In the late nineteenth century, ice harness racing made its Adirondack debut, becoming a major winter sport which flourished well into the 1940s. Ice racing used to attract large crowds. Today, however, it seems that knowledge of it has quietly slipped from our historical grasp.
The Franklin Malone Gazette‘s “Horsemen’s’ Column” from January 29, 1897 captures the excitement surrounding these races in an article about Saranac Lake: “In spite of the cold weather last week the ice races were decidedly ‘hot’ in more senses than one. The bracing Adirondack air seemed to give the enthusiastic horsemen a tremendous appetite for – well, for refreshments of all kinds – and the many hotels of the town were thronged during the evening with hundreds of hungry and thirsty sports who seemed to enjoy themselves with a zest and vim seldom encountered at summer races.”
How did ice harness racing gain such popularity? In the late nineteenth century, most people owned one if not more horses which were muscular, accustomed to cold weather and used to hauling farm equipment, sleds and coaches. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, bred primarily for racing and jumping, were expensive and of little value for the average Adirondacker who needed practical work horses for transportation and chores.
Frozen lakes offered perfect and easily accessible sites for racing. One need only plow the snow away to create a level track. No clearing of woods and rocks was needed.
A ten foot-wide track shaped like a kite was the most popular shape. This consisted of a large triangular kite-shaped loop, either a half- or full mile-long, on which the actual race was held. A smaller loop, attached where the kite track came to a point served for warming up and later slowing down the horses. The course looked something like a lopsided figure eight.
Judges sat on one side where the loops came together; the spectators stood or sat in grandstands on the other. From this vantage point, watchers could sit close to both the start and finish of the race.
Horses were sharp-shod, meaning they were outfitted with special studded shoes (already in use for ice harvesting) called calks. Horses pulled both sulkies and “Portland Cutters,” though eventually, when it was discovered that wheeled sulkies were slightly faster than sleds, the use of cutters declined.
Racing associations set rules and monitored the races. Purses ran from around 50 to 250 dollars per race, excellent money in the late nineteenth century. Was betting taking place as well? Indisputably. Clarence Petty, who attended the races as a child, recalled that a fair amount of gambling was part of the grownup scene.
For smaller events, most of the participants came from a distance of not much over twenty miles; for larger events, horses were shipped to the site by boxcar.
Encouraged by special reduced railroad rates, spectators flocked to these events from as far away as New York City. Crowd sizes were impressive, numbering anywhere from 400 to 4,000 spectators. To get a feel of the action, imagine standing on the ice, all bundled up, stamping your feet to keep warm, a frigid wind lashing your face as you listen to the drivers snap their whips and urge their horses on. Through icy eyelashes you try to focus on the action as the crowd’s roar reaches a fevered pitch. At the same time, no doubt, you may be looking forward to returning to the welcome warmth of both a hot stove and drink at the end of the day.
According to the New York Times, 14 December 1894, “[There] seems to be more dash and spirit to [harness racing on ice] than there is to the hauling of a bicycle sulky over a dirt track.”
Such was the excitement of this winter entertainment. Anybody for bringing it all back?
Caperton Tissot is the author of Adirondack Ice, a Cultural and Natural History, published by Snowy Owl Press.
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