Inside the World's Largest Elephant - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Inside the World's Largest Elephant

Inside the World's Largest Elephant

By James Watkins


Because tourable mammals are the best thing about small-town America.

By James Watkins

She’s 65 feet tall and 60 feet long, and she weighs in at around 90 tons. Her ears alone are a ton apiece. Her bones are made of steel and her skin of painted tin — she sounds hollow to the knock. And for $8, you can climb inside her belly.

Meet Lucy. She claims to be the world’s largest elephant. Built in 1881, she’s also America’s oldest surviving roadside attraction.

On a clear day, Lucy can be seen for about eight miles, but driving through the city of Margate, just outside of Atlantic City, the top of her howdah (the wooden carriage on her back) pokes above the surrounding buildings from just a few blocks away. As you pull closer, her meaty gray buttocks loom into view, pointing boldly toward the street. Inside the gift shop to purchase our tickets, we meet Rich Helfant, the attraction’s appropriately named executive director, CEO and biggest fan (yes, that’s right, Lucy has a CEO).

“Lucy’s older than the Statue of Liberty, older than the Eiffel Tower,” says Helfant proudly. “She’s one of the most iconic examples of zoomorphic architecture” — that’s animal-shaped buildings to you and me — “in the world!” he says. “Except maybe the Sphinx.”  

She is indeed quite the sight. When she was first built on the New Jersey coast in the late 19th century, there are stories of young seamen bound for New York harbor being terrified by the sight of a gigantic beast on the shore. After building the then-wooden structure for $38,000 (a considerable sum in 1881), engineer James V. Lafferty went on to design two more elephantine buildings, though neither survived to the turn of the century. The first, built in Cape May, New Jersey, had a flat face that looked more like a duck than an elephant, and was demolished after proving a financial flop, while the gargantuan second, almost twice the size of Lucy, stood in Coney Island, New York, before perishing in a fire. After decades drawing crowds to the south Jersey beachfront (or, perhaps more accurately, providing a curious distraction for those already there), Lucy eventually fell into disrepair in the 1960s and was condemned for demolition. Step in the Committee to Save Lucy, which has, to date, raised almost $1.5 million, funding a 30-year restoration project that began by lifting up the entire structure and rolling it two blocks down the road to a new location.

We giggle on cue when Katie calls the window in Lucy’s rear end her “pane in the butt.”

We enter the belly of the beast up a spiral staircase in her right hind leg, led by our tour guide, Katie, and get to poke around the museum inside, featuring a miniature bathtub from Lucy’s days as a private residence and a broken whiskey bottle from her time as a pre-Prohibition tavern. The rest of my tour group comprises several wide-eyed under-10s, and we bob our heads as an educational video starts with a catchy jingle. We peer out of the porthole windows that function as her beady eyes, and we giggle on cue when Katie calls the window in Lucy’s rear end her “pane in the butt.” After climbing into the howdah for panoramic views of the beachfront, we join the illustrious group of Lucy alumni, which includes guests such as Henry Ford, Woodrow Wilson and the DuPont family, back in the golden age of tourism in Atlantic City.

Named a National Historic Landmark in 1976, Lucy attracts 130,000 visitors per year, although only about a quarter of those actually purchase the ticket for the internal tour. Nevertheless, the nonprofit organization is almost completely self-funded, Helfant says, and manages to support three full-time staff and between 15 and 20 paid part-time tour guides during peak season. Lucy, who’s about 30 times heavier than an actual Indian elephant, attracts a small but dedicated group of devotees. (Helfant has been CEO for over 17 years, and Katie has been running tours since she was 8.) As Atlantic City has seen its visitors decline from nearly 35 million 10 years ago to fewer than 25 million in 2015, Lucy still hits its 50-person-per-tour capacity in the summer months thanks to a “very aggressive” marketing campaign, says Helfant. The busiest day of the year is her annual birthday party on the closest Saturday to July 20, which celebrates the anniversary of her move to her current location. 

Nobody really knows where the name “Lucy” comes from, but the elephant in the room is that it’s a misnomer: As the pedants among you will have already noted, her tusks indicate that she is in fact a he. Never mind, says Helfant, she’s still “the world’s largest drag queen!”

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