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Monday, February 3, 2014

Street Names

The horrific winter we’ve been having, with bitter cold temperatures and massive snowfalls (thankfully, not at the same time so far), presents the perfect excuse for hibernation. In my case, since I’m on sabbatical researching and writing a book on the history of horse racing in western Pennsylvania, I’ve been able to enjoy spending hours and hours poring over historical documents and maps, happily discovering little gems of information. When it’s all done, I hope to have something relatively comprehensive and hopefully insightful to say about the sport’s history in the region, but for now I’d like to just occasionally throw out some observations and elicit feedback on my thoughts and findings.

Today’s musing is on street names. Huh? Well, one of my research trajectories is on the redevelopment of former race track sites—for what reasons did specific tracks meet their demise, and how was the land subsequently used? Not surprisingly, a number apparently came to be used for new “streetcar suburbs” around the turn of the century, such as Westmont Race Track here in Johnstown (Cambria County) which, after its demise in 1905, was developed into an upscale neighborhood. The same thing happened in McKees Rocks (Allegheny County), where the driving park closed in 1900, becoming the streetcar suburb of West Park. When the Homewood Driving Park (Allegheny County) closed in 1899, prominent businessman Jacob J. Vandergrift hired Frederick Law Olmsted to develop it into the Homewood Driving Park subdivision.

Not sure why this should surprise me, but one thing that did was how often the locations of former tracks lingered in street names, even in areas where subdivisions were not developed. In particular, the numerous times I found “Race Street” appearing where tracks once stood, not just in Homewood and McKees Rocks, but also in little towns like Ridgway (Elk County) and Brookville (Jefferson County), both of which had dirt courses in 1895, but no longer. The second most-found street name: “Derby” as in Derby Alley in McKees Rocks and Derby Street in Johnstown’s Roxbury neighborhood, former location of Luna Park which folded in 1904. I’m just beginning my research so who knows where this will take me, but what a cool, and ultimately sad, thought—that long-forgotten sporting venues, once so vital to communities both large and small, live on in name even if their histories are now nearly forgotten.