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Will This Wheel's Saga Come Full Circle?

November 12, 2009 By:
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Barbara and Allan Cohen sit in a restored carriage from a historic Ferris wheel now being refurbished

What goes around comes around, at least when talking about the revolutions of a Ferris wheel.

A group in Phoenixville in Chester County is hoping that the story of one such attraction comes full circle: It's working to restore and display a 70-foot-tall historic ride, one of the first ever built, in the very city where it was constructed 114 years ago.

The push is the latest chapter of a decade-long effort to revitalize the downtown enclave that had fallen on hard times when the steel industry left and to help Phoenixville rise from the ashes, so to speak.

This particular artifact has witnessed a thing or two over its long lifetime. In fact, the entertainment apparatus happened to play a bit part in Israel's War for Independence, or at least in the effort on the part of many Americans Jews to illegally ship arms to the nascent Jewish army.

The wheel's one-time owner, a New Jersey man who counted David Ben-Gurion among his friends, often used the ride as a means to guarantee private conversation and help keep his clandestine activities under wraps.

Such a connection isn't lost on Barbara Cohen, a 68-year-old member of the Schuylkill Township Board of Supervisors who is spearheading the reclamation effort. Cohen previously helped raise $5 million to transform a crumbling foundry building near downtown Phoenixville into the home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, a nonprofit group that teaches about the city's industrial past; it also serves as a venue for corporate events and weddings.

For Cohen, a longtime member of Congregation B'nai Jacob in Phoenixville, the goal is to "reinvent urban areas, as opposed to building more strip malls. We want to try and rejuvenate the town, to create a memory of an industrial legacy, but at the same time reinvent it in a way that Manayunk has been reinvented."

Dan Baer, an octogenarian born in Phoenixville who still lives in the area, noted that less than a decade ago, "there was no reason for people to come downtown. There weren't enough stores to make it worthwhile."

Her Adopted City

But now, Bridge Street -- the city's main thoroughfare -- is lined with restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses, a far cry from five years ago, according to Barry Cassidy, executive director of the city's Community Development Corp. Things have changed so dramatically that the city is now in need of a parking garage, he said.

"I have adopted Phoenixville because of my appreciation of the amazing legacy of this community, both social and industrial," said Cohen, who has also served as the director of the Chamber of Commerce and the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation.

Cohen's idea is to have an item that speaks to the city's history as a steel producer like no other -- thus, the Ferris wheel -- erected in the vicinity, possibly near the proposed garage. It would no longer function as a working ride, but would instead serve as a kind of "industrial sculpture."

Cohen, a lover of history who once gave Jewish bicentennial tours in downtown Philadelphia and holds a master's degree in design, has delved into the history of this particular amusement-park ride.

In 1895, just two years after George Ferris unveiled his invention at the World's Fair in Chicago, Ernest Schnitzler, owner of an amusement park in Asbury Park, N.J., approached the Phoenix Bridge Company in Phoenixville with a similar design, according to Cohen and other sources. The company ultimately built four such wheels.

Despite the fact that the design of the Ferris wheel underwent some changes -- such as going from 20 to 16 carriages because of a tendency for them to lock in midair -- the "Phoenixville" ride remained at Asbury Park's Palace Amusement, a seashore arcade and theme park, for the better part of 100 years.

In the 1930s, a New Jersey man named Zimel Resnick -- who was born in Russia in 1897 and immigrated to the United States in 1911 -- became co-owner of the park. A committed Zionist, Resnick had served with the Jewish Legion during World War I, where he had befriended Israel's future prime minister, Ben-Gurion.

According to The Pledge, a book by Leonard Slater about the underground movement to ship arms to Israel after World War II, Resnick collected guns and arms for the Jewish cause.

When Resnick wanted to discuss activities that were at the time illegal, Slater noted that he would lead his contacts "to the Ferris wheel at the amusement park into one of its gaudy carriages, where swinging round and round above the seaside resort, they could talk without fear of being overheard" -- something like a scene taken from the Orson Welles movie "The Third Man."

Jules Resnick, 83, worked for a time at his uncle's amusement park and recalled Ben-Gurion calling the office. The younger Resnick, of Ocean Township, N.J., recalled that as a teenager, his uncle asked him to drive an Israeli who wore an eye patch from Asbury Park to New York City. Only later did the younger Resnick realize that the gentleman was none other than Moshe Dayan.

"When it came to Israel, [my uncle] had complete, 110 percent dedication. He had no children -- really, Israel was his child," said his nephew, adding that his uncle spoke with a Yiddish-inflected accent, but commanded the respect of statesmen. "He's a legend."

Zimel Resnick died in 1971 at age 74; he was buried in Israel.

So, what might the amusement-park owner have thought of having his beloved Ferris wheel standing in downtown Phoenixville?

His nephew isn't sure, but said that his uncle would have "turned in his grave" if he knew about the precipitous economic decline in Asbury Park, as well as the closing of much of the seashore attractions.

Coming Back Home

Indeed, the amusement park closed in the late 1980s, and the Ferris wheel was sold to a park in Mississippi. It stayed there, operating for almost 10 years until New Jersey developer Bill Sitar purchased it, hoping to return the wheel to its home in Asbury Park.

But that plan languished, and Cohen's group, the Schuylkill River Heritage Center, was able to purchase it instead. (Asbury Park, however, thanks in large part to the efforts of rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, has been seeing a resurgence of its own.) In 2008, the wheel was moved, in pieces, back to Phoenixville, where much of it sits in a welding and fabrication shop.

Actually, Cohen said that they paid Sitar $25,000, but still owe him $50,000. She said that she has raised $78,000 of the $146,000 needed to pay for the entire project.

A number of area businesses, including the Phoenixville Federal Bank and even the Borough of Phoenixville itself, have purchased naming rights for 12 of the 16 individual passenger carriages.

Refurbished Ferris wheel seats have been placed on the front lawns of several supporting businesses -- at least, until the go-ahead is given to rebuild the whole thing.

"This happens to be a relic from Phoenixville's past," said Carol Buckwalter of Phoenixville Federal Band & Trust.

The hope, said Cohen, is to have it stand on privately owned land adjacent to the refurbished foundry building and next to a new parking garage. Where exactly it will be placed, she said, is a "work in progress."

Yet once situated, it will remain an homage to the past.

 

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