One of the major attractions at the Sutro Pleasure Grounds at Merrie Way was the Firth Wheel. This hulking mass of wood and steel, that towered over 120 feet above the ground, lifted visitors into sky in 16 enclosed carriages.. Each carriage accommodated 10 people and when fully loaded, the ride weighed 108 tons. Due to the wheel’s significant weight, it took a full 20 minutes to complete a single revolution. The Firth Wheel was painted in brilliant red and white colors and furnished with a dazzling array of electric lights. The attraction was also the setting of the Merrie Way death-defying stunt shows, when tight-rope walkers would thrill audiences from the very top of its supports.
The Haunted Swing
While the Firth Wheel may have been the most noticeable ride at Merrie Way, the infamous Haunted Swing was by far its most unsettling. The Haunted Swing was originally developed on the East Coast in the 1890’s. Amusement park audiences on the West Coast first experienced the the Haunted Swing at the San Francisco Midwinter Fair of 1894, where it quickly became a favourite ride.
Sutro brought the “gravity-defying” ride to his amusement park in 1896 and for the price of admission, the Haunted Swing’s greatest challenge was to convince the rider that every known law of physics, not to mention the rider himself, could be turned upside-down. Because this impression was achieved so easily makes the Haunted Swing stand out as one of the greatest illusion rides ever invented. The swing itself could hold 40 people and was suspended in a pleasantly decorated room. Once the ride began, the swing seemed to rock gently back and forth, its arc gradually increasing. As this motion continued, the swing reached gravity-defying heights, until its riders were flung 360-degrees around in a single direction, over and over, filling the riders with dread and queasiness.
For the riders, however, not a bowler-hat went missing, not a single purse was lost. The riders’ articles of clothing remained firmly fixed to themselves, as though they had remained motionless in the eye of a domestic tornado. In reality, the riders had not moved at all. The secret of the Haunted Swing was that the decorated room actually rotated around the swing, creating the illusion.
Some of the Pleasure Ground rides were just created for fun. The inconspicuous Swings-on-Platform, more commonly known in those days as Boat Swings, was located along the midway between the Haunted Swing and the Firth Wheel. Boat swings of the period commonly used the force of the riders themselves for propulsion. Two people would sit facing each other in the boat and take turns tugging a rope fastened to the frame. In this way a considerable height could be reached. Less common were steam powered boat swings, often called Steam Yachts or Steam Swings. These were usually larger than the one at Merrie Way, but Sutro’s swing could be exception to that rule.
Less is known about the Swings-on-Platform ride than any other ride at the park. Archaeolgists used historic maps to learn that the ride was small, taking up just about 400 square feet; that there were 2 swings positioned side-by-side; and that each swing likely sat only 2 to 4 people. Available historic photographs couldn’t provide additional information as their views were from too great a distance or the view was blocked. However, photos like the one shown here taken after the park’s closure show 2 boat-like swings suspended from a simple wooden frame.
The Mystic Maze
To create a maze at the Pleasure Grounds, Sutro purchased part of the Cairo Exhibit featured in the 1894 Midwinter Fair. The Mystic Maze was housed in an ornated building fashioned in a vaguely Oriental style and contained a labyrinth of mirrors to confuse the visitor. These puzzingly houses, later known as Fun Houses, would be a stable of most carnivals.
The Scenic Railway
By 1898 Sutro had also constructed the Scenic Railway, an early wooden roller-coaster with a dozen undulating rises and dips. The coaster provided a complete tour of Sutro’s Merrie Way, stretching southward to the concession stands and Haunted Swing before looping around passed the Maze, Boat Swings and Firth Wheel.