The Hudson River in New York’s Capital Region has always been a vital transportation link, and it also provides a conduit to undertakings of the past. The area presently occupied by Interstate-787 and its connectors to NY-378 were constructed on what had been a cluster of islands in the Hudson River, near Menands, between Albany and Watervliet.
Even in the 1820s, the road here became noted for unofficial, and illegal, horse racing.
Before modern improvements were made, the island group was subject to the spring break-up, which sent ice and water in varying degrees across their surface; this action of scour and deposition made this archipelago flat and level. When the Erie Canal was dug along the western bank of the river several bridges were installed to bridge the channel and provide links to the islands. At Breaker Island competition began among those with a roadster and a rig in 1857.
The race track was annually improved and spectators, sometimes as many as 5,000, turned out for the action. The trotters raced for desirable purses which, in the tradition of the day, were hung from the finish line, with the winner returning to collect the suspended booty.
Organization became more formal when the Island Park Association incorporated 1868. The Directors of the new corporation included politician and businessman Erastus Corning, and they leased the island lands from Eugene Clifford of Watervliet, who continued to use the infield for pasturage and hay production. A clubhouse was erected, uniquely inside the racing oval, and clever former jockey John Mack was hired by Corning to manage Island Park.
In 1880 the Delaware and Hudson Railroad made a connection to Breaker Island, which served the race track as well as a nearby foundry. The ease of transport increased the attendance at the race track, and in 1882 the leading sporting publication, The Spirit of the Times, sent a reporter to Island Park. Their scribe wrote:
“We have never seen a better class of people on any race-track. In fact, the best people of Albany and Troy and the surrounding country seemed to fully appreciate the effort which was being made to establish a first-class trotting track in their community, and did all in their power to give it proper encouragement. The police arrangements were excellent. But everyone has been so well-behaved that a blue coat has seemed a supernumerary. We did not see a single person under the influence of liquor during the whole meeting.”
Many horsemen felt that the overflow by the river in the early months of the year conditioned the track to the great benefit of the quadrupeds. The springy bottom also made the Island Park track very fast, as evident by the times the trotters turned in there. Training at the track was sought for these reasons, although the flooding made many difficulties in maintaining the facility for the Association managers.
In order to raise more capital, in 1884 the Island Park Association was reincorporated with new Directors like Watervliet lumber merchant Charles H. Mors, Albany book publisher C.W. Little, Troy collar manufacturer George P. Ide, paper producer Frank Gilbert and industrialist R.W. Hunt. Also joining the directors was John Mack, who in addition to managing Island Park operated the White House, a no-limit gaming hall on James at Steuben Streets in Albany. Another new director was Martin Payne, famous in the trotting sport both as a driver and owner/manufacturer of the Payne Sulky works, who made the patented Payne long shaft sulky and sponsored the Payne Sulky Stake at Island Park where his new designs were perfected.
After the racing season had concluded in the autumn of 1884 the unoccupied clubhouse burned down. This building was unique; it stood inside the racing oval, in order to place it on high ground. The rebuilding provided an impetus to reconfigure and widen the track, with a new clubhouse and separate grandstand.
The spring break-up in the river was at its worse there in 1886 and record high water pushed ice across Breaker Island, which mowed down large trees, and flooded most of the track buildings to their rooftops. The grandstand was toppled, carried downstream and wrecked, along with the judge’s stand. Things dried out as they seemed to each year, and the Island Park track was put in order for that season’s events. Ironically, dusty conditions seemed to prevail.
Harness racing was on an interstate scale in the late nineteenth century, with various racetracks hosting week long stakes meets under the banner of the Grand Circuit. These meets, often balanced on the calendar in the spring and the autumn, saw competing owners and their equine stock moving from track to track.
Even though the Grand Circuit operated on an enormous scale, the term at each individual track, such as Island Park, was a brief spectator supported “circuit season.” Companion tracks in the Hudson Corridor were Fleetwood Park in the Bronx, and later Empire City near Yonkers, and Col. Jacob Ruppert’s oval at Poughkeepsie. A small hotel with restaurant operated near the bridge over the Canal, making a convenient domicile for visiting horseman competing at Island Park.
Island Park sponsored an annual feature race known as the Clay Stakes, and would on occasion card a flat race of thoroughbred horses, as well as steeplechases. In September of 1889, Michael Nolan, the former Mayor of Albany, operator of Beverwyck Brewery and a highly successful racing stable, acted to assist the local track. The Beverwyck Stable, named for the original colonial name for Albany, was a major competitor in horse racing.
Mayor Nolan, in civic pride and as a favor to John Mack, entered his famous retired steeple chaser, Bourke Cockran as a drawing-card for a late summer meet. Nolan had named the chestnut timber-topper after his friend, attorney and legendary orator Bourke Cockran, who Winston Churchill would later credit as his oratory mentor. The unexpected frequently happens in horse racing, the famous gelding unfortunately came to grief at Island Park and had to be destroyed. He was interred at the track, and commemorated with a monument.
Turf writers and photographers play a large role in horse sport, and a fairly new method of reporting was tested at Island Park in the late 1880s. A dry-plate camera, which made exposures on chalk plate negatives, allowed an illustrator to include live action scenes in the next day’s newspaper.
Federal Government improvements in the Hudson River, with the intention to deepen and widen the channel by clearing obstructions from the river bed, provided material to construct a roadway from the river to the race track, allowing for the arrival of waterborne patrons.
A fixture personality at Island Park was Alton Perry McDonald, the popular driver/trainer was known to everyone at the track as Alta. His father, William McDonald taught him equine prowess from an early age, as the old man had previously assisted Hiram Woodruff, who literally wrote the book on training standardbred horses, The Trotting Horse of America (1868), which still remains in print. In addition to driving and training for well-heeled owners, Alta took on many operations at the track and operated the hostelry, rebranding it McDonald’s Hotel.
At the very end of the nineteenth century, a change in ownership was announced. The Albany Times-Union on January 21, 1899 reported:
“As for the Island Park, it is an ideal course, with such picturesque surroundings that make it one of the handsomest laid out tracks in the country. It is also one of the fastest and many a record has been lowered on this admirably arranged track. Sheriff Schifferdecker, the new owner of the park, intends to make several improvements to the buildings and grand stand, and when completed in will be one of the best arranged trotting tracks in the country. The manager of the park will be A.P. McDonald, one of the best posted horsemen in the United States.”
The very fast Island Park surface allowed pioneering woman driver Nina Phelps of Watervliet to set a new world record for a trotted horse with the mare Dariel in October of 1901. However, the early years of the new century proved difficult, and many of the top horsemen stayed away. By 1903 the autumn meeting was dispensed with, and Alta McDonald admitted improvements were needed.
John Mack returned to ownership, with a new partner from the telegraph industry, James L. Holland, and they were planning major improvements in 1905, and consulted with Charles W. Leavitt, Jr., who created Empire City and rebuilt Saratoga. But political winds and fortunes were shifting.
When the very vocal anti-gambling Charles Evans Hughes was elected Governor in 1906, the plan for Island Park’s major renovation never left the drawing board. The Albany Times-Union of May 23, 1908 wrote about anti-betting legislation and, “The experience with the harness racers two years ago, however, was of such a character that they concluded last year to let the track be idle and for the first time since 1869, when the ring was built, Island Park was without a meeting in 1907.”
A final large event, the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, was held for public view in September 1909. It included Naval Parades in New York Harbor and a five day military tournament at Island Park involving 1,200 soldiers. The cavalry demonstrated the training of horses, rough riding, jumping, vaulting and mounted fencing with both sabres and bayonets. We must remind ourselves that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the most capable weapon of war was the mounted trooper. Those regimental hoof beats were the last to ring out at Island Park.
Read more about historic racetracks of New York State here.
Photos, from above: Island Park racing notice published in the Troy Daily Times 07/23/1901; planned revisions for the 1885 season at Island Park as published in The Spirit of the Times; a close finish at Island Park published in the Albany Morning Express 09/10/1889; – Payne sulky advertisement as published in The Spirit of the Times in 1886; and illustrator Joseph A. Lemon created this caricature of John Mack published in the 10/20/1905 New York Morning Telegraph.