As the high tide surged at Lighthouse Point Park, Gary Dickinson refused to let Hurricane Sandy swallow the electric heart of the city’s iconic merry-go-round.
Dickinson was one of a dozen city parks workers dispatched to the beachfront park Monday to protect the city’s century-old carousel from destruction as Hurricane Sandy barreled towards the state.
In a great feat of impromptu engineering, Dickinson orchestrated a dozen workers to extricate the Stinson organ at the center of the carousel and roll it away to safety before the storm hit.
His work began around 10 a.m. Monday. Fellow parks workers (including Tom White, pictured) flung open the windows of the 1916 Carousel building. The city decided to open all the windows and remove the wooden panels below those windows to let the sea sweep through the building, said Christy Hass, the city’s deputy parks director.
Monday night’s high tide is expected to rise much higher, with a storm surge bringing an extra 8 to 10 feet of water. That will surely flood the Carousel, Hass said. The building will be better off if it accepts the rush of water inside, rather than fighting it off, she said.
By 11 a.m., a half hour before Monday’s first high tide, the water was already creeping up past the swing sets on the beach.
As other workers laid down sand bags, Dickinson (pictured) focused his attention on a problem that had not yet been solved: How to get the organ out from the delicate maze of Carousel bars, without damaging anything.
When Tropical Storm Irene hit last year, the city was unable to extricate the organ, according to Sabrina Bruno, the parks department coordinator of events and projects. Luckily, the water didn’t rise high enough to damage it, Bruno said. Bruno said the wooden organ would cost $26,000 to replace. It is not original to the building; she said she doesn’t know the year it was built.
This time, with storm tides expected to double the worst of Irene’s, the city tried to get a piano moving company to take away the organ. But no one was available Sunday, when the parks crew removed all of the recently restored horses from the carousel. The horses were taken to a warehouse for safety. The electric organ, which plays songs inscribed on paper rolls, was left behind.
Dickinson announced that he would find a way to move it out.
“I think you’re crazy,” a coworker told him.
He quietly began laying down cinder blocks, then packing sand bags on top.
“Do you have a chainsaw?” he asked a coworker, who agreed to cut a long plank into two.
Dickinson laid down the planks to build an escape route.
Amid the activity, Bob Levine, the city parks director, stopped by to check out the preparations.
“Is there someone coming to move the organ?” he asked.
“I’m gonna move it,” Dickinson replied.
“God bless you,” said Levine. “If the Egyptians built the pyramids, you can do this.”
He let Dickinson get back to work. Dickinson grabbed a hammer and nailed down a piece of plyboard to complete the ramp.
Hass announced she had found some scrap pipes for the organ to roll down.
By 11:10, Dickinson was ready for the big move.
“Young man!” he cried, spotting a coworker. “Come on over!”
As two coworkers held the organ, he used a plank to leverage the organ into the right spot.
“Nobody gets hurt, just please, nobody gets hurt,” implored Hass as a half-dozen men began to push the organ down the ramp.
Back in New Haven’s Emergency Operation Center, the underground bunker below 200 Orange St. downtown, Bruno trained one of the park’s many cameras on the carousel to watch the action, she said.
After some brief debate—“Tip it forward ... no, tip it back!”—the organ rolled smoothly onto the carousel.
The men suggested tearing down a portion of the fence to get the organ out. Hass suggested an alternative: Swing the carousel around so the organ lines up with the gate.
The idea worked.
The crew built another ramp and rolled the organ down to ground level. It was now 11:30 a.m., high tide. The water had not reached the carousel, and the organ was safe.
Hass burst out in applause.
“Thank you, everybody,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I can go home now,” joked Dickinson.
The team carted off the organ in a Bobcat and took to a warehouse for storage.
Back in the emergency bunker, Bruno celebrated the preservation of a piece of history.
“Oh my god, they did it!” she said.
“It was a yeoman’s task,” she later said by phone. “The fact that they could get the organ out is a miracle.”