One of the most famous acts on the Boardwalk - and one of the iconic symbols of old Atlantic City - was the Diving Horse act that was introduced to Steel Pier in the late 1920s and continued until 1978. A revised version of the act was briefly resurrected for a few months in 1993.
According to Atlantic City historian Allen "Boo" Pergament, William F. "Doc" Carver, a former show partner of "Buffalo Bill" Cody invented the diving horse act in 1881 after a wooden bridge gave way under him, and he and his horse fell into the Platte River in Nebraska. He turned this episode into an act and performed it at county fairs. Frank P. Gravatt, an Atlantic City hotel builder, brought the act to Steel Pier in 1928.
Sisters Sonora Webster Carver and Arnette Webster French were among the first diving horse riders. In August 1931, Sonora Webster Carver was blinded in a diving accident when the horse landed badly. She continued to dive, though. Her story was depicted in the 1991 Walt Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.
|Diving Horse in Mid-Flight. (1930, H009.624.158Div582; ACFPL Heston Collection)|
Below is an incomplete list of the Atlantic City diving horse riders and the years they dove:
Lorena (or Leonora) Carver, Doc Carver’s daughter and the first rider, dove from 1913-1938
Sonora Webster Carver, Doc Carver’s daughter-in-law, dove from 1923-1942
Josephine K. De Angelis, friend of Sonora and Arnette Webster, dove from 1935-1942
Margaret (or Marjorie) Downs, a substitute rider from 1933-1934
Arnette Webster French, Sonora Carver’s sister, dove from 1928, 1931-1935
Barbara E. Gose, 1967
Florence Virginia Griffith (nee Thompson)
Marion S. Hackney
Lynne Jordan, rider in the 1960s
Marie, 1929, 1931
Terrie McDevitt, the last of the diving horse riders, from 1976-1978
Ann Miles, substitute rider in the 1960s
Some of the diving horses were:
Duchess of Lightning (or Lightning)
John the Baptist
Lorga (or Lorgah)
Powderface (or Powder Face)
Pure as Snow (or Snow)
Sonora Carver. A Girl and Five Brave Horses. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.
Linda Oatman High. The Girl on the High-diving Horse. New York: Philomel Books, 2003.
Vicki Gold Levi. Atlantic City, 125 Years of Ocean Madness. New York: C.N. Potter, distributed by Crown Publishers, 1979.
Jim Waltzer and Tom Wilk. Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. Walt Disney, 1991. (video and DVD)
Downs, Margaret H.
Piers – Steel Pier Programs
Please see the Heston Collection Indexes at the Reference Desk to locate photographs and postcards on this subject.