Baby Boomer Memories: The story behind the picture of the Pontoosuc diving horse
In 1961 to celebrate Pittsfield's bicentennial, The Berkshire Eagle put together a great commemorative book.
Periodically I still look at the photos in the volume. One photo appearing on page 75 has always piqued my interest: The picture shows a horse jumping from an elevated platform into Pontoosuc Lake.
Over the years I said I would try to find the story behind the photo and I recently did. It turns out that there were actually two beautiful white Arabian steeds named King and Queen that did the dive. It seemed these equines had an innate ability to jump into water from about 40 feet up and show little hesitation or reluctance to do so.
George Holloway, an Iowa liveryman, known as "professor," hired out teams of horses that he owned. When he retired, the professor sold all his horses except King and Queen, and kept a groom to care for them. This groom would frequently bring them to the nearby river where they loved playing in the water, running and jumping from the riverbank.
When they were colts, both were kept in a pasture on a 20-foot high bluff separated by a river from their mothers' pasture below on the other side. The bluff was considered too high and impossible for horses to cross so a fence was not used to separate the pastures.
One morning after only a few days being in the upper pasture, the colts were re-united with their mothers in the lower pasture. Puzzled, Holloway watched the equines and observed them jumping from the bluff to the river below and then swim across the shallow water.
Holloway thought this unusual jumping feat could be made into a show, so he built a platform on the shore for them to jump from, and gradually made it higher. The horses were never forced to jump and appeared to go up the ramp on their own and jump with their faces/noses forward and fore legs extended and pointed straight downward.
Each time they would swim a bit and come to the shore without being called. Holloway prided himself on using kindness to work with King and Queen and never employed a whip. He claimed they gradually worked their way up to jump from a height of 100 feet. However, promotions at various lakes were always for a 40-foot platform. The duo performed so well that in 1899 he began touring with them throughout the country.
The success of the diving horses drew the attention of a Boston amusement promoter named J.W. Gorman, who paid big bucks to buy the steeds in 1901. For many years Gorman's horses were promoted as "J.W. Gorman's High Diving Horses Show," and were featured in parks throughout the Northeast states and Canada.
The Pittsfield Street Railway Co. arranged for Pittsfield to be one of the New England stops as far back as 1904. Gorman's staff assembled its 40-foot wooden platform off the shore of the Pittsfield Boat Club near the Blue Anchor beach area in water 25 feet deep.
When the horses were ready to perform, Queen would lead off and ascend the ramp to the platform. The mare would lower her head and spring outward and downward. After a big splash and coming out of the water, her mate, King repeated the act.
Hundreds of spectators would line the shore to watch and the more well to do, in their fine dress, would be in the water in boats and canoes, a safe distance away from the splashes. It is not known when the horses stopped performing in Pittsfield, but newspaper articles suggest it was 1909.
In the past few decades diving horses and performing circus animals have become the target of animal rights groups and have been replaced by more artistic forms of entertainment.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at email@example.com
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.