a rider by the name of Sonora Carver (in the late 1920’s) went blind from a bad impact with the water. The jump was sixty feet at that time, but was then lowered to forty.
‘Another horse, I think his name was Patches, drew quite an audience. After making so many jumps he no longer waited for his rider. He would charge up the ramp to the tower and take a running jump off the diving board, leaving the rider behind. A couple of the girls tried to leap on him as he flew by, only to be left sailing through the air mount-less. One day, he got up so much speed he almost overshot the pool. Needless to say, they retired him. One year they even had a high diving mule.’
The Diving Horses ceased in 1978, when the Steel Pier was bought by Resorts International, and was shut down. Thankfully, the last two diving horses were saved by an animal protection society. The Steel Pier itself had been through a good deal of drama: in 1962 a tidal wave washed part of it away, and in 1970 the famous Marine Ballroom was sadly destroyed by fire. Atlantic City had acquired a somewhat seedy and run-down reputation, but today there are plans to restore and reopen the pier. Hopefully they will be fulfilled.
But the diving horses will never come back. It was an act with significant dangers, and many riders, Sonora Carver in particular, suffered quite severe injuries. The horses seemed to enjoy it greatly, but the animal protection societies would never permit such an act again. It has vanished into the bitter-sweet mists of memory, but there are still many thousands of people who will carry with them all their lives the thrilling and spectacular memory of the Diving Horses of Atlantic City…