Jersey shore's giant wooden elephant needs a trunk lift

AP News
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Posted: Oct 04, 2015 3:36 PM
Jersey shore's giant wooden elephant needs a trunk lift

MARGATE, N.J. (AP) — She's been hit by lightning — twice — had a giant tent pole slammed into her posterior, and been subjected to pokes and prods from the feet of climbing children.

But what's currently afflicting Lucy The Elephant is a tiny plague — grains of windblown sand that are eating away at her wooden railings and scouring the paint from her wood and tin hide. The 134-year-old tourist attraction near the beach in Margate, just outside Atlantic City, needs to have some crumbling wood replaced, along with a new coat of paint from head to multicolored toenails.

And the $58,000 cost of the work to the National Historic Landmark isn't peanuts.

So the small group that runs and maintains Lucy is trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars by selling T-shirts and appealing to crowdfunding websites to give the old girl a trunk lift.

"We're going to have to raise $30,000 to $40,000 ourselves for this," said Richard Helfant, the group's executive director.

Standing 65 feet tall and looking out over the beach, Lucy has delighted generations of kids and their families, who pay to climb the narrow, winding wooden staircase inside one of her hind legs, eventually leading up and out onto her howdah, or passenger carriage.

That area is Lucy's most pressing need. Work began last week to replace rotting wood along the edges of Lucy's howdah. While the main railings remain safe, lower barriers designed to prevent children from falling through were crumbling and needed to be replaced. And the entire six-story structure will be repainted.

"It takes a beating up here," Helfant said from the top of Lucy, where Atlantic City's casinos were visible a few miles away in the distance. "There's actually sand up here. It gets sandblasted from the wind. She's bombarded with sand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The paint just peels off."

It's the third major renovation of Lucy's howdah in the past decade. The structure got hit by lightning in 2006, causing $162,000 worth of damage, including the destruction of the howdah. Lightning struck twice, hitting Lucy again in 2011, causing tens of thousands of dollars to electrical, heating and cooling and electronics systems.

And that's not counting a freak accident in 2009 when someone had rented the grounds to have a wedding and a sudden gust of wind lifted up the tent and smashed its pole into Lucy's backside. That cost $135,000 to repair.

The 90-ton elephant was built in 1881 by a land speculator trying to lure people to what was then known as South Atlantic City. Since then, it has functioned as a restaurant, a tavern, someone's house, and recently, a tourist attraction.

Helfant's group got an $11,000 grant from a historic preservation group, and the painting contractor set to repaint Lucy convinced a paint manufacturer to donate the materials for the job, reducing its cost by about $8,000. Before the paint goes on, the tin exterior will be sandblasted and rustproofed, and holes will be patched.

Most of the rest of the cost will be paid for through the sale of T-shirts that read "I helped paint Lucy" and feature a rainbow of colors flowing from the elephant's trunk. They are available at the gift shop, as well as through online at www.lucytheelephant.org.

About 32,000 people a year pay to climb the spiral staircases inside Lucy and reach the top, while an additional 100,000 visit the site from the ground but do not go inside, Helfant said.

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC