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Friday, September 11, 2009

Glory Days Rediscovered, or Do You Know What Was Once in Your Back Yard?

What I most love about being a historian is the hunt—the piecing together of evidence that leads from one idea to another, much like a detective investigating a mystery. As you have probably guessed, I love PBS’s “History Detectives.”

When we first moved to Johnstown ten years ago, we rented a house in the posh Westmont neighborhood, built high above the city after the 1889 Flood by the executives of the Cambria Iron Company. With beautiful tree-lined streets and virtually no commercial development, it is a lovely neighborhood that, unfortunately, is facing the same financial problems of other cities and boroughs, with rising costs and a stagnant tax base. Recent moves to rezone residential land for commercial use has resulted in a backlash, with citizens forming a non-profit organization called Save Westy.

While perusing their website, I stumbled upon a link to another local website that outlines the history of Westmont, and imagine my surprise when I read this:

“Westmont was also home to the Johnstown Driving Park Association, which rented twenty-eight acres of land from the Cambria Iron Company from 1895-1905. The Association constructed a race track, which was bounded by the present-day streets of Dartmouth Avenue to Hood Avenue and Wayne Street to Tioga Street, with Luzerne Street as the central vertical axis. The racetrack was one-half mile long and sixty feet wide, and was enclosed by a wooden railing. There were fifty first-quality stables and a separate building which housed a secretary’s office, a private dining morn, and a public dining room. The grandstand provided seating for 2,500 people.”

My God! Johnstown had a horse racing track over a hundred years ago? Who knew! Maybe that explains the large number of degenerates who once inhabited the off-track betting parlor that Penn National closed here two years ago.

Determined to find more information (and hopefully a picture), I dug deeper, and—to my complete and utter astonishment—discovered that not only did Johnstown have a race track in Westmont that held three meets (spring, summer, fall) each year, but also a second track in the Roxbury neighborhood! In 1895, Isaac B. Barnhart sold 10 acres of his farm to the Roxbury Driving Association, later renamed Tri-County Park Driving Association, and, until 1904, the track was leased by John C. Pender who provided “an eagerly awaited racing season.”

Digging a little deeper, I discovered that John C. Pender was the leading “breeder of fast horses” in the city. According to Henry Wilson Storey’s 1907 History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania:

“He bought the now famous trotting mare “Alfalfa” in 1903; she was then a three-year-old, and since that date she has raced all over the country, at Lexington obtaining a record of 2:05. He has also owned “Moral” with a record of 2:11 ½; Robert D, 2:11 ½; Guy Red, 2:11 ½; John L, 2:18 ½; Kitty B, 2:19 ¼; Raymond, 2:19 ¼; Dr. Russell, 2:19 ¼; Colette, 2:19 ¼, a granddam of Dan Patch; also Willow Brook Queen, 2:18 ¼, together with many others with good trotting records.”

Rooting through the New York Times archives, I found a number of articles from 1902-1903 mentioning Pender as being temporarily reinstated by the Board of Review of the National Trotting Association, although I wasn’t able to pin down exactly the nature of his problems. I also ran across the names of several other Johnstowners involved in harness racing: John Hannan, Jr., F.B. Cook., C.C. Sipe, and William H. Hawes.

In Randy Whittle’s history of Johnstown, he notes that, in 1904, the leading Johnstown stockbroker Frank Cresswell took possession of the Roxbury track when the Tri-County Driving Park Association defaulted on $40,000 in bonds he owned. Cresswell attempted to quadruple the rent Pender paid to host racing, but:

“Pender promptly moved his popular events to the Westmont Racetrack through a five-year lease beginning with the 1904 racing season. The 1904 Roxbury Park season then became such a disaster that Cresswell tried in vain to get Pender back.”

As a result, a new organization formed, turning Roxbury into an amusement park, renamed “Luna Park” which hosted horse racing until the park was sold to the city of Johnstown in 1922; it now houses tennis courts and several baseball diamonds used by everyone from Little League to the AAABA (All American Amateur Baseball Association).

Here's a photo I found via Google Books showing horses racing at Luna Park in Roxbury in 1915:

I also found this c. 1910 postcard of Luna Park, with the track and grandstand:

Needless to say, this insight into the town I now call "home" is truly thrilling, lending a greater appreciation for the rich history horse racing—both Thoroughbred and Standardbred—has in this country. What a shame interest in the sport has fallen so far! Just imagine the small towns and cities that once enjoyed a glorious day at the races.

Works Consulted:

Henry Wilson Storey, History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania, volume 3 (1907), pp. 666-667.

Randy Whittle, Johnstown, Pennsylvania: A History, volume 1 (2007) pp. 105-106

Other interesting tidbits:

An 1894 Johnstown newspaper article notes that the city had more than 100 race horses.

Johnstown hosted the 1897 Pennsylvania State Fair, which offered “$6,000 in purses for nineteen trotting and pacing events” from September 6 to 11.

In 1899, the National Trotting Association suspended the Tri-County Agricultural and Park Driving Association for non-payment of premiums.


Anonymous said...

That is very interesting and exciting! We'd probably all be surprised if we dug into the backgrounds of where we live. And it it sad that racing has fallen so far from its glory days. Thanks for the great info!

John said...

Great post, even though I am not fan of harness racing. The Google book embedding was really great, I am going to have to figure that out for my own purposes.

Valerie Grash said...

Elizabeth, just wait! I've been undercovering a ton of stuff about racing in Pittsburgh, enough for several articles and a book! I promise a preview soon...

John, I don't know if it is a recent feature or limited, but to use the embedding just look in the upper right corner, where it says "Link." When you click on that, one of the options is coding you can copy and paste for embedding. Too cool!

sid fernando said...

i love all intersections of racing + baseball

texang said...

Interesting! I recently found out that Houston, TX (my current location and hometown) had a TB track way before the current Sam Houston Race Park. Epsom Downs Houston was only open for about 5 years in the 1930s, but it's been fun to learn about!

Superfecta said...


Teresa said...

Great, great story, Val. What a find--

Patricia said...

This is my favorite kind of story, you did a great job. Thanks for the information! Most people have no idea what they are missing, but then most people have not had an opportunity to visit a racetrack and have a positive experience. Thanks again.

Sharon Crute said...

Incredible, facinating story.

Because you research so well, may I ask you if you have any information on why the training track at Saratoga is called "Oklahoma?" I inquired about this at the National Museum of Racing, however it seems most answers were vague and hearsay.