Fall 1996

 
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The Glory Days
at the Driving Park

by

Donovan A. Shilling

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 west.

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.

Maud S.

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.

Spectacles

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.

Nostalgia

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.

1996, Donovan A. Shilling
 
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