Old Nyack, though not the North Pole, was no stranger to winter wonders. Beyond the famed ice bridge connecting it to Tarrytown, Nyack was a hub for the exhilarating sport of sleigh racing during the pre-automobile era. On January 20, 1891, a historic event unfolded as horse-driven sleighs gathered for an adrenaline-pumping competition from Upper Nyack to the First Baptist Church on North Broadway. Excitement filled the air as crowds lined the streets, eager to witness racers vying for a substantial purse, equivalent to $3,500 in today’s currency.
In those days, sleighs were indispensable, serving as the primary means of reliable transportation on snow-packed, icy roads and even across the frozen Hudson River on the ice bridge. Nyack, nestled in the Lower Hudson Valley, emerged as a thriving center for sleigh manufacturing, attracting enthusiasts seeking both practical and stylish sleighs.
Sleigh-Making Craftsmanship in Nyack
Two prominent sleigh manufacturers, E.L. Wright and the Christie family, set the stage for Nyack’s sleigh-making prowess. Operating around the time of the Civil War until the automobile age, these factories were a hive of activity, where skilled craftsmen in metalwork, upholstery, carpentry, leatherwork, and painting collaborated under one roof to produce masterfully crafted sleighs.
The Portland cutter, a 19th century equivalent of the “Model T”, was a single-seat, two-person marvel that combined affordability with ease of use. Nyack’s uniqueness shone through as local designers infused European influences, creating custom sleighs that ranged from fancy two-seaters to opulent three-seat models favored by high-rollers.
Wright’s brick factory on Hudson Avenue, later overseen by Ornan P. Wright, and Christie’s establishment on Liberty Street were at the forefront of sleigh innovation. O.P. Wright’s designs, featured in national magazines, showcased exquisite details, while the Christies offered a fancy six-passenger Russian sleigh in 1888.
Sleigh Road Adventures and Mishaps
With the proliferation of sleighs, conflicts were inevitable on Nyack’s winter roads just as they are with cars today. Tales of road antics, such as an amusing “brush” (when two horses touch each other during a race) incident between A.J. Smith and Edgar Smith, added an element of sleigh road rage to the narrative. As A.J. headed home from the train station one morning, he assumed Edgar who was passing him on Broadway, wanted to race. A.J. raced off, only to discover Edgar turned off. Villagers laughed at his antics. Accidents, too, were part of the sleighing experience, with overturned sleighs and mishaps dotting the historical records.
The 1891 Sleigh Race on N. Broadway
Picture this: a snowy Tuesday afternoon in 1891, a quarter mile stretch on North Broadway Avenue, and over 10 horses and sleighs poised for an informal, yet fiercely competitive, sleigh race. Notable participants like George Chapman, an officer of the Nyack National Bank, added a touch of glamour to the event. While details about the exact course and rules remain elusive, the allure of the substantial prize money drew participants eager for an exhilarating race.
The Rockland County Journal captured the essence of the day, noting that “many groups gathered on both sides of Broadway to witness the contests, and that the sleighing was superb.” As the sun set beyond the Nyack hills, the echoes of the thrilling races lingered in the winter air, marking another chapter in Nyack’s storied sleighing history.
1897 Edison Film of a Sleigh Race in New York City
Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.