Saturday, January 27, 2018

Waterbury's Trotting Parks

Trotting parks were a 19th century feature of New England life, offering the owners of standardbred horses a track for races. The racing circuit included Waterbury, Hartford, Putnam, and various other locations throughout New England.

The earliest documentation (found so far) of a trotting park in Waterbury is the 1879 Waterbury atlas, which shows the Jefferson Trotting Park on land owned by Matthew Lynch. The location is approximately where the Waterbury Screw Machine Products company is today on Thomaston Avenue. In 1879, there was no road, only the railroad. There was also a reservoir that has long since been drained.

G. M. Hopkins, Atlas of the City of Waterbury, Conn., 1879, Plate T
(Collection of Silas Bronson Library)

Matthew Lynch owned a livery stable (for boarding or renting out horses) on East Main Street near the Green. He had previously worked as a butcher. Lynch was an Irish immigrant born about 1830. He and his wife, Ann, lived at the same address as the stable. The Lynches had a son, Michael, born in New York about 1860.

Matthew Lynch participated in races outside Waterbury. In 1876, he entered his horse, Butcher Boy, in races at Charter Oak Park in Hartford.

So far, I have not found any other information about Lynch or his Jefferson Trotting Park. It does not appear to have been very long-lived; in fact, the 1880 census noted that Matthew Lynch suffered from a debilitating foot injury. The census taker wrote "rot foot" as the description of Lynch's illness.

Waterbury Driving Park

In 1889, a new trotting park was established in Waterbury, on Watertown Avenue, where the Municipal Stadium is today.

The Waterbury Driving Company (later Association, and Club) was formed in 1889, leasing the land on Watertown Avenue from the City of Waterbury. They laid out a new track for racing as well as a field for agricultural fairs, baseball games and other sports activities.

Trotting park tracks were typically an oval shape, with viewing stands for the crowds. Waterbury's track was a half mile oval. The stands could accommodate up to 2,000 people, as was reported during the mid-1890s. Races were held over several days, with up to $3,000 given out in prizes.

Bridgeport Sunday Herald, 6 September 1896

Agricultural fairs and cattle shows were held at the Driving Park into the early 1900s, with a parade through town as part of the opening ceremonies.

The Driving Park continued to be alternately called the Trotting Park for decades. The two names seem to have been interchangeable in people's minds. The Waterbury Driving Club was a member of the National Trotting Association.

For more on the history of the Driving Park and its transformation into the Municipal Stadium, please see my brief post on the stadium from 2015.

Wilkes House Saloon and Inn

Thomas H. Hayes, who was a member of the Waterbury Driving Company, sublet a portion of the land from them, setting up an inn called the Wilkes House. Hayes is best known for his involvement in Waterbury's breweries--he was president of the Eagle Brewing Company from 1902 until his death in 1913. Hayes was also the owner of the old Blodgett tavern on Plank Road, previously a "house of ill-repute."

Advertisements for the two Hayes enterprises in the Waterbury Evening Democrat, July 1, 1908
Library of Congress Chronicling America database

The Wilkes House was leased out to George H. Knapp, who ran the saloon and lived at the inn with his wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Bernice. The saloon had a bit of a poor reputation. In 1904, Knapp announced his intention to sue Henry Scott, a Sunday school superintendent, for slander -- Scott had complained to the City that Knapp's saloon was attracting "disreputable women" to the games at the park.

Following Knapp's death in about 1904, his widow took over the operation of the saloon, renting month to month from Hayes. When Sarah Knapp tried to renew the saloon's liquor license in 1906, a group of six people led by Wallace H. Camp appealed the decision on the grounds that liquor couldn't be sold on city property. The state's Superior Court eventually ruled in Knapp's favor.

By 1910, the Wilkes House saloon and inn were being run by James E. Murphy. His wife, Emma, took over following his death in 1912.

The Wilkes House saloon was once again a topic of debate in 1917, when the Hayes family sought to purchase the land from the City. Nearby residents of Bunker Hill protested the potential sale, on the grounds that the city shouldn't sell any of its property "to people who want to use it in connection with the liquor business." (Hartford Courant, 3 June 1917) The issue became moot following the Prohibition Act of 1919, which shut down all breweries, bars, and other sources of alcohol in the country (excluding, of course, all the illegal bootleg liquor and speakeasies that flourished during Roaring '20s).

The Wilkes House inn finally closed sometime around 1924, although Emma Murphy continued to live in the building until about 1935, when she moved to Southbury. The Driving Park languished and was eventually shut down. The property began a new life in 1939 as the Municipal Stadium.

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