The Glory Days
at the Driving Park
Off to the Races
When Rochester went to the races in the 1870s its destination was often
the new Driving Park. We all know the location of Driving Park Bridge,
however there may be a few out-of-towners who are not fully acquainted
with the story of Rochester's fabled raceway and site for so many unusual
spectacles. As you might suspect, the grand new track was built at the
end of the horse car line out Lake Avenue way. The grounds began along
McCracken Street (which became Driving Park Avenue in 1882) and encompassed
seventy acres north and west of Dewey Avenue. The Charlotte Branch of
the then Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh R.R. bounded the park on the
The Grand Circuit
Built in 1874, the Driving Park had a finely designed mile-long track
especially groomed to suit the rising interest in organized sulky racing.
The track was the collective efforts of George W. Whitney, a prominent
miller, Mortimer Reynolds, of arcade fame, the nurserymen James Vick and
Patrick Barry, and several others.
The formal August 12th opening of the new facility coincided with its
inclusion into the Grand Circuit of the National Trotting Association.
On opening day thousands of racing fans made their way through the ornate
Victorian entrance gate which was flanked by two ornamental towers. Three
large wooden grandstands accommodated much of the crowd; dignitaries had
private boxes while others lined the railing along the great oval track
and crowded the western railroad embankment.
Serious fans arrived by train from Buffalo, Syracuse and Niagara Falls.
Many others were local folks curious to see the new track and to experience
what was to become, for many years, Rochester's most popular spectator
sport. A handsome three-story judge's stand stood opposite the center
grandstand on the infield side of the track. From there, one could see
the white picket fence that encircled the grounds. Also catching the eye
was the red, white and blue bunting that decorated the grandstand and
draped the infield fence. Vendors sold lemonade, popcorn and programmes
containing the list of entries. The rousing sound of band music filled
the summer afternoon with the popular tune "Marching Through Georgia."
The origin of this stirring fare was Hadley's Military Band.
Moments of Glory
Races were held for both pacers and trotters. The purse for the main
event was $5000 which was a very heady sum. The prize money would be worth
almost ten times that amount in today's dollars. As with all racing events
some wagering undoubtedly took place and intensified in the minutes till
the judge's bright flag and a clanging bell signaled the race's start
and the track's first moment of glory.
Maid of Honor
A champion bay mare whose name was "Goldsmith Maid" pulled a high-wheeled
sulky around the track with lightning-like speed. Her sulky driver Bud
Doble, as well as the other drivers, were seeking two victories. The first,
at the finish line. The second, was to reach the mythical two-minute mile
which had eluded all harness racing drivers. The winner of the meet was
"Goldsmith Maid." The fleet-footed 18-year-old had established a new world's
trotting record for the mile at 2 minutes, 143/4 seconds. The opening
day crowd, estimated at 20,000 would be buzzing about this sensational
race for many weeks to come.
Other days of glory would also be enjoyed at the Driving Park. One such
occasion was observed on August 11, 1881. A party of racing fanatics,
sports writers and friends of railroad magnate, William S. Vanderbilt,
journeyed to Rochester in his private rail car to enjoy watching his celebrated
little mare "Maud S." The race began with the usual "flying colors." The
high quality of the oval's surface made the track exceptionally fast.
Mr. Vanderbilt was absolutely ecstatic when his swift mare not only won
the race but found its way into the world record books. Her time of two
minutes ten and one quarter seconds for the mile race held for many years.
So widely spread was word of this accomplishment that "Maud S.,"
"the trotting queen," was chosen as the subject for a Scott Leighton
painting. "Maud S." was now immortalised. Leighton's work, later lithographed
by Currier & Ives in 1881, appeared in The Travelers Insurance Company's
annual calendar for 1987.
Elsa vs. Hattie
Harness racing would continue at the Driving Park into the early years
of the 1900s. George W. Clarke, a Rochesterian, even added to the speed
and comfort of the racing sulkies. George was the first person to add
pneumatic tires to the rigs. It was that addition of pneumatic tires to
bicycles that led to another great attraction at the "Park." By the turn
of the century thousands of Rochesterians were riding bicycles. It wasn't
long before someone arranged to have a racing contest between a horse
and a bicyclist. Thus in 1881 Elsa von Blumen, a professional bike rider,
challenged the trotting mare, "Hattie R." Much was made of this in the
press. Interestingly, Elsa beat out Hattie.
State Fair Grounds
A map, dated 1875, of the Driving Park facilities indicates that many
permanent structures were added to accommodate the state agricultural
and horticultural exhibitions held on the grounds. Along the Boulevard
(Dewey Avenue) side of the park were positioned the horse stables, various
sheds and the Boyd Hotel, an imposing two-story structure near the main
gate. The hotel was complete with dining room, barroom and kitchen. The
second floor held nine guest apartments which included hot and cold water
and other necessary conveniences.
Along the Driving Park side of the grounds one could find the poultry
building, Dairy Hall, Mechanics Hall, Engine Headquarters and the sheep
pens. A freight depot and the building known as Stove Hall were found
at the west end of the fair grounds.
A wide variety of events were booked into the Driving Park. Its commodious
grandstands and broad race track made it ideal for Buffalo Bill's Wild
West Show. Its handy railroad siding also made it convenient for unloading
the Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus train. In 1895 a huge bicycle
spectacle was staged with dozens of local and out-of-town wheelmen's clubs
participating. Bicycle races, bicycle balancing acts, and a mammoth parade
of bicycle riders were a part of
the popular event. A most unusual presentation held at the old park was
the re-enactment of a Civil War battle. The sham encounter was complete
with uniformed volunteers, military drills and cannons booming for effect.
As always, the Blue prevailed over the Gray.
Bicycle racing eventually competed with harness racing and the last Grand
Circuit races were held in 1895. Four years later the wooden grandstands
were lost to fire. By 1903 a foreclosure action closed the grounds. The
Driving Park was soon subdivided into homesites. Today that jog in an
otherwise straight Dewey Avenue marks the location of the Driving Park's
south boundary. Those living on Lark, Dove, and Archer Streets, the last
named for one of the parks promoters, may still dig up a horseshoe or
a bit of harness iron from their flower gardens. Such nostalgic artifacts
are just another reminder of the former activities that once brought vast
throngs to watch races at the track some called the fastest in America.
It's all gone now, but there certainly were some marvelous glory days
at the grand old Driving Park.