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The High-flying Powderface

Diving horse Powderface prepares to take a jump at the Territorial Fair in Phoenix, probably in 1905, the year the fair re-opened after a disastrous flood in 1891.

The larger photo shows Powderface, the wonder horse, at the Territorial Fair in Phoenix, probably in 1905, the year the fair re-opened after a disastrous flood in 1891. Powderface was one of the few horses in the world trained to dive off a platform into a tank of water.

Powderface belonged to William Frank “Doc” Carver, a trained dentist and carnival sharpshooter with an act like Annie Oakley’s. Carver told the story of crossing a bridge during a storm in the 1880s when the bridge started to collapse. His horse dove into the water, giving him the idea for his horse diving act.

Carver and his horse sometimes wintered in Phoenix. Carver would stay at the Adams Hotel and Powderface would be boarded at what is now Eastlake Park (at 16th and Washington streets). During the summer, the two traveled the carnival circuit performing feats of derring-do. Powderface was required to climb a ramp, braced by a wooden scaffold, to a platform some 30 feet above ground. To the amazement of spectators, he then jumped into a tank of water.

While on tour, Carver’s son Al was usually in charge of building the ramp and tower; his daughter Lorena often rode the horse as it dived from the platform. In this photo, Powderface is riderless, although note the person behind the horse who may have encouraged the equine with a good solid shove.

This act at the Territorial Fair brought forth a storm of protest from local animal lovers. John Canning, Phoenix humane officer, closed the act, but not before a local photographer had preserved it for posterity. Carver continued performing the act at fairs around the country, and although he died in 1927, the act became a permanent attraction at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. Animal rights groups finally closed it down for good in the 1970s.

Powderface’s proud owner, William Frank “Doc” Carver.

Doc Carver’s exploits with horse diving are recounted in the 1991 film, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” which is based on real life. The film recounts how Sonora Webster Carver, Al Carver’s wife, is blinded in a horse-diving accident yet continues to ride and jump in the act.

The Arizona Territorial Fair, which had not been held for 14 years after an 1891 flood destroyed the fairgrounds down by the river, was a huge success when it reopened in 1905 at its new location at 19th Avenue and McDowell Road. With the support of two prominent businessmen, J.C. Adams and M.H. Sherman, it became a permanent event. Now the Arizona State Fair, it has been held every fall except during the Great Depression, World War II and one year when the cotton crop failed.

— Arizona Capitol Times archive. Photos from Arizona News Service archive

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