Yet Another Journal

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» Tuesday, January 19, 2010
History in Your Own Backyard
Well, former backyard, anyway: I printed this some years ago in one of my "Nostalgia Place" essays:
...a series of soft-backed pictoral books called "Images of America" took my interest. There were several dozen of them published about various Rhode Island towns, neighborhoods, and institutions, and although they were rather pricey, I purchased three, one about two places close to my heart: Knightsville, where our church, St. Mary's, was, and Silver Lake, where my dad grew up...[a map of t]he neighborhood where I grew up was represented by a blank field with an oval drawing, and the legend "Narragansett Trotting Track."

How I laughed to think that the always sleepy little neighborhood had been so long known for speed--and how it brought me back...

When I was small, growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, there was a succession of neighborhood stores with the prefix "Speedway." My dad went to the Speedway Barber and bowled at the Speedway Bowling Alley. When I got old enough to understand more of the meanings of words, one of the first things I asked was what "Speedway" meant.

Daddy pointed outside and told me that before the land had been sold for housing tracts, the ground on which our neighborhood stood used to be a car race track. Drivers as famous as Mario Andretti and Al Unser were in my youth raced there in the early years of the 20th century, people like Barney Oldfield, who pushed the cars of the day to the "daring" speeds of 50 and 60 miles per hour!

When there weren't races, Daddy added, they had fairs and shows. When he was a little boy, probably around 1920, he was taken to see a Wild West Show on that site.

Then he gestured into the backyard at the rusted chain link fence that separated our house from the backs of the homes on Fiat Avenue. That fence was all that was left of the race track.
I noted the "death" of what was left of that fence in a 2005 post.

The trotting track had originally been built so that Governor Sprague (he of the Sprague Mansion a mile or so away on Cranston Street) could exercise his prize horses. Later, the place was called "Narragansett Park" (hence it being on "Gansett Avenue"—I noted on an old map once referring to it as "Narragansett Avenue"—and not to be confused with the race horse track that used to be out in Pawtucket) and that same "Images of America" book had a 1924 photo of Park Avenue going toward Johnston, with the old John W. Horton School on the left and the big board fence that surrounded the park on the right. The streets within that area which had been sold as a housing plat were all named after cars—some still recognizable like "Fiat," "Packard," "Cadillac," "Overland" (Overland later merged with Willys and made jeeps during World War II) and some lost to the annals of car history like "Jordan" and "Chandler" and "Peerless."

When we went to clean the house out after my mom died in 2005, I was talking with my godmother, who lived next door to us. She had a few other stories that I hadn't known.The "Images of America" book stated that the racetrack had been unpaved until 1928—but I found this on a car racing site:
Narragansett Park Speedway was the site of two different 1 mile ovals. The first was a flat 1 mile horse track, and the second was a 1 mile paved, high banked oval. The location was Cranston, Rhode Island. Banking of the paved oval was approximately 20 degrees, and it was almost certainly the first true Super Speedway in North America.

Narragansett Trotting Park was the site of the first oval race in the United States on September 7th, 1896. Races were held on the flat dirt oval until 1913. In the meantime, the horse track folded and the site was taken over by the state for use as the Rhode Island State Fairground.

The paved oval was built in 1915. The Super Speedway configuration was extremely novel, as paving and banking were both entirely new concepts in oval track racing. The track was sanctioned by AAA, with a first race on September 18, 1915, which was won by Eddie Rickenbacker. The track operated through 1924. The site is now a housing subdivision.
Holy cow, Eddie Rickenbacker—the Eddie Rickenbacker!

Anyway, the Speedway plat was cleared and erected in 1929. In the meantime my godmother's family, the Danellas, had bought the parcel of land that is now on Appleton Street and also later included our house and the house across the street. They moved in just in time for my godmother to attend the very first classes at the brand-new Hugh B. Bain junior high school (now middle school). She told me that back then, when the trees were a lot smaller, they could sit on what is now the front lawn of the house across the street and watch the fireworks shot off several miles away during the St. Mary's Church feast weekend.

Anyway, what brought me back to this subject was that I am reading the book Crazy Good, the story of the famous "Dan Patch" the harness racing horse and the first racing superstar—a pacer, not a trotter!—and have just reached the portion of the story where Dan runs the "Grand Circuit" of harness racing for the first time. What is one of Dan's stops on the Grand Circuit? Why, Narragansett Park, of course!

(Interestingly enough, the ancestors of the pacer included a now-extinct 17th century American horse breed called the Narragansett Pacer. I believe this breed also formed the root stock for the Tennessee Walking Horse.)

So I used to live near where greats like Dan Patch, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Barney Oldfield once tread. Wow.

Incidentally, the author notes that most modern folks have never heard of Dan Patch and think the first big horse superstar was Seabiscuit. Apparently he didn't grow up on the classic Disney films, because anyone who's seen Disney's lovely So Dear to My Heart knows exactly who Dan Patch is! In the opening scene of the film, the famous horse makes a water/exercise stop in the village where Jeremiah Kincaid is growing up and the little boy is so dazzled by the appearance of the famous pacer in his specially-fitted and painted railroad car that when a black lamb is born on his Granny's farm he names it Danny after Dan Patch. (The author doesn't seem to be aware of the film, from what I can tell, only about The Great Dan Patch, which appears to have the same verisimilitude as another highly-fictionalized race film that premiered that same year of 1949, The Story of Seabiscuit.)

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