Highlights of 1906 — Mr. Thompson’s Wild Ride and the Ryan Scintillator

Floyd C. Thompson’s Wild Ride

Floyd C. Thompson, who threw himself completely into building and promoting Wonderland, tried to do all he could for the sake of publicity. Whether because of a whim or in pursuit of yet another headline, he did something extraordinary.

One of the acts brought in to highlight the first season of Wonderland was Professor Joseph LaRoux and his wife Christina “Tiny” LaRoux and their balloon. LaRoux was really Joseph Kray from upstate New York, and he was no more a “professor” than were any of the other balloon aeronauts who used that title. LaRoux had been many thing in his time — magician, acrobat, wire walker, and “all-around athlete”, but his big act was to go up in a balloon that had no basket, only a trapeze bar suspended from it, and perform trapeze acts high in the air with no net.

He had married each of his wives — Tiny was his third — in a ceremony that included a balloon ascension. For their engagement at Wonderland, they renamed their balloon the “Wonderland”. The act involved Tiny and another woman, local acrobat Amelia Garvin, going up on a balloon fitted with a double trapeze and with two parachutes unfolded, but with the top edge lightly attached near the top of the balloon. The balloon would ascend, tethered to a rope, and when it got to 2,500 feet they ladies would jump from their trapeze seats, the parachutes attached to them, and the parachutes would snap open and let them drift to the ground.

At 5 PM on July 25, 1906, Tiny and Amelia were preparing to ascend, when Thompson, apparently acting impulsively, announced that he would take Amelia’s place. The Wonderland Board members who were present objected — Thompson was too important to take such a risk with his life. But Thompson insisted, LaRoux agreed, and Thompson took off his straw hat and replaced it with a cap that would not slip off.

Above — poor-quality photograph showing Thompson getting ready to board the balloon in the space between the Hell Gate ride and the Carousel

After Thompson climbed onto the trapeze his hands were tied in place, something not done with the performers. This probably saved his life.

LaRoux fired off his starter’s pistol, indicating that the balloon was to be sent upwards. It started with an unexpected (to Thompson) jolt that he was jerked from his seat and was left dangling by his hands as the balloon rose.

Thompson was in a bad position. He was too high to let go (even if he could), yet not high enough to jump off and let the parachute carry him down. It had to be at least 2500 feet up in order to give it a chance to fully open and arrest his fall. All he could do was hold on to the trapeze until the rope paid out sufficiently.

The headlines on the front page the next day were dramatic:

(The “dangles by one hand” seems to be hyperbole — no other account says he held on by one hand).

The Boston Post added a drawing that shows the situation. The face of Thompson is superimposed on the sketch — he didn’t have his picture on the side of the balloon.

When the balloon was high enough, LaRoux fired another shot to indicate that Thompson should let go. He didn’t. LaRoux fired another signal shot. Whether because he could not get untied, or he was in fear and panic, Thompson still held on. La Roux fired a third shot, and Thompson finally did release from the trapeze. His parachute opened, and he began drifting down to the ground.

The wind blew him westward, toward the very active Boston and Maine railroad tracks where, at that moment, a train was approaching at high speed.

Thompson tried rocking from side to side to land anywhere but the tracks. That, or a fortuitous gust of wind, got him landing off to one side, missing the train.

A crowd came to get the unfortunate manager, whose arms seemed to be frozen in the “up” position. He was carried in triumph back to the Wonderland hospital, where his arms were massaged until he could put them down again.

The Ryan Scintillator

Walter Darcy Ryan had been working for General Electric in Lynn Massachusetts since that branch of the company had been the Thomas-Houston Electric company, before the merger with Thomas Edison’s Syracuse-based company that created GE. As a director of research he had created and nurtured designs for street lighting and other applications. But General Electric was still lagging behind its competitors. The contract to light the 1904 St. Louis exposition had gone to Westinghouse. When Wonderland was going up, they got their own electrical designer, rather than working with nearby GE.

Ryan wanted General Electric to get the contract for the next big international exposition, the Jamestown Exposition to be held at Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1907. To promote General Electric, he wanted something big and splashy. Nit a new streetlamp, but an attraction that would get people talking.

On the evening of Thursday, July 12, 1906 he assembled a company of volunteers at the Relay Yard at Bass Point in Nahant, Massachusetts, across Broad Sound from Revere Beach. The men were placed on a platform with six searchlights. The searchlights were mounted on universal joint swivels, allowing them to be turned in any direction, and the men were equipped with a set of colored gelatin filters, such as were used for theatrical lighting. These had been coated with marine varnish to make them waterproof.

In front of them, a Christmas tree-like structure of piping was connected to a steam generator. The steam apparatus was turned on, venting steam from multiple nozzles in the structure. Then the lights went on simultaneously, sending shafts of colored light through the cloud of steam, which made them visible over a great distance.

The beams of light could be moved independently, following hand and whistle commands from Ryan. Colors intersected and mixed, creating new colors, making plaid patterns. Special rotating nozzles made pinwheels and “Fighting Serpents”. and “Ghosts” The rays could diverge, or converge together. By using appropriate colors, they could duplicate the flags of different nations (something Ryan hoped would be a good feature for an international exposition).

Ryan had invented the Light Show.

They ran the spectacle every night. Ryan had hoped that they could keep it going for a week. The demand was so great that they ran it every night for 54 consecutive days. People chartered boats from Boston to sail out into the Sound to see the spectacle from up close. Ryan had more than succeeded in making a splash for GE.

Floyd Thompson was furious. People were renting boats and coming out from Boston to gawk at the Scintillator, and not coming to Wonderland. So he waged war on the Scintillator. He urged people not to go. He got all the Wonderland searchlights together and pointed them at the sky over Nahant, hoping to drown out the colored Scintillator beams. None of it worked.

Finally, Thompson did the only reasonable thing — he bought the Scintillator. Or, rather, he purchased the use of it for the remainder of the summer. The Scintillator components were brought from Nahant, down the Causeway and into Revere, where they were set up in an empty portion of Wonderland, and used to advertise Wonderland Park. They took out ads in the papers

They extended Wonderland’s season for a week or two beyond their intended closing date, to allow them to get their money’s worth out of the Scintillator. It was a good investment — Wonderland was able to not only re-purpose a competitor as an asset, they were able to get the use of a World’s Fair-class entertainment before anyone else in the world did.

Like just about everything else, the Scintillator moved on after the end of the season. It might not have appeared at Jamestown, but it was used to light Niagara Falls. The following year, it made its World’s Fair debut at the 1909 Fulton-Hudson Exposition in new York City, where it played to larger crowds than it probably would have gotten at Jamestown.

There are photographs of the Scintillator from the other expositions, but they really don’t convey the impact it had. The first Exposition for which we have color photos of the Scintillator is the 1915 Expo in San Francisco. Here are a few more:

They shot off fireworks in the beams of the Scintillator, as shown above, to create different effects.

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