by Mike Hays
Nyack is no North Pole, but historically it has not lacked in wintertime attractions. Not only was Nyack port to the ice bridge, which crossed the frozen Hudson River to Tarrytown, it was also the Sleigh Town of the lower Hudson River Valley. On January 24, 1891, horse-driven sleighs assembled to compete on a course from Upper Nyack to the First Baptist Church on N. Broadway. Crowds lined the street as racers competed for a purse that amounted to $3,000 in today’s currency.
Sleighs were important everywhere in pre-automobile days. They were the only reliable transportation for snow-packed, icy roads–or for crossing the ice bridge. And in the Lower Hudson Valley, Nyack was the manufacturing hub for sleighs, drawing both sporting and fashionable types to Nyack for sleigh equipment of all kinds.
Sleigh-making in Nyack
Two full-service sleigh manufacturers began producing sleighs around the time of the Civil War. It made good sense for carriage makers to have a second “winter” business so they could work year-round. Unlike modern automobile manufacturing, where components are built in different locations and assembled in one plant, the Nyack companies made each part and assembled the sleighs in one location. Metal workers, upholsterers, carpenters, leather workers, and painters worked under one roof.
The “Model T” sleigh of its time was the Portland cutter, a single-seat, two-person sleigh that was inexpensive and easy to manage. Nyack sleigh shops stood out because local designers, drawing upon European models, created fashionable custom sleighs. Fancy two- and three-seat models sold mostly outside Nyack, but high-rollers purchased large three-seat models.
The Wright Factory
E.L. Wright began making carriages in 1843. He also made wagons, harnesses, and over 27 different kinds of sleighs. His large factory was located in a three-story wood-framed building at Hudson and Railroad Avenues (now called Depot Place).
The Wright factory was near the Nyack Railroad Station, so it was a convenient location to send finished sleighs to distributors. The wood factory burned down in the 1880s and was rebuilt in 1887 as a brick factory that was run by Wright’s son, Ornan P. Wright.
O.P. Wright’s designs were often featured in Carriage Monthly, a national trade magazine. His Russian Six-Seat Vis-à-Vis sleigh body had panels on all sides that represented a shell with tiger heads carved at the doors. The bodies were painted in ultramarine blue striped with light blue. The sleighs were trimmed in blue cloth. The cushions had diamond-plaited tops with fancy buttons. And the rugs were blue with narrow red stripes bound with laces.
The Christie Factory
Aaron Christie was the first to make carriages and sleighs in the village, starting his business in 1835 on Broadway near Main Street. Christie lived nearby on Broadway, next to what was at the time the Presbyterian Church and is now the Nyack Center. In front of the house was a town water pump, popularly known as the Christie Pump. Christie soon moved his factory to larger quarters on Liberty Street, between Church and Jackson Streets (now a part of Nyack Plaza), near the Nyack Evening Journal building. Several shops were clustered together, including, in one corner of the building, a harness maker and carriage trimmer; and elsewhere, a blacksmith shop, wheelwright shop, and the painting room.
Christie’s sons, Augustus E. and James H., expanded the business in 1871, prospering as the A.E. & J.H. Christie Company, makers of fine carriages & sleighs. Like O.P. Wright, it was a national business, advertising in the Carriage Monthly. Not to be outdone by Wright, in 1888 the Christies also offered a fancy six-passenger Russian sleigh.
The 1/24/1891 Sleigh Race on N. Broadway
It was a Tuesday afternoon in 1891 when the trotters assembled for a pre-arranged, informal competition. The conditions were perfect, with snow-packed, icy roads. It was quite an assembly of horseflesh and sleighs. At least seven riders from Nyack participated, as well as at least four from nearby towns. The race course on Broadway Avenue, between the First Baptist Church and the Upper Nyack line, is a straight run of a quarter mile. The gathering of over 10 horses and sleighs must have filled many front yards and nearby fields. There’s no available record of exactly how far the race course stretched, what the rules of the competition were, or who won the purse. Owners claimed to be only “brushing” for the fun of it, but the prize money was significant. The Rockland County Journal did take note, though, that “many groups gathered on both sides of Broadway to witness the contests and that the sleighing was superb.” The races lasted all afternoon only thinning out as the sun set beyond the Nyack hills.
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of the Nyack Library
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.