History Revisited: Horse racing at Groton's Driving Park
Over the past month or so this author has received numerous inquiries concerning a horse racing track being located in Groton. Well, unless you are well over 100 years old, the possibility of remembering that Groton indeed had such a facility located in Poquonoc (no this is not a misspelling, it’s one of the common ways Groton’s village Poquonnock was spelled way back when) are pretty remote.
Back in the 1890s, often referred to as the “Gay Nineties,” when our country experienced rapid economic expansion, social and family entertainment facilities in Groton were almost non-existent. There were no movie theaters, social clubs, or nightclubs. There was however another form of entertainment established in Groton during that period of time that quickly became a popular place to spend Saturday afternoons. Believe it or not, it was a “racetrack.”
The idea of building a track was conceived in 1890 by several local “sporting” men who had an interest in horse racing and had been doing so as a winter sport by racing on ice on local ponds and even on the northern end of the Thames River when it froze over.
By December 1891, a group of interested men organized and officially incorporated what was named “The Groton Driving Park Co.” The official purpose of the company was to “lease grounds for a driving park and other lawful athletic contests and for doing things incidental to that business.” In an effort to raise funds to build the track, the company issued 3,125 shares of stock at $25 per share.
It is said that most of the shareholders purchased only one share of the stock which, in itself, reflects that there was a great deal of interest in the track. The names of those purchasing the stock reads like a historical “who’s who” of southeastern New London County, inclusive of Groton, New London, Poquonnock, Mystic, West Mystic, Noank, Stonington and Niantic.
Within a month of its incorporation the company leased a track of land approximately 20 acres in size from Henry Gardiner of Waterford, the owner of Bluff Point and what is now the Fort Hill Homes project, for $50 a year. The park property was located in Poquonnock Bridge at the base of Fort Hill on the south side of what is now Route 1 and north of the old Poquonnock train station at the former Midway train facility. The racetrack itself was situated on the south side of what today is Fort Hill Road, directly across from the Claude Chester School and Poquonnock Plains Park.
Interestingly, the lease agreement required that the company keep the grounds groomed but it also contained two unusual contingencies: 1) a prohibition against shooting or destroying game birds or animals and 2) prohibiting the sale of beverages containing more than 20% alcohol.
After being built, the racetrack was considered one of the most professional and groomed tracks in the country. It was a half-mile in length, level on the straight-aways with slight railroad grades at the curves. Most of the track was 50 feet wide and 60 feet wide from the last turn, down a 630-foot homestretch and past the judge’s stand. Two lines of rails enclosed the track where racing occurred leaving a wide area of land all around the track where vehicles could drive or stand. The grandstand held roughly 600 people and provided a complete view of the entire track and everything taking place on it. Refreshment stands were also built to serve refreshments to attendees. The entire track was enclosed with high board fencing.
A large area at the east end of the track was cleared and groomed into a baseball field with the pitcher’s diamond being directly in front of the grandstand. Baseball games between local, organized, semi-professional baseball teams were played before and between horse races.
Although the primary horse contests at the park involved trotters and harness racing, the track was also used for bicycle races and later automobile racing. Periodically, special one-to-one (regular) horserace matches. with large cash purses, were held. In 1910, the track was used for a special motorcycle race. The park was also a popular venue for locals to hold picnics, outings and other field events.
Because of its location, people from throughout southeastern Connecticut found it convenient to travel to the park. Many people also took special excursion trains from New London and Westerly that traveled to Poquonnock’s Midway Station, a three-minute walk from the park. There was a point in time when the Groton and Stonington Trolley had considered constructing a special spur track off of their main line into the park.
Admission to the races was reasonably priced at 50 cents and children, accompanied by parents were, admitted free. During the first few years of operation, it was not unusual for crowds ranging in numbers from 1,200 to 2,500 to attend the usual Saturday afternoon events at the park. The number of attendees would increase dramatically during holiday weekends including Memorial Day and the Forth of July. The track season ran from Memorial Day through Thanksgiving.
A few interesting incidents involving the racetrack in the early years are worthy of mention.
On Oct. 14, 1892, a little over a month after the track opened, a train carrying four very valuable trotter horses and five men in charge of the horses, while en route to participate in races at the Groton track, collided with another train, killing all five men and horses.
The second incident occurred in April of 1895 when a brush fire, cause by sparks from a locomotive passing through Poquonnock, rapidly spread to the racetrack destroying the grandstand and adjoining buildings, all of the horse stables, and the wood fence surrounding the park. It was quite an expense to replace all of these facilities.
The Groton Driving Park as it was called, opened on the weekend of September 2 and 3, 1892. It remained a viable source of entertainment in Groton until about 1905 when, due to a lack of interest in horse racing, attendance at the track diminished greatly.
In 1909 there was a resurgence in interest in horse, bicycle, motorcycle and car racing activity and the Groton Park reopened. The capacity of the grandstand was increased to hold 1,500 spectators and the number of horse stables had increased from the original five to 10 to 40.
Beginning around 1910 interest in the track diminished greatly and, over the next five years or so, several attempts were made to rekindle interest in the park.
Although there were sporadic times when attendance at the park was high, by 1915 the owners felt it was not financially feasible to keep the track in operation. Unfortunately, by 1917 the driving park ceased to exist, and one of Groton’s most interesting recreational facilities became part of its history.
Jim Streeter is Groton Town historian.
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