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The Wheel

Photo taken of the Kingsley-Lake corner of the carousel house with the wheel in the background. Photo copyrighted by Nancy A. Carter. view larger image
For 93 years, as Palace attractions came and went according to changing tastes and technologies, the Palace wheel retained much of the look and feel of Ernest Schnitzler's original. The biggest changes came during the mid-1920s, with the removal of the observatory owing to insurance concerns, and a reduction in the number of carriages from 20 to 18, owing to the tendency of carriages to lock together when they rocked. During the '20s the wheel was converted to electric power; during the '50s Ralph Lopez Sr., one of the Palace's long-time creative forces, painted scenes on the bottom of the carriages; and during the '70s owner George Lange installed glass around the base of the wheel, replacing canvas tarps to keep weather out of the building. Names on the carriages also changed, from prominent cities, to war heroes of the Spanish-American war, to the names of New Jersey towns along the rail line from New York City. Yet anyone who rode the wheel during the early part of the 20th century would have instantly recognized it on its last day of operation.

Photo taken while about the Palace roof. Photo copyrighted by Nancy A. Carter
Which is not to say that the leisurely rotating Schnitzler wheel lacked its historic moments.

After World War II, as world powers began carving out a Jewish state in the Middle East, Palace co-owner Zemil Resnick joined a secret American underground dedicated to procuring military supplies for the Haganah, the Jewish defense force in Palestine. Resnick's dedication to the cause of Israeli independence ran deep, dating to the days during World War I when he fought alongside Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in the Jewish Legion of the British Army. Despite his business responsibilities at the Palace, Resnick visited Israel 25 times between 1946 and 1956, including a parachute jump onto Mt. Sinai in 1956, at age 60.

Photo taken while about the Palace roof. Photo copyrighted by Nancy A. Carter
The guns for Israel operation ran from the top floor of the Hotel Fourteen on East 60th Street in Manhattan, and according to former Newsweek editor Leonard Slater, Resnick collected more than 10,000 guns from friends, relations and veterans organizations throughout New Jersey. When Resnick wanted "assured privacy for a conference with someone from the Hotel Fourteen," Slater wrote in his book, "The Pledge," "he led them to the Ferris wheel at the amusement park and into one of its gaudy carriages, where, swinging round and round above the seaside resort, they would talk without fear of being overheard."

Photo taken while about the Palace roof. Photo copyrighted by Nancy A. Carter
A few years later, on a hot August Sunday in the 1950s, Schnitzler's wheel malfunctioned and trapped its passengers for hours. Joe Travers, the full-time mechanic during the late '30s and early '40s and who still helped out on special occasions, of which this was one, was called in to solve the problem. On a number of earlier occasions, Travers shimmed up the wheel to make repairs, but this was different. "People were up there yelling 'get us off, get us off,'" Travers says. "I walked in there, saw the two big gear wheels and saw that one of the wheels was stuck. I got a sledge hammer, hit the wheel, knocked it back into place, and the thing goes around. So the owner asked me: how much did I want for fixing the wheel? I said a hundred bucks -- $10 to come here and $90 just to know what to do."

When the Palace closed in 1988, the wheel was put up for sale. Sam and Henry Vaccaro included it in the amusements auction conducted by Sotheby's in New York City, but failed to find a buyer. In 1989, the Vaccaros sold the wheel for an undisclosed price to buyer in Biloxi, MS., where it carried passengers at a 140-acre water park and campground from 1990 to the park's closure in 1997. Along with the operating mechanism of the Palace carousel, the wheel was purchased and returned to New Jersey by developer William Sitar, as part of a plan to acquire and refurbish the Palace.

Difficult and ultimately unsuccessful talks between Sitar and the Palace's final owners, Asbury Partners, dashed Sitar's plans.

NEWS UPDATE, from the Aug. 29, 2008 Asbury Park Press

The Asbury Park Ferris Wheel is on its way home, but not to this city's beachfront, where the historic attraction prevailed for almost a century.

The Palace Amusements ride designed by Ernest Schnitzler in the 1890s will become an art exhibit at the town and foundry where it was built in the early 1890s - Phoenixville, Pa.

The former mill town is being revitalized as an arts and entertainment hub, and restoration of the Phoenix Iron Foundry has been at the heart of that effort.

The town's Schuylkill River Heritage Center bought what they are now calling the Asbury Park Phoenix Wheel from Iselin-based developer William Sitar who, himself, rescued the wheel from a Mississippi water park and campground 10 years ago.

Sitar has kept the wheel at his Twinbrook Golf Center in Tinton Falls ever since.

He brought both the wheel and the Palace Amusements carousel back to New Jersey from Mississippi at a time when he hoped to save the Palace Amusements building, which once housed them both.

But he could not make his plan work, and the building was later razed as part of the current beachfront redevelopment.

"I'm happy that it's going back to Phoenixville," Sitar said Thursday. "At least those people will appreciate it, restore it and make it an icon for the town.

"We could have done the same thing in Asbury Park," Sitar said. "So many people rode on it. In my opinion, it would have been a real welcome thing for people to see it brought back to life."

The new owners paid $50,000 for the wheel and at least 16 cages or baskets that people sat in. Quality Counts Welding & Fabrication picked up the wheel pieces Wednesday and Thursday and will do the restoration at its site in Kimberton, near Phoenixville, said Sam Trotter of the company.

"It needed to go to someone like the people from Phoenixville so at least they will bring it back to its physical glory," said Ken Miller, manager of the golf center.

Barry Cassidy, president of Phoenixville's Main Street Community Development Corp., said the price for the wheel was approximately the same Sitar had paid for it 10 years ago. Sitar declined to comment on the price.

Cassidy said the wheel is not in great shape "but we have plans to restore the wheel and fabricate any missing pieces."

He said it will not function as a ride any longer but be exhibited at the Phoenixville Arts and Entertainment District.

Barbara Cohen, director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, said she found Sitar after learning that one of four wheels made at the foundry at that time in the 1890s was sitting at a golf course in New Jersey.

She said Sitar allowed her organization to put down $25,000, and the group has 18 months, interest-free, to raise the money and pay off the balance.

It will take another $100,000 to restore it, she said.

The Phoenixville Federal Bank and Trust contributed $5,000 to help pay the transportation costs.

Former Palace Amusements owners Henry and Sebastian Vaccaro sold both the vintage wheel and 1910 carousel in 1989 after closing down the amusement house to sell to a developer.

The Vaccaros sold off the original carousel horses individually, and the Mississippi park owner replaced them with a set that Sitar now has.

Sitar said he plans to sell the original carousel and replacement horses.

A news report in 1895 said that Schnitzler opened the big wheel and a two-story observatory platform in the summer of that year, replacing a wooden wheel that had been there for several years.

The new wheel, which passengers got on inside the Palace, and then rode above the building, had 18 observation cars and was 74 feet from ground to top, the report said.

Phoenixville's Cohen said the foundry first was known as the Phoenix Iron Foundry, then the Phoenix Iron and Steel Co., then Phoenix Pipe and Tube Co.

The company went out of business in 1994, she said.

The Palace Ferris wheel in the mid-1980s. Photos courtesy of Billy Smith