Skating In Old New York
( Originally Published 1921 )
When I read of the winter sports the inhabitants of New York enjoyed fifty or sixty years ago, I sometimes wish I had been of the former generation. The idea of a skating club privileged to have a hundred days of out-door skating in one season, and that on ponds located in the heart of the city, makes our skaters of to-day envious indeed. When one speaks to a skating club of to-day of such an officer as a meteorologist, charged with the duty of forecasting the weather and notifying the members when they might expect skating, he meets with good-natured banter. Yet this office was filled by one of the most distinguished citizens of our city fifty years ago and for a club whose rendezvous was the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street!
It is not too much to say that the American skaters of fifty to sixty years ago, many of whom either learned or developed their art in New York, really taught the world to skate; their skill was the wonder of their day in every Occidental country where ice forms; the figures which they originated or developed are standard movements in the skating programs of the world. Their athletic prowess is one of the cherished chapters in the history of clean, wholesome American sport. With regret we have to admit that our skaters of today do not rank with the skaters of other countries as the skaters of Old New York ranked with the best foreign skaters of their day. And the only consolation is that it was the Americans who taught the rest of the world the art of skating—even if they themselves soon thereafter forgot the art.
Benjamin West, the distinguished American painter, himself a frequent skater in New York, although a Philadelphian by residence, made one of the sport sensations of his day when he appeared on the ice of The Serpentine, in Hyde Park, London, in 1772, on skates and executed figures which Great Britain had never seen before and in a graceful and artistic manner never before believed possible by his observers. It is said that much of his social and artistic success in England was the result of his skillful skating and the friends which it brought him. This was perhaps the first of that long and brilliant list of conquests which American representatives have achieved through their leadership in athletics. To be conspicuously skillful in any difficult branch of athletics is almost sure entree to the society of the best people any-where ; when the world ceases to recognize clean living and trained muscles, which true sport invariably requires, the race will be headed for extinction.
While the skating of Benjamin West in London is the first historical mention of unusual American skating, the early history of New York, back even to the days of its settlement by the Dutch, finds mention and illustration that the settlers from Holland brought their skates with them and used them.
Wooley, in his "Two Years Journal in New York," published in 1679, makes reference to the skating of those days in the following terms: "The City of New York in my time was as large as some Market Towns with us, all built the London way; the Garrison side of a high situation and a pleasant prospect, the island it stands on all level and champain. The diversion, especially in the winter season, used by the Dutch is Aurigation, i. e., riding about in Waggons, which is allowed by physicians to be very healthful exercise by Land. And upon the Ice it is Admirable to see Men and Women as it were flying upon Skates from place to place with markets upon their Heads and Backs."
Another interesting bit of history associated with skating in old New York is the record found in the "Bibliothetica Americana" of William Gowan, published in 1860. Here he says : "The Kolck or Collect, a sheet of fresh water which covered the ground now occupied by the halls of justice in Center Street, and all that neighborhood, connected in ancient times with Lespinard's Pond and meadows, lying between North Moore and Greene Streets near the east end of what is now Canal Street. This was the skating-ground of the last century when the gallants of the hour displayed, as a quaint wit expressed it : "their graceful caracoles and pirouettes and ever and anon skimming at pleasure from one collection of water to another under the bridge which connected upper and lower Broadway. There William the Fourth, late King of England, might be seen when a `middy,' attached to the flagship of Rear Admiral Digby, attended by superior officers, trying his tacks on the slippery ice, in the winter of 1781-2." Tradition has it that a strata-gem had been planned by certain of Washington's men, to capture the royal scion of the House of Hanover and thereby secure a valuable prize, while the youngster was enjoying himself in his healthful exercise. The plot failed. That it was seriously planned is attested by the reports from the New York papers of that day, one of which says : "The boy, William Henry Guelph, lately arrived at New York, will perhaps soon be in our power.
In that event we shall not visit the sins of the father on the child, but will send him back to his mother."
The first book on skating appeared in London in 1809 and was printed in Latin; a compliment to the sort of persons who were then interested or assumed to be interested in the sport ! In 1849 the Philadelphia Skating Club was organized; first of the long list of skating clubs in America, although the Edinburgh Skating Club of Scotland had already been organized several years. In 1850 the all-steel skate appeared, destined to have much to do with the development of skating in America ; it was made in Philadelphia and sold for $30 a pair. There seems to be every indication that New York thought better of the new skate than its birthplace did, and this may account for the superiority of New York skaters from then on.
The New York Skating Club was founded in 1861 and organized in 1863. Even before these dates the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society had enjoyed many years of uninterrupted history, having been founded in 1849. The "humane" portion of the club's work marks a curious feature of skating history; it was stated in the articles of organization thus : "to foster the art of skating and save life on frozen lakes and rivers." At the beginning, the members appeared with reels of rope and life preservers to save unfortunates who fell through the ice! But the paucity of claimants for their services soon turned the apparatus into a mere badge of membership.
The New York Skating Club was probably a development of the interest in skating shown by frequenters of several of the skating-ponds of that day. Between 37th and 38th Streets, on Fifth Avenue, there had been for several years a sizeable skating-pond which was the rendezvous of the best skaters. For reasons which do not appear in the scant records available, but probably chiefly that old, old reason, "the growth of the city," the skaters moved "uptown" to what was then known as Beekman's Pond, between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets and extending from Sixth Avenue to Madison Avenue. This pond had the special attraction of being the "first to freeze." Here, says the old record, "the ice invariably lasted to the end of the season!" Lucky skaters of the long ago !
Beekman's Pond was cut up by the filling in of Fifth and Madison Avenues. Then Hugh Mitchell took the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street, now the site of the Plaza Hotel, and made a skating-pond there; happy old Major Oatman took the southeast corner, the site of the present Hotel Savoy, and Alexander MacMillan afterward took the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street, all for private skating-ponds which were very popular and profitable. The patronage of all of these private skating-ponds consisted of the most fashionable people in the city. When the New York Skating Club moved to its site in Central Park, it was the custom for the elite of the city to drive their sleighs close to the side of the pond and watch the work of the experts. Central Park was opened for public skating in the early winter of 1858-1859, and from that date, it is recorded by the Pepys of those days, it was the custom of the best of the society skaters to occasionally make excursions from their private ponds to the public ponds in the Park. Here, they invariably attracted much attention and then, even as now, the police would admonish the expert visitor to "stop his monkey shines" or suffer arrest ! The bad habit which ice has of breaking when crowds gather to see good skating has held back the sport more than ever has been estimated !
In the winter of 1864 the New York Skating Club moved to a club house erected on the shore of the small pond in Central Park, at Fifth Avenue and 72d Street, now known as Conservatory Pond. This club house was equipped with "brussels carpets and a Steinway piano," says the quaint record, and many successful carnivals and masquerades were given on the ice here. During the winters of 1867-1868 and 1868-1869 members of the club made visits to Montreal, Philadelphia, Poughkeepsie and other places upon the invitation of the local clubs and in all the places visited the skill of the New York skaters won much praise and great newspaper attention. The club had over a hundred members for several years.
In 1868, McMillan's Pond was opened at Fifth Avenue and Forty-sixth Street, afterward the site of the Windsor Hotel, which burned to the ground, with frightful loss of life, many years later.
The New York Skating Club developed many great skaters. In the membership of the club were a score of men whose fame remains undimmed through the years. Mr. Eugene B. Cook, born in Pine Street, later a resident of Hoboken, was probably the most accomplished skater of the old timers, a man of broad culture and remarkable athletic attainments, a great chess expert, and the meteorologist of the club. Andrew J. Dupignac, president of the club, like Mr. Cook, lived to a ripe old age and shared with him the glory of being the club's best teacher of skating. Charles Waldo' Jenkins, a distinguished artist of the day, was another leader in the sport, as also was E. W. Burr, whom I believe is still living; as if to prove the fine effects of skating upon duration of life.
"Callie" Curtis, who afterward toured Europe giving skating exhibitions, was regarded as the most graceful skater of that day and was champion of that time in many local contests. He won the local championship from William H. Bishop, better known as "Frank Swift," also a home product and afterward prominent in the management of artificial rinks.
E. T. Goodrich was another of the experts of those days, whose local fame prompted him to join Curtis in Europe where they skated many exhibitions before immense audiences and the nobility of all the northern countries. John Engler, who skated long after he reached seventy; Larry Norton, a famous stock broker of those times ; William H. Cheesman, and the quaint old "character" known as "The Old Clam Man," whose name was Turner and whose business of peddling clams during the warm months got him the title. He seems to have been a very remarkable skater. His independence is shown by the fact that some of the wealthy New Yorkers of those days contributed to a fund to buy him a pair of the new all-steel skates on which the best skating was being done, and the price of which was from $30 up. The "Old Man" promptly sold the skates with the ex-planation that he needed the money more than the skates.
But the most remarkable skater New York ever saw, probably, came from Albany, and after getting his finishing touches from the inspiration and the instruction of the New Yorkers, sailed for Europe, there to create a furor such as has perhaps never been equalled by any American athlete. Jackson Haines may rightly be called the founder of the present style of skating. Even the skate which he designed or adopted became and remains the standard pattern of the world's best skaters, the most remarkable movements even bear his name, his skill captivated the best people of all northern Europe, he was feted and entertained everywhere; skates, shoes, rinks and babies were named after him, and he lies buried in a little town, Gamla Karleby, in Finland, under a magnificent granite monument erected by the natives and bearing the title "The American Skating King." This monument is continually kept covered with flowers to this day.
There seems to be no doubt that New York was largely responsible for the development of the art of this Albany dancing-teacher who became the world's foremost skater. Many of the figures which he took with him to Europe he learned from the New York experts. Their grace and finish of style unquestionably polished his own amazing acrobatic ability and the finished product gave him the undying fame both here and abroad which grows with the years.
It is pleasant to be able to record that the fine old New York Skating Club has been again brought to life, since the Artists Skating Club of New York changed its name to the new one last winter and promises to duplicate the success of the earlier club of the same name.