“It is known all the world over that the horses of Kalamazoo are not excelled by those of any town in the west.” While this sentiment might not necessarily reflect the truth today, it certainly was a valid claim for 1867.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Kalamazoo was, especially considering its small size, a hotbed for all things equine. As a result of this passionate interest and the generous contributions of a few wealthy backers, a famous racetrack was constructed in Kalamazoo, and the city became an important site for trotting races and exhibitions.
The National Driving Park, as the new track was called, was built in 1858 on land purchased by the National Horse Association of Kalamazoo (led by U.S. Senator Charles E. Stuart). It was located on a large parcel between what are now Portage, Stockbridge, Cameron, and Reed streets in the heart of the city’s Edison Neighborhood. The newly formed partnership of Fredrick Bush and Thomas Paterson constructed many of the buildings on the site, including the grandstands. This was one of the firm’s first jobs, and it began a long and illustrious career in Kalamazoo. Over the next three decades the National Driving Park would grow and thrive until it finally closed in the late 1880s.
Racing at the National Driving Park
The Kalamazoo racetrack hosted a type of racing called trotting or harness racing that was especially popular in the United States in the nineteenth century. In this type of racing, the horse is in a harness, and the driver rides behind it instead of on its back like a jockey in a thoroughbred race. Harness racing demands a special type of horse, known as a trotter or a pacer, that has been bred and trained specifically to race in harness. Kalamazoo was also the birthplace of Peter the Great, one of the greatest trotting horses in the world.
The first exhibition at the National Driving Park took place on 15 October 1858. We can imagine that it was a spectacle that many Kalamazooans turned out to see. In those days horse racing was enormously popular. Schoolboys knew the names and records of all the great horses and drivers, and many of their fathers gambled away their wages on the outcome of one race or another. The citizens of Kalamazoo supported their track, and it grew quickly.
The most famous horse race ever to take place in Kalamazoo occurred on 15 October 1859 at the National Driving Park. On that afternoon, in front of a huge crowd, a horse named Flora Temple set a new world record of two minutes nineteen and three quarters seconds (2:19:45) for trotting one mile. The crowd went wild when the official timer announced the news. Many eastern horseracing enthusiasts refused to believe the vaunted mark of the 2:20 mile could have fallen in a small western backwater like Kalamazoo, so they challenged the ruling, stating that the track must have been laid out improperly and that it was not a full mile in length. The debate went on for several years. Finally a well-respected railroad surveyor came to Kalamazoo and measured the track. He found it to be two and a half feet longer than a mile, so Flora Temple’s record was made official.
During its heyday the National Driving Park was one of the city’s greatest attractions. An observer from 1867 notes, “We see new seats added to the grandstand, a new withdrawing-room for ladies, a new and commodious dining room for officers, judges, members of the press and other invited guests of the association; new stables for horses, a new driving track inside the rail for those persons in their carriages who do not chose to remain stationary — in fact we see the park is to be made perfect, if perfection can be reached...” In 1884 the longest of Kalamazoo’s new streetcar lines connected downtown to the National Driving Park, allowing people an exciting new way to visit the grounds.
Other Events and Eventual End
However, all good things must come to an end. In 1886 the last official horse race was held at the National Driving Park. The grounds were often used for other events. Civil War units had been trained there, and the State Fair was held there in 1871 and 1872. Traveling shows occasionally set up on its grounds, as was the case for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show that came to Kalamazoo in 1898. Around the turn of the century, a group of investors, including Francis B. Stockbridge, Lorenzo Egleston and Charles B. Hays, bought the land occupied by the National Driving Park and subdivided it into a residential neighborhood.