Lucy and her Sisters

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Lucy is in shipshape for her 130th birthday celebration in 2011. Lucy is in shipshape for her 130th birthday celebration in 2011. Lucy the Elephant, whose 133rd birthday will be celebrated Saturday, July 19, was one of three mammoth structures built on the East Coast in the late 1800s. The celebration will include carnival games, rides, activities, food and entertainment. There will be free parking and shuttle service to the site from the Union Avenue School playground. For information call 609-823-6473 or see

Everyone loves Lucy, the roadside elephant now celebrating her 133rd year as a Margate landmark. But many people don’t know that Lucy once had two sisters: the Light of Asia, a similar wooden elephant built to draw visitors and investors to Cape May, and Elephantine Colossus, which graced an amusement park on New York’s Coney Island.

Big idea

All three of the East Coast elephants were inspired by a real-life pachyderm. In 1882, master showman Phineas Taylor Barnum added a giant African elephant named Jumbo to his famous traveling circus, which was known as P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Carava, and Hippodrome.

Barnum brought the mighty beast from the London Zoo to Madison Square Garden in New York. Almost 12 feet tall and weighing more than six tons, Jumbo – advertised as “The Giant Children’s Pet” – became an instant sensation, along with other stars of Barnum’s motley cavalcade: Tom Thumb, the Fiji Mermaid, giantess Anna Swan, Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, along with a three-horned bull, 300 species of birds, and assorted clowns, acrobats and equestrians.

From New York, Barnum took his big top on the road where it was greeted with the hysteria that now might be reserved for the Kardashians or Justin Bieber. With Jumbo as the star, the impresario known for saying “There’s a sucker born every minute” raked in a mindboggling $2 million that year.

The animal’s celebrity was not lost on Philadelphia real estate speculator James V. Lafferty Jr., who had invested heavily in land at the Jersey shore but was having a hard time luring buyers to the remote, sandy plots. He needed a gimmick.

Trunk to tail

Laffery commissioned architect William Free to design a six-story elephant-shaped building to serve as his seaside headquarters. He patented the design, and dubbed the first building Elephant Bazaar. It was constructed on the beach in Atlantic City’s southern end, which later became part of the city of Margate.

Built of 1 million pieces of wood and covered with sheets of tin, Elephant Bazaar measured 60 feet from trunk to tail. It had curved white tusks, and a rectangular window in its rear. Its windowed eyes gazed glassily out at the sea.

Inside, a spiral staircase in the elephant’shind legs led visitors to the second floor. A second narrow passage took them to the rooftop howdah, a reconstruction of a traditional Indian riding carriage. From the open-air howdah, visitors could breathe the salt air and view the spectacular landscape.

A newspaper ad of the era boasted, “This remarkable structure is the only one in the world built in this novel form,” and had “a magnificent view of the Ocean, Bay, Atlantic City, Ocean City, Somers’ Point (sic), and adjacent Towns and Villages.” Tourists could get there from Atlantic City by rail and from Somers Point and Ocean City by steamboat.

People were charged 10 cents for a tour of the elephant. But few took the tour, and fewer still chose to invest in land at the Jersey shore. Two years after Elephant Bazaar opened in 1881, Lafferty sold it to Anthony Gertzen of Philadelphia. Later, Gertzen’s wife, Sophia, reportedly changed the name to Lucy, though the tusks clearly identified it as a bull elephant.

Light of Asia

Though the seaside elephant failed to succeed in Margate, that didn’t stop developer Theodore M. Reger from building a replica in Cape May. Like Lafferty, Reger believed new rail service to the area would spark tourism and promote residential development.

Lafferty, who still held the patent, sold the rights to Reger, who spent $18,000 to build the five-story Light of Asia near the beach in what is now South Cape May. The Light of Asia was more than 58 feet tall at the top of the howdah. It was finished in 1885, and locals soon nicknamed it Jumbo, or by some accounts, Old Dumbo. Like Lafferty, Reger offered 10-cent tours as well as refreshments.

But the nickels and dimes of tourists could not cover the cost of construction, much less the price of maintenance. Battered by the elements, Light of Asia began to deteriorate, and by some accounts became a boarding house for itinerants before a local businessman was given a contract to tear it down. According to the website of Lucy the Elephant, the remains of the Light of Asia were set afire on May 26, 1900, reducing Reger’s dream to ashes.

Endangered species

Elephantine Colossus, built on Coney Island in 1884, was the largest of the three sisters. It, too, was built by the ever-optimistic James Lafferty, who paid $65,000 to construct the giant building, which had an aerial view that stretched more than 50 miles.

The structure was 122 feet high, had 31 rooms and 65 windows. It included seven floors of exhibits and rooms known by the pachyderm’s body parts: the Shoulder Room, the Throat Room, the Stomach Room, etc.

According to the website of the New York Historical Society, Colossus was located on a “seedy stretch of Surf Avenue” in a rumored red-light district. In fact, the website reports, “The phrase ‘seeing the elephant’ became euphemistic for picking up local prostitutes.”

Elephantine Colossus failed to turn a profit and was destroyed by fire on Sept. 27, 1896.

Last elephant standing

Lucy the Elephant might have faced a similar fate, if not for stalwart community members who worked to preserve the landmark.

“Lucy had been condemned in 1962 and fallen into a terrible state of disrepair when the Gertzen family decided to sell the land to developers to build a high-rise,” said Richard Helfant, executive director of Lucy the Elephant. “They were going to relocate to Florida, and they couldn’t care less.” The city of Margate, Helfant said, also was uninterested in maintaining the dilapidated structure.

“Then a group of people spearheaded by Josephine Harron and Sylvia Carpenter formed a nonprofit grassroots organization, got 501-c3 status and went door to door, basically, raising money” to save Lucy the Elephant. Some 63 people pledged $1,000 each, which served as seed money for a larger campaign. Margate officials gave the Save Lucy committee permission to move the giant, tattered elephant from its previous site on Cedar Grove Avenue to a nearby park. “They said, ‘We’ll allow you to use the land, but you have to move it, and if it falls apart, you have to clean it up,’”Helfant said.

The contractor was so concerned about Lucy’s derelict condition that he voided the warranty clause, according to Helfant. The building “weighed 90 tons before breakfast, and was just shy of 100 years old. They felt as soon as they drove off the curb, it would fall apart.”

In 1970, Helfant, who was 12 years old at the time, watched as Lucy was loaded onto a truck bed and transported to her new home.

“I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday,” he said. “When they made the turn off the curb, you could hear her moaning and creaking, as if she came to life. The birds flew out, and a cloud of dust flew out of her. … It was amazing. It took seven hours to move her two blocks.”

In 1974, after a thorough restoration, Lucy reopened to the public for the first time in 12 years. She stands watch over the ocean at 9200 Atlantic Ave., between Washington and Decatur avenues.

In 1976, America’s bicentennial year, the federal government named the attraction a National Historic Landmark.

Stronger than the storm

Over the decades, Lucy has been struck by lightning twice and withstood numerous assaults by Mother Nature, including Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.

“The hurricane was horrible, but it was actually a godsend for us,” said Helfant. “The outpouring of support from the public was amazing.”

The weekend after the storm, Lucy fans responded to a plea for help, some driving from Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore, shovels at the ready, to help in the cleanup.

“We had 4,000 people that liked it on Facebook before the storm,” said Helfant. “We’re now up to 14,000.”

Of the three elephants that once graced the East Coast, only Lucy has avoided the elephant graveyard. Now restored to her original splendor, she welcomes some 130,000 visitors per year. They come to admire her purple-painted toenails, climb her spiral staircase to the howdah, and see what James V. Lafferty and Theodore M. Reger saw more than 100 years ago: one of the fairest coastlines in the land.

  Her trunk broken and tin skin peeling off in sheets, Lucy the Elephant was later salvaged by a restoration completed in 1974. Her trunk broken and tin skin peeling off in sheets, Lucy the Elephant was later salvaged by a restoration completed in 1974.

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