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One day in 1892, R.A. Johnson & Company announced plans to erect an observation wheel in Asbury Park - right next door to the Palace.
Known as an "Observation Roundabout" (this being more than a year before construction of the first "Ferris wheel,") the 50-foot wooden wheel was one of three made by Atlantic City inventor William Somers. The second went to Coney Island and the third to Atlantic City, where a great fire destroyed it on June 22, 1892.
Asbury Park's The Daily Press of June 28, 1892 described Somers' wheel as "the most conspicuous object in that part of the Park. It is a decided novelty, and will doubtless prove a success here as it has in other places." According to the newspaper, the wheel "is attractively painted in three colors, white, red and yellow. It is being fitted up with eighteen coaches, each one seating four persons. It is run by steam power, and is entirely safe. The roundabout will open for business about July 1."
What did Ernest Schnitzler, owner of the Palace, think of having such a conspicuous neighbor? We have no record of his reaction, but upcoming events give us a strong indication that he was less than pleased. In 1895, Schnitzler contracted with the Phoenix Iron and Bridge Company of Phoenixville, PA., to build a wheel that was bigger (67 feet to 50), stronger
(iron versus wood), had more carriages (20 versus 18), and carried more passengers (160 versus 72) than the Somers wheel, and gave his passengers a better view, because at the top of the ride, they could debark onto a platform, climb a short flight of stairs, and from an observatory have unparalleled views Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, and the Atlantic Ocean. Knowing that they could never compete, the Johnson Company dismantled and moved the Somers wheel to Baltimore, and Schnitzler bought their 32-foot by 100-foot property along Lake Avenue - the first expansion of the Palace resort - as the home for his own wheel.
The Daily Press quickly jumped onto Schnitzler's bandwagon, predicting that "Ernest Schnitzler's amusement palace, when finally completed, will be one of the sights of Asbury Park. ... The Merry-go-Round has always been a leading feature of the Park, but the addition this year of the new iron observatory will make the establishment one of the most complete of its kind in the world." (June 19, 1895.)
Schnitzler's invention (patent No. 544,866) was immense, rising 74 feet from the floor of the Palace to the observation deck, high above the roof. Two rectangular towers supported the central wheel, the upper landing and the observation deck. The ride was powered by a 2-cylinder reversible steam hosting engine manufactured by Ledgerwood Engine Co., Newark, NJ. The 20 carriages were each named for a U.S. city, including Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, the names appearing in gold letters.
Electrical problems foiled Schnitzler's hopes to carry passengers for the first time on the Fourth of July, 1895 , but after electricians worked through a drenching rain on July 5 to finish their contract, the wheel, spinning at seven revolutions per minute, opened a few days later to excellent reviews. At night, 300 lights shone brightly from the rims of the wheels and another 80 lights illuminated the observatory.
|Schematic from Ernest Schnitzler's 1895 patent application for the Roundabout and Observatory. view larger image
Even with the weather delay, the timing of the wheel's first rides couldn't have been better. For just as the wheel went into operation, Asbury Park played host to over 10,000 members of the League of American Wheelmen, bringing bicyclists from as far away as Denver to the Shore for national competitions. They, and Asbury's summer folk, flocked to the Palace to experience a ride on the wheel that the July 11 The Daily Press described as "a surprise at night, but more so in the daytime. The view from the tower is simply indescribably grand in every direction." Far less thrilled were the owners of nearby hotels who, according to historian Daniel Wolff, complained about sparks and ashes from the steam engine.
That it was, and by the time Schnitzler's wheel faded into history [For more visit The Wheel] , it had carried passengers for more years than any Ferris wheel in American history.