Woodhaven1. Union Course Race Track
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You would never guess a racetrack was here at one time. Historic signs will explain it all. This is a nano. Use caution at night, muggles might be hanging out right outside of the bar. People get very curious when they've been drinking. Then again, they may think you are a mirage.
Back to the races in Woodhaven One of the major contributing factors to the early development of Woodhaven (and Ozone Park) was horse racing. It begins in 1821 when the New York State Legislature legalized racing in Queens County. These “trials of speed” were allowed between the months of May and October and led to the development of not just one, but two major tracks in Woodhaven. In last month’s Old Timer, we reviewed the history of the Centreville Course. This month, we’ll review the famed Union Course, a mile-long track which was laid out the very same year racing became legal. The Union Course was located close to the border of Brooklyn in a part of Woodhaven first dubbed Unionville, then Union Course, a name it would retain well into the 20th century, long after the track had disappeared. The track itself was huge; at the time it was built, the Union Course was the largest track in the United States, running from Jamaica Avenue to Atlantic Avenue, from 78th Street to 84th Street. In the early 19th century, it was common for horse breeders down south to send their very best horses north to compete for bragging rights. These battles between the North and South pre-dated the Civil War by a few decades, but the rivalries were no less passionate and a great deal of money usually changed hands. One of the most famous races took place in 1822, a best-of-three between Eclipse (representing the North) and Sir Henry (defending the South). More than 60,000 people came to Woodhaven to witness this battle and more than $200,000 changed hands, a figure that would be worth just over $4 million in today’s money. Eclipse won two of the three races to capture bragging rights for the North, and the newly built racetrack to the east would take its name for a spell (the Eclipse Course) before changing it to the name it would keep for several decades, Centreville. The popularity of these races led to rapid development in the area, with roads being paved, houses built and hotels, general stores and saloons popping up along the outer rim of the track. One of the more famous hotels and roadhouses was operated by Hiram Woodruff, who was at times a horse trainer and also a jockey. Woodruff rode many races at the Union Course in its early days and upon retirement, opened up a hotel nearby that bore his name. The Hiram Woodruff Hotel sat for many years on Jamaica Avenue at 75th Street. Legend had it that he was so respected by the locals that when the hotel was torn down to make way for a park, it was named after one of his famous trotters, Dexter. Another story is that when Woodruff died, his hotel was taken over by a man named Charles Dexter, and the park took his name. Either way, his hotel gave way to Dexter Park, which had its own life as a place for recreation and later as a home for semi-pro baseball and stock car racing. Another famous hotel was one owned by John R. Snedecker, which sat on the north side of Jamaica Avenue, at Elderts Lane. The Snedecker Hotel had a large ballroom which straddled the Brooklyn- Queens border and was extremely popular with the racetrack crowd. John R. Snedecker died in 1843 and is buried in Woodhaven, at the recently restored cemetery on 96th Street, behind All Saints Church. His sons ran the hotel for years after his passing and after it closed, the land was used to build a home for truants. In 1923, the land was used to build a brandnew modern high school, Franklin K. Lane. With the rise of racing in Woodhaven came a real need to transport people to and from the track and as a result, the Long Island Rail Road built a track along Atlantic Avenue, with a stop near Rockaway that was constructed so that you could walk directly into the Union Course race track from the station. The line and the station opened in April 1836 and just two weeks later, history happened here in Woodhaven, outside the Union Course, when a train hit a cow and a second train slammed into the back of the first. It was the first accident in the history of the Long Island Rail Road. As the decades passed, and other tracks opened nearby, the Union Course’s popularity faded but during the 1860s, the land was temporarily used as an encampment for Union soldiers during the Civil War. A turn to trotting breathed new life into the track and it experienced a burst of renewed energy, but it faded as quickly as it blossomed and by the 1870s it began to keep an irregular schedule and show signs of disrepair. For the next 15 years or so, it became a community eyesore. The once-beautiful fencing around the track was torn apart by locals for firewood, and many of the buildings and businesses that depended on the track’s customers began to close their doors and disappear. Today, there are very few signs that a racetrack ever existed in this part of Woodhaven. Certainly some street irregularities remain because of the track, notably the way streets run into each other at 84th Street (today known as Whiting Square). Also, the southeast turn of the racetrack is clearly still visible at Clemente Court, near 82nd Street and Atlantic. The one significant remnant of the Union Course racetrack is Neir’s Tavern, at the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue. Founded in 1829, just a few years after the Union Course opened, Neir’s sat directly across the street from the main entrance, making it a prime gathering spot for bettors and spectators at the race track. 187 years after it first served those patrons, it still stands, the sole physical remnant of the famed racetrack. The owners of Neir’s and community leaders are hoping to get the building landmarked and an effort to kick off this process begins at 2 p.m. this Saturday, May 7, with a rally at the tavern. The Woodruffs and the Snedeckers and everyone whose lives were touched by the existence of the Union Course track will be there in spirit.
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