Monday, April 29, 2013

Horse Racing in Puget Sound and How Ole Hanson Made All the Horses Go Away

This is a story about the beginnings of horse racing in Puget Sound and how ‘reform’ legislators and the advent of the automobile racing killed horse racing in Washington state and in many other states during the first decade of the 20th century.

The story has to start with a fatal auto accident involving a 1907 White Steamer at mid-day on Saturday, September 14, 1907.  The car was occupied by a real Washington state pioneer, founder of the city of Kent, former state senator and King County Sheriff Aaron Van De Vanter.  Also in the car were two state senators from Tacoma – Lincoln Davis and Fred Eidemiller -- and James Wilson, described by the Seattle Daily Times as a “Youngstown Saloon Man.”   They are headed to The Meadows, the local thoroughbred venue, for a day at the races.  The Meadows was the successor of two small tracks located on or near the same spot and operating, in fits and starts, since 1870.  These temporary tracks and the more permanent Meadows were at the very south end of Beacon Hill, tucked just north of a lazy bend in the river, across from what would become Boeing Field.  Van De Vanter, Davis and a few others built the Meadows in 1902 with the Washington State Fair Association and constructed a fine grandstand which was full of 10,000 fans that Saturday, the last card of the ‘07 season.

There were seven races on The Meadows card that day and not a single favorite came home.  The Daily Times headline said the bettors had been fleeced, as usual, because the bookies needed cash to travel to their next meeting, in Vancouver, BC.  Thoroughbred racing was in serious decline in 1907 due to the simple fact that people felt cheated by the jocks, the trainers, judges and the owners.  And, they were largely right. 

1907 White Steamer Touring
White Steamer
 L. E. Bigelow had been hired to drive the car containing the politicians and the saloon man and Bigelow was heading south behind a trolley from Seattle whose destination was also the race track.  From the back, his passengers asked that he get around the trolley since dust and debris kicked up by the trolley was raining down on them.  Bigelow complied and swung around into the north bound track to pass. 

As they draw even with the train, Senator Wilson notices a businessman friend from Seattle enjoying the fall day from the open, rear part of the trolley and they banter about the day that lies ahead at the track, both oblivious to a north bound trolley sweeping around a corner in front of them, also at full speed, about 35 MPH.

Witness accounts differ.  One has it that as the car starts to pass the motorman, Jesse McDowell hits the accelerator controls of the trolley.  Others have it that McDowell never sees the car and is simply accelerating as the straight stretch in front of him opens up.  Others have it that two seem to be racing. 

Tracks on First Avenue South
Museum of History and Industry
Now, Bigelow sees the oncoming north bound trolley and makes a critical call.  Rather than fall back behind the trolley his car is laboring to pass, he asks his steamer for just a bit more speed and, at the first cross street, tries to dart in front of the trolley. 

The south bound trolley t-bones the steamer and the steamer bounces into the on-coming northbound train, then ricochets into a large, commercial grade water pipe poking up along a small railroad trestle.   

The occupants fly in all directions.  Van De Vanter, Bigelow, the saloon man Wilson and Senator Eidenmiller fall 15 feet down into wood waste, metal and other rubbish in the brush below the bridge.  Senator Davis is pinned under the car, which now erupts in flame.  He is pulled from under the car by the friend he talked to on the trolley.

Davis would die weeks later, after days of delirium and then a seeming recovery.  Van De Vanter died two days later, his heart giving out in mid-sentence.  The others were badly bruised and cut but home safe that night. 

Justice moved swiftly in the early part of the last century.  The Coroner’s inquest, conducted by Van De Vanter’s close friend,  Dr. Carrol, was held the following Thursday and put the blame squarely on the motorman McDowell and recommended to the King County Prosecutor a charge of manslaughter. 

After review, Prosecutor Kenneth Mackintosh declined to prosecute the motorman citing lack of evidence and his own conclusion that it was actually Bigelow who was at fault.  Later, the Seattle Daily Times would note the passing of the pioneer generation, those here at statehood and well-before, like Van De Vanter the founder of Kent, who came in 1859 where he farmed, raised horses and enjoyed his republican political life.  A new generation was taking over, said the Daily Times and they seemed to move faster.

Nisqually, 1840
UW Collections
Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest had long bred and raised horses for both commerce and sport.  The first written account of organized horse racing in Washington state was at Fort Nisqually, the trading post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1830s.  The great Wilkes Expedition, the American entrant in the contest for influence and land claims in the Pacific, came up the west coast in 1841 and sent an overland exploration to Fort Nisqually to assess the British settlements there as well as the few American missionaries who were located nearby.  A second overland expedition set out for Yakima to explore the lands north of the Columbia.  In 1841, Wilkes would celebrate the 4th of July at Nisqually.  Wilkes purchased an ox from the Hudson’s Bay traders and made a huge barbecue.  While it liked the idea of a feast, the English at Nisqually had little enthusiasm for the 63nd anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence.  As Wilkes’ men came by the trading post, they shouted three cheers and waited for a return of the salute.  A handful of Brits returned a muted “huzzah” while most looked away.

A popular shipmate named Whitehall was injured in the middle of the day firing a small brass cannon. Though the doctor recommended taking Whitehall’s shattered forearm below the elbow, he was convinced to wait. Wilke’s diary notes that the accident was soon overshadowed by the horse racing. Whitehall kept his arm.

"Although this accident threw a temporary gloom over the party, the impression did not last long, and the amusements of the morning were now exchanged for the excitement of horse racing, steeds having been hired for the purpose from the Indians.  This sport is always a favorite with sailors on shore and in pursuit of it they had not a few tumbles, but fortunately, none were seriously hurt."
The Hudson Bay men seemed a bit more engaged in the event when the horses came out and joined in the betting where their knowledge of the native horses gave them a solid advantage over the sailors. 

Over time, horse racing in the Northwest grew into an itinerant, though fairly well-organized endeavor and structures and rules formed and standards firmed up.  Horses, jockeys, trainers and owners – including trotters -- traveled across the region to fairs and festivals and to the occasional small, semi-permanent track, the locals gathering around, eating drinking and gambling, sometimes bringing out their buckboards and teams and having a go around the track themselves while the travelling pros looked on. Some of these meetings were fairly substantial.  A fair in Walla Walla attracted some 60 trotters and another 100 runners.  They raced for ten days.

As the century came to a close, western horses gained stature in more established horse racing markets, even the Kentucky Derby.  A Montana bred horse, Spokane, so named because his owner was having a really good time in that city when the horse was foaled, journeyed to Louisville in 1889 and beat the powerful Proctor Knott by what the New York Times described as “half his homely head.”  Spokane also beat the track record by nearly two seconds and beat prohibitive odds as well.  Proctor Knott went off at 1-2.  Spokane was officially 6-1 but his owner, Montana miner Noah Armstrong, got 10-1 from many people in the stands until he ran out of cash.  Spokane took home an official stake of nearly $5,000 plus many other thousands from those 10-1 side bets.  After, back home in Butte, the stallion Spokane raced a couple of times as a four year old but spent most of the rest of his life in front of a plough.

In 1902, with the county fair association as a partner, Aaron Van De Vanter and a group of investors took a bold, but as it turned out, an untimely step and developed a real race track near the shards of its predecessor tracks, at the south end of today’s Boeing Field.  It held 8,000 in the grandstands and many more along the rail.

It’s significant that businessman Meyer Gottstein was part of The Meadows investment group.  Gottstein had moved from selling liquor to investing in real estate and developed a love of the horses.  He passed that on to his son, Joe, who was nearing 11 when The Meadows opened, though he’d been in love with horse racing for several years.  Among the horses Meyer stabled at The Meadows was one he had given Joe for his eighth birthday. 

The Meadows, 1905
University of Washington Collections
The first meeting at The Meadows was just 10 days, but by the following year, it was fully up and running and operating 40 day meets.  The track seemed successful, mixing in runners, trotters and, by 1905, the new sport of automobile racing.  The track sat on a rail spur from the main trolley line between Tacoma and Seattle.  The inducements of Georgetown, nearby The Meadows, added to the allure of the track.  The two biggest businesses in the town were alcohol – seven saloons and a major brewery -- and sex in several brothels.  Patrons of The Meadows could, if they desired, have a very full day at the track – and on the way home as well.

The reason the building of The Meadows came at a particularly bad time was that the country was turning away from horse racing and the sleazy practices at the tracks where collusion among all the discretionary players – judges, jockeys, owners and trainers -- was common.  While never favorable, the odds against the everyday bettor were wildly in favor of the bookies and the system they represented.  And consumer reformers were bringing the message home effectively to state legislators.

While relatively minor players in the debate, animal welfare organizations were also agitating against horse racing.  Horses broke down and were euthanized, then as now.  Also, what sportswriters then liked to call “the long stimulator,’ the whip, bothered a growing number of people who thought animals working for human entertainment should be treated better.  Horse racing was losing the argument in many states and legislators began hearing from their constituents and making their calculations.

We should be clear and say ‘some horse racing’ was under attack.  Harness racing, where the horse moves at a specified stide and pulls a driver sitting in a two wheeled cart called a ‘sulky,’ was not in such poor repute.  Called ‘trotters’ or ‘pacers,’ they are standard bred horses with shorter legs and more compact bodies than thoroughbreds.  And, the richest and most famous horse in America was a pacer who was earning a million a year for its owner and was travelling in his own train.  His name was Dan Patch.

Robert Preston captured the relative positions of horse racing and harness racing this way in The Music Man: 

And the next thing you know your son is playin’ for money in a pinchback suit.
And listenin’ to some big out-of-town jasper hear him tell about horserace gambling.’
Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no, but a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck up jockey boy sittin’ on Dan Patch?  
Make your blood boil, well I should say.

As many as 100,000 people turned out to watch Dan Patch set world record after world record.  Sometimes he raced alone because other horses would not take him on.  Dwight Eisenhower and his parents lined up to see him in Kansas and a young Harry Truman actually wrote the horse a piece of fan mail.

Washington Park Speedway
UW Collections
The group that formed the first permanent harness racing track in Seattle, in 1907, had fundamental rules.  No alcohol would be sold and there would be no gambling.  They would build their track in one of the most humble places in town, the logged off tract of land the the city had just purchased from the The Puget Sound Logging Company and turned over to the Olmsted Brothers landscaping firm to make beautiful.  We know it today as one of the most lovely places in our region, the Arboretum.

Called The Speedway, the track was located where Azalea Way is today with the associated barns and stables further south near the Japanese Garden.  For such a lovely place, it took a great beating for many years, hosting a landfill – one of the city’s largest – and the Western Washington Fair for several years. 

While the Seattle Daily Times frequently said the attendance at The Speedway was good – 50 carriages counted at the paddock on one Saturday in 1908 – there were indicators that the track was struggling to find a sustainable audience.  The track implemented children’s horse races, put young women on the sulky’s behind safe pacers and pushed through an ordinance banning car races on the track.  In 1908, they had acquired a somewhat tame moose who they would trot around the half mile oval at the beginning and end of the racing day, usually a Saturday.  

The automobile was yet another competitor for the race fan and it was loud, truly dangerous and new.  Beginning in 1905, regular automobile racing was underway at The Meadows and trying, unsuccessfully a couple of years later to share the oval at Washington Park.  By 1913, the trotters were gone from Washington Park.

Ole Hanson as Mayor
Museum of History and Industry
There was no outrunning Ole Hanson.  He had both speed and endurance, though in Seattle, most of what people saw was the speed.  Arriving in 1902 from Racine, Wisconsin, Hanson walked behind the prairie schooner holding his big family and, when he arrived, camped on top of Beacon Hill, overlooking, among other things, the brand new Meadows Race Track.  In 1908 he was running for the state legislature and demonstrated, after an argument at the Swedish American Republican Club with John Kelly, the republican candidate for county auditor, that he had excellent hand speed as well.  After checking Kelly’s coat pockets for a weapon, a Daily Times reporter described Ole Hanson as a candidate who could punch.  

“Hanson’s right shot out straight for the jaw, but it veered off a few points and landed on Kelly’s lips.  Before Kelly could recover, Hanson whipped in a straight left to the face and tapped Kelly again with his right.  Then, as the auditor-that-wants-to-be broke ground, Hanson started a haymaker that copped Kelly on the point and he won out.  As Kelly began wiping the blood from his face, he remembered his own candidacy and abandoned the work of reconstructing his features to resume the distribution of campaign cards.”
In November, Hanson won his election to the legislature while Kelly finished out of the money for county auditor. 

The Daily Times also reported that the new legislator Hanson stopped by to chat with a colleague during one of the December meetings prior to the 1909 session.  It said the legislator, John Whalley, told Hanson he was thinking of introducing a bill to ban betting at horse racing events out at The Meadows and listed some of the abuses of the bookies and the precedent established the previous year when New York state banned horse race betting.   

Hanson listened intently to his new colleague and moved on. 

A few days later, Whalley was surprised to learn that Hanson had pre-filed the first bill of the session, HB 1, whose purpose was the banning of gambling at Washington state race tracks. 

The fact that Van De Vanter and Senator Lincoln Davis had died in the car accident that starts our story is a significant part of Hanson’s ultimate success with the horse race gambling ban.  Van De Vanter was famous in Olympia for getting his way and Davis was a major figure in the Senate.  It might have been a different story had Bigelow backed off or motorman Jesse McDowell tapped the breaks of the trolley or the northbound trolley had been a moment or two late.  But the accident had cleared the field for Hanson and he had nothing to fear, even as a raw freshman legislator.  He had no shame in bringing home a powerful point whatever its truth.  Hanson claimed, for example, that 90% of crime in the community had its roots at the race track, something of a surprise to the dries who claimed the same root cause percentage in the many saloons of the state.

Soon, in 1914, Hanson was an unsuccessful Progressive Party candidate for the United States Senate and then, in 1918, was elected Mayor of Seattle. This was Hanson's moment where he confronted the first General Strike in the history of the nation.  Hanson called it a fight for Seattle to remain an American city, Seattle in the grip of revolution that only he could thwart.

Once the strike was over, Hanson moved quickly again.  He wrote a book, Americanism vs. Bolshevism, quit the Mayor’s office after just a year and went off to market his success in breaking the back of the Bolshevist Revolution on the shores of Puget Sound.   In seven months of lecturing Hanson had netted $38,500. 

Hanson thought that lightening could strike – presidential lightning – coming from his role at the 1920 Republican Convention in Chicago where his Americanism was celebrated.  But no Chicago lightening got near Ole Hanson in 1920, though it did strike Warren G.  Harding.

He never gave a thought to returning to Seattle even though he had financial success as a high end, high quality developer, his true calling.  He built Lake Forest Park north of the city for the young, successful professionals he admired and wanted to support as a bulwark against the red tide.  

By 1925 he was successfully developing San Clemente in southern California and just as quickly was losing the lovely little development to his banker during the Great Depression in 1933. 

At the same time, Meyer Gottstein’s son Joe was lobbying the legislature for the return of horse racing to Washington state, making the case that the horses would provide new tax revenue and needed employment.  In 1933, Longacres opened and brought the horses back to Washington state at a particularly beautiful track.   

As the Gottstein family and its Longacres project were beginning their journey, Ole Hanson was ending his.  After losing San Clemente, he developed 29 Palms near Palm Springs, as downscale and desolate as San Clemente was upscale and lush.  At his death, in 1940, Hanson was heading a group called All-Year Outdoor Ice Skating Rinks, trying to make the ice rink in American culture as ubiquitous as the baseball diamond. 

While the General Strike continues to provide Hanson with a name and an historical handle in Seattle, his memory fades, a guy come and gone looking for a bigger job and better weather.  Hanson moved too fast and hustled too hard to truly lay down roots in Puget Sound, though he certainly did so in San Clemente.  Even though he was run off by his banker in 1933, he is still the founder and visionary of that community and the Ole Hanson Beach Club still bears the name of the town's founder.  


  1. Hi. Interesting story. Covers a lot of ground!
    You've got the Washington Park Speedway all mixed up with the Madison Park Racetrack further east. It's an easy thing to do because the two tracks were less than a mile apart and both held their first races in 1908. (Construction of the Washington Park Speedway began in 1907 but it wasn't ready for racing until 1908, the same year Madison Park was ready for racing.) Both featured primarily harness horses.
    The Washington Park Speedway wasn't a half mile oval; that was Madison Park.
    The Washington Park Speedway was a one mile straight stretch.
    The no alcohol, no gambling policy was also Madison Park. The Washington Park Speedway was inside a Seattle city park, free to everyone every day except during certain organized race meets, and alcohol and gambling was treated the same as any other Seattle park.
    Madison Park was a private enterprise, built by the Western Washington Fair Association, a private company, not a non-profit business. (The King County Fair Association was also a private, for profit corporation. Aaron Van de Vanter didn't partner with it, he was one of the partners IN it.)
    And it was Wilson who died weeks after the car crash that also killed Van de Vanter, not Senator Davis. He survived.

    The Western Washington Fair was never in Washington Park; again, that was Madison Park.

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