This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Few realize that the extensive Beacon Park Freight Yard in Allston was named for an older institution, the Beacon Trotting Park, which occupied the site from the mid-1860s until the early 1890s.
Beacon Park, one of the pioneer race tracks in New England, was founded in 1864 as a half-mile long course for sulky racing, and was at first called Riverside Park.
Other early trotting parks near Boston included the South End Driving Park (1852), and Old Cambridge Park in North Cambridge (1857), Franklin Park in Saugus (1857) and Mystic Park in South Medford (1866).
The founders of these early race tracks almost always established a public house nearby which offered their patrons overnight accommodation, as well as opportunities for drinking, gambling, and other “diversions.”
In the case of Riverside Trotting Park, the public house was the Riverside Hotel, which was situated at the northwest corner of Cambridge and North Harvard Streets. The Riverside Hotel soon became a favorite resort of Boston’s racing and betting crowd.
The earliest manager of this hostelry, Samuel Emerson (possibly also the initial owner of the park), was a leading figure in the early history of New England trotting parks who had previously managed Saugus’ Franklin Park.
Interestingly, the neighborhood across Cambridge Street from Riverside Park, in which the hotel was situated---an area called Prattville after Isaac Pratt, a major Allston landowner---contained Brighton’s largest concentration of black families, drawn to the location probably by the employment opportunities associated with the the trotting park.
Riverside Trotting Park was a great popular success chiefly because of its proximity to Boston. Bostonians reached the park by three routes chiefly. Those driving out in private horse-drawn carriages used the Brighton Road (Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues) and Cambridge Street to reach the park entrance. For those without private conveyances public transportation was available. The more affluent element would have utilized the Boston & Albany Railroad, boarding its trains at the B&A’s downtown depot on Beach Street for the 20 minute ride to the Allston Depot, which lay a scant quarter mile south of the park’s entrance. Less affluent patrons used the much slower but also less expensive horse cars that ran from Bowdoin Square in the West End, over the West Boston Bridge into Cambridge, and then over the Cambridge Street Bridge into Allston.
At the height of the trotting park’s popularity, in the 1880s, one source tells us, horse cars lined up outside the main gate on racing days to accommodate the many thousands of patrons in need of transportation back to the city.
The first public trainer to locate at Riverside Park, a major figure in the history of the American trotting horse, was the renowned J. J. “Uncle Jock” Bowen. Bowen ran the very first race that was decided over the course.
In 1865 “Uncle Jock” also set a world trotting record at Riverside Park for a twenty mile distance with the horse named “Captain McGowan”---accomplishing this feat in an amazing 56 minutes and 25 seconds, a record not broken for several decades thereafter. This demonstration of trotting speed was witnessed by an estimated five to six thousand amazed spectators. As racing historian Peter Welsh has written of this signal event: “Betting was heavy, and in the stands many people stated loudly that no horse could accomplish the feat that McGowan had set for himself.” Bowen and the great trotter nonetheless performed the task with ease and Captain McGowan’s delighted owners collected a purse of $5500.
In 1869 Riverside Trotting Park changed hands when it was purchased for $39,000 by real estate speculator and horse racing enthusiast John A. Sawyer, who undertook to enlarge the facility into a mile-long course, a measure requiring the approval of the town of Brighton. The petition generated a lively controversy. Horse racing, of course, attracted gamblers and other disreputable elements, which caused Brighton’s rising middle class element great concern.
Opponents of the enlarged track hired local attorneys William Wirt Warren, the town’s leading political figure, and Edward Dexter Sohier, the great Boston criminal lawyer, whose Allston home lay directly across the B&A tracks from the park, to represent them at a public hearing held before the Brighton Board of Selectmen on January 5 and 7, 1870.
At the first session eight adjacent landowners spoke in favor of Sawyer’s plan, apparently believing that the expansion of the park would increase the value of their property. On January 7 the opponents responded. Warren, in his opening remarks, noted that "the names of the men signing the remonstrance represented about a million and a half of taxable real estate in the town, or about one-fourth of the total taxable valuation," while the eight landowners who had testified in favor of the proposal owned property valued at only $300,000. Warren contended that an immense amount of injury would be done Brighton by the proposed expansion. It would "depreciate the value of real estate, and the associations connected with the park would drive away the residents from their valuable estates to other towns, which would deprive the town of a larger amount of taxes than would ever be received from the park."
Most of the testimony against the park emphasized the themes of property depreciation and "social annoyances." Crowds of 10,000 to 12,000 would be drawn into Brighton on racing days, it was maintained. Two State Police detectives testified that "a large number of professional gamblers and pickpockets were in the habit of visiting Riverside" and that "if a mile track were licensed there it would draw a larger attendance of all classes of people than it had previously done. Gambling implements had been seized by them at Riverside," they noted.
The Selectmen rejected Sawyer's petition, but that did not settle the matter. The town’s business element rallied to the defense of Sawyer. In later testimony before the legislature's Committee on Towns William C. Strong, Brighton's leading horticulturalist, and a leading advocate of residential as opposed to commercial development, noted that "the selectmen refused to allow the race course there, but a town meeting was called which included all the roughs of the town, and it required the selectmen to locate the park." This town meeting approved the expansion of the trotting park by the considerable margin of 149 to 41 votes, evidencing the the power that the town’s commercial interests wielded in the political life of the community.
Thus in 1870 Sawyer converted Riverside Park into a mile-long course, giving the expanded facility the new name of Beacon Park.
Sawyer’s alterations, which cost the entrepreneur $50,000, included 25 new carriage stalls for “gentlemen attendees” where the more valuable carriages could be kept under lock and key, a completely new track and new judge’s platform, and a much expanded spectator’s stand, capable of accommodating 2500 patrons, with space provided underneath for the carriages of less affluent attendees. The sections of the mile-long course were given names--- “Brookside” was applied to the portion that extended from the judge’s stand to the edge of the Charles River (paralleling Smelt Inlet, the historic boundary between Brighton and Brookline); the name “Roadside” was given to the portion that ran along the edge of Cambridge Street; while the portion extending from Cambridge Street to the finish line was dubbed “Homestretch.”
Sawyer owned Beacon Park only briefly, however. In 1872 the wily speculator sold the trotting park to its last owners, Eben Jordan and Charles Marsh of the Jordan Marsh Department Store, for the sum of $169,000, thereby doubling his investment in three short years.
For the next two decades Beacon Park continued attracting substantial patronage and was the scene of many a notable racing event. The two most significant were the “Great Stallion Race” for the championship of the United States, which the trotter “Smuggler won in 1874, and an 1880 race in which “St. Julien” set a new world speed record for a mile-long run of 2 minutes 13 1/4 seconds.
Another Brighton Hotel, the St. Julien House, on Market and North Beacon Streets, in North Brighton, was later named in honor of this famous race horse.
A particularly interesting facet of Beacon Park’s last decade was its use by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show whenever the show came to Boston. William F. Cody, a former scout in the Sioux-Cheyenne country of the northern plains, started his Wild West Show in 1883, touring the country and thrilling audiences with the re-enactment of exciting incidents from life on the plains. The choice of Beacon Park in Allston as a venue for this colorful event was almost certainly related to its proximity to the Brighton Stockyards, which had just relocated from Brighton Center to North Brighton. There the great showman’s horses and buffalo could be quartered between performances.
Some thirty years ago ninety-five year old Allston-Brighton historian and raconteur Tom McVey recollected an occasion from his youth when a herd of buffalo, part of the Buffalo Bill menagerie, were in process of being herded down North Brighton’s Lincoln Street to Beacon Park. As McVey recalled, a big black dog startled the buffalo causing them to scatter and “run wild all over North Brighton. They were rounded up,” he noted, “by Buffalo Bill’s Indians on horseback. These were not moving picture Indians,” he insisted, but “the real McCoy.”
Beacon Park ceased to exist in the early 1890s when it was sold by its last owners, Messrs Jordan and Marsh, to the Boston & Albany Railroad for conversion to a freight yard. The property then comprised sixty acres. While some of this parcel was taken for the building of Storrow Drive and of the Massachusetts Turnpike, most of the footprint of that historic trotting park lies within the appropriately named Beacon Park Freight Yard.