Gypsies, Trotters and Races: the Rise and Fall of the Rochester Driving Park


RDP-driving park map new

We saw in a recent blog post that Dewey Avenue owes its jog at the corner of Driving Park Avenue to a race course that once stood at the intersection.

The Rochester Driving Park was best known for its horse races, but the venue hosted a diverse assortment of events and guests during its almost 30 year existence.

When the Driving Park held its first horse race on August 11, 1874, the facility was billed as the fastest mile track in the United States. It quickly gained fame among race enthusiasts and proved a major draw for both locals and tourists alike.



Inaugural meeting of the Rochester Driving Park, 1874.

During the park’s first week of operation, all the hotels in Rochester were filled to capacity, forcing some race fans to sleep in the open fields near the track. Twenty thousand people had packed the park by its second day to catch a glimpse of renowned trotter, Goldsmith Maid.

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Illustration of the Driving Park’s entrance and one-mile track.

Though for a time the park enjoyed its status as the most famous racetrack in the world, by the 1890s, Rochester’s love affair with the Driving Park had begun to fade, likely due in part to the introduction of a series of anti-betting laws in New York State.



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A circa 1893 Rochester Driving Park racing form.

Rumours began to circulate that the site was going to be sold and converted into a residential tract. Such gossip gained more currency after the park hosted its last Grand Circuit race in 1895.

The park continued to host non-Circuit horse races along with bicycle races, athletic contests, battle reenactments, circuses and Buffalo Bill’s annual Wild West Show.


Ad for an upcoming Wild West Show at the Rochester Driving Park. Democrat & Chronicle, July 31, 1895.

A devastating fire in 1899, which caused $20,000 worth of damage and destroyed two of the park’s three stands, did not bode well for those who sought to revive the park’s elite trotter tradition.

Some efforts were nevertheless made to salvage the site.

On Memorial Day in 1900, theDriving Park hosted automobile races-then a novelty- in the attempts to raise funds for the construction of a new grandstand. And in 1902, the park welcomed the Grand Wallace three-ring circus, which boasted “a small army of active, jolly clowns” and “the largest hippo in captivity.”

These last grasps at survival were ultimately for naught. In September 1902, George W. Archer purchased the Rochester Driving Park property at a public auction for 34,750$.

But before the site could be cut up into building lots, it served as the temporary home of a band of Gypsies (Romani) that had come to Rochester from Serbia via Chicago.

Their presence was not welcomed by many in the local community, who petitioned for their removal from the park and accused them of stealing everything from milk cans and mops to shoes and soap. One area resident claimed that one of the Serbians had nabbed his horse.

But while Rochester residents found fault with their new neighbours, they were nevertheless intrigued by their culture and folkways.

On November 9, 1902, almost 10,000 people were drawn to the park to witness the Gypsy camp firsthand. A remark by one of the young sightseers directed towards a three year old Serbian girl performing the “Hoochie-Coochie,” incited a skirmish that developed into a full-scale riot between the Romani and the Rochesterians that wasn’t quelled until a half a dozen police officers were called to the scene.

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The sensational headline appearing in the November 10, 1902 issue of the Democrat and Chronicle.

The Serbians had packed up and left by year’s end and the 200-acre former racetrack plot was divided into the series of streets that now make up the Rochester Driving Park tract.

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The developing Rochester Driving Park Tract, ca 1910. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on July 18, 2017 at 10:00 am  Comments (5)