The Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey was an iconic vacation destination for many years from late 19th century through mid 20th century. It is part of a rich history of the state. From the Miss America Pageant hopefuls parading on the boardwalk to the diving horses, it seems everyone knew where The Steel Pier could be found.
A press release from the Steel Pier Associates announced in early February a decision to bring back the diving horse act to the beach resort town. Their goal was to do this by Memorial Day, the traditional ushering in of the summer season. The revitalization project will include a roller coaster and other rides, a nightclub, a museum, a foodcourt and arcade section and a 2,000 seat ballroom. And yes, the diving horse attraction.
What is entertaining about watching an animal put in harm’s way? Watch the video of an historic Steel Pier horse dive and see what you think.
The Catanoso brothers, Anthony and William, owners of Steel Pier Associates say they want to bring non-gaming family attractions to Atlantic City. Certainly that is a reasonable goal to a place where gambling — and all the squander that comes with it — is pretty much the only game in town. But watching a horse climb 40 feet and be forced to dive into a pool 12 feet deep? I don’t get it.
The Catanoso brothers claim they investigated the history of diving horses in Atlantic City and found no horse was ever injured in a dive. They state that is the reason they decided to bring back the act to the Steel Pier. Yet an article in Christian Cowgirl says:
“There is one known case of a diving horse dying in action. Lightning, Sonora’s beloved diving horse, was practice-diving riderless at a tower on a pier. The show people wanted to see if the show could be done successfully into the ocean. Lightning jumped beautifully, then became confused and swam out toward sea. She became tired gave up, and went under. Lifeguards caught up to her and buoyed her up. She was brought back to shore, but couldn’t be resuscitated.”
As a New Jersey-born Baby Boomer I have vivid memories of the Atlantic City boardwalk and all the family fun we had there in the summers long before casinos arrived in town. I recall as a six year old asking my dad why the horses were diving into a little pool; won’t they get hurt? “That’s to entertain us,” he would explain, which left me with a quizzical frown on my face.
Diving Horse History
The concept of diving horses for entertainment is credited toWilliam “Doc” Carver. While riding over a Nebraska bridge in 1881 as it partially collapsed, the horse dove into the water. His experience inspired the idea.
The heyday of diving horses was in the 1920s to 1950s, although the act continued until 1978. The diving horse act was brought back for a very brief stint in 1993 but was quickly stopped in reaction to the objections of animal advocates.
The best known diver was a young woman named Sonora Webster Carver. She was married to Doc Carver’s son, Al. Her life was described in her 1961 book “A Girl and Five Brave Horses,” from which Disney made the movie “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” in 1991. Carver was blinded in a dive at the age of 27 and continued diving for 11 years after her accident. She lived to the ripe old age of 99.
Nostalgia is a powerful feel-good marketing tool. But shouldn’t we realize and admit that not everything from the past deserves to be revived? Animal welfare was a concept not often considered even fifty years ago. Why don’t we leave diving horses in the past? Sure, show the history of it in the planned museum, but don’t make those horses climb up a narrow ramp and then jump 40 feet into a 12 foot pool. That seems like cruelty to me.
If a person wants to make that dive, that is up to them. Humans have the option of saying yes or no. Watching those horses walk the narrow plank up to the top looks like the creature is being led to slaughter. They can’t change their mind and get back down. The only option they have once they arrive at the top is to jump. And yes, some seem to do it willingly but many don’t. So a trap door is lowered forcing the horse to plunge into the water below.
21st Century Animal Advocacy
Animal advocates are at it again. Jennifer Mishler has spearheaded an effort to prevent the diving horse act from returning to Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. Mishler told me in an email, “I was surprised and appalled to learn that Steel Pier president Anthony Catanoso plans to bring back this cruel show after it has been gone for years. It is simply putting profit over compassion for living beings.”
Mishler also told me “…and we are planning peaceful demonstrations if they do not respond.” A Facebook page also garnered attention.
Steel Pier Associates has not returned my phone calls, but they did ask the public to post opinions about bringing the diving horse act back to Atlantic City. The comments on this site against bringing back a diving horse act led Catanoso to change his plans. NBC News reported Steel Pier President Anthony Catanoso announced Tuesday, February 14 in response to the reaction of animal advocates’ protests he will not bring back the diving horse act to the pier.
Curiously, the many comments logged against the diving horse act no longer appear on the Facebook site.
A big thank you to the over 1,200 people who signed the petition against horse diving!
Photo credit: via flickr, Demetrios Lyras