Category Archives: racetracks

Pony Express

Sometimes I get lucky. That was the case on March 13th when I won on eBay the two framed horse racing photographs seen here. No one else bid (my many arch enemies must have been napping) and I got them for a song. According to the inscribed brass plaque on the base of its frame, the photo on the left captures a moment in the Steeplechase, the second race run at the Brooklyn Jockey Club’s Gravesend track on Monday, June 8, 1908. The winner was “Simon Pure,” followed by “Henderson,” “Waterspeed,” and “Boadwee.” The four small plaques on the base of the other frame name the horses above: “Agent,” “Alfar,” “John M. P.,” and “Haylas.” This was the second race of the Coney Island Jockey Club at the Sheepshead Bay track on Saturday, September 8, 1906. John M. P. won, followed by Agent, Alfar, and Haylas.

If only the pictures had arrived as fast as these horses raced. . . . They came from Florida, and were delivered on March 18th five days after purchase. Pretty good time, actually. Or so I thought. When I opened the giant box, it held stereo speakers. Yes, stereo speakers. Turns out the seller shipped two boxes simultaneously: mine with the photographs, the other with the speakers. The speakers were destined for California. They came to Brooklyn instead. You know where this is going, right? Yes, my pictures went to California. Luckily, the shipping company picked up the speakers the following day, but it took another week for the photos to cross the country. Another week of me anxiously checking the tracking location, praying that these 108- and 110-year-old images in fragile, 20″ by 30″ frames would survive the journey. They did, thankfully, but Pony Express might have been quicker!

Brooklyn.Jockey.Club.1908.photos4 - Copy

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under racetracks

After the Races


Real photo postcard: “POLICE MEET” / SHEEPSHEAD BAY / RACE TRACK / By Bowman {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

The New York State Legislature banned betting in 1910, forcing Brooklyn’s three major horse racing tracks — at Gravesend, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay — to close. Once the quadrupeds were gone, the turf turned to legal sporting events, such automobile racing and stunt flying. In this real photo postcard, a high-hatted spectator at one of the Police Honor Roll Relief Fund Games (possibly this meet from 1916) smiles at us against the backdrop of the grandstand at Sheepshead Bay. Is that Hamilton B. Urglar to the left, in the black and white stripes?

Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under racetracks, Sheepshead Bay

The Fiery End of Gerritsen’s Mill

If I share this story you might think me guilty by association, especially since I’m Gravesend’s self-elected cheerleader, but the crime happened eighty years ago today, so I should be safe.

“Gerretsen’s [sic] Mill at Gravesend,” image from Charles Andrew Ditmas, Historic Homesteads of Kings County (1909).

When I began to research Gravesend history seriously about twenty-five years ago, I showed my late granduncle some book or other of old Brooklyn photographs. He was well over seventy then and enjoyed recalling the Brooklyn he moved to as a teenager from Manhattan, around 1932, with his parents, five brothers, and only sister (my grandmother). Thumbing through the pictures, he stopped at one of Gerritsen’s Mill, as rickety a building as ever there was. It stood on the west bank of the Strome Kill (Dutch for “storm creek”), also called Gerritsen’s Creek, the tidal inlet that formed a natural boundary between the historic towns of Flatlands and Gravesend. The creek survives in truncated form south of Avenue U in Marine Park, but the mill is gone.

Uncle Frank wore his bifocals oddly, with the tops tilted way forward. He lifted his head back to see me through the bottoms of his lenses and said, matter-of-fact, “You know, I burned that thing.” My jaw dropped.

When we think of the Netherlands we conjure up tulips and windmills. But the Dutch who settled western Long Island did not use windmills to grind grain. Instead they built dams across the tidal creeks that fringed the marshy coastline. As the tide flowed in the water level rose behind the dam. When the tide ebbed, the receding water forced the flood gates shut. The trapped reservoir, or mill pond, could then be channeled as needed over a paddle wheel to turn the gears and grindstones inside an adjacent mill.

Hugh Gerritsen owned land at the Strome Kill before 1645. But while it is believed that the Gerritsen clan first operated their tide mill that long ago, the first definite, historical reference we have to its existence is in the 1765 will of Johannes Gerritsen, who bequeathed it to his son, Samuel. Legend has it that during the Revolution, Samuel, rather than grind grain for the Hessians, submerged his millstones in the creek. Forced at bayonet point to retrieve them, he unwillingly served the enemy for the duration of the war.

The historians Charles Andrew Ditmas (1909) and Maud Esther Dilliard (1945) have detailed the genealogy of the Gerritsen property and its long-running mill, which fed Gravesend and the surrounding towns into the 1890s. It passed in 1899 to William C. Whitney, former United States Secretary of the Navy during Grover Cleveland’s first presidency (1885-1889). Whitney’s son, Harry Payne Whitney, trained racehorses on the grounds. The Coney Island Jockey Club’s track at Sheepshead Bay was quite near.

By the early twentieth century the abandoned mill had become a picturesque backdrop for the sightseers who posed for photos in front of it, and, sadly, a destination for souvenir hunters who took away pieces of history in the form of nails and bits of timber. When the City finally acquired the Gerritsen-Whitney property to create Marine Park in 1925, the mill was a wreck. Preservationists called it the oldest surviving tide mill in the country. “It is a sacrilege for our generation to allow this relic of Revolutionary days to crumble into ruin,” cried Gertrude Ryder Bennett to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday, June 24, 1931.

The City listened. A fence went up around it to keep what remained of the mill intact. Plans were drawn — see “Gerritsen Mill, Old Landmark, To Be Rebuilt” in the Brooklyn Eagle, August 26, 1934 — and the exterior carefully restored. But then, on September 4, 1935 — tragedy. An early-morning fire destroyed the ancient building. The cause of the blaze was never determined. Some have speculated that it was set by a disgruntled employee of “master builder” Robert Moses.

The charred remains of Gerritsen's Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

The charred remains of Gerritsen’s Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, Wednesday, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

Do I believe my uncle really had a hand in it?  Who can say? He had no reason to invent such a tale. Back then, he was nineteen years old and had a bit of a wild streak in him. (When the family still lived in Manhattan, he was off one day on a bicycle ride. He got struck by a car and landed in the hospital. This happened just when they were poised to move to a new apartment on the opposite side of Thompson Street. No one knew where he was, so the move happened without him. Somehow, he got out of the hospital and made it home, only to find that home had left him behind.) He could very well have been in Marine Park, goofing off with friends in the tall, dry grass. A single spark from a match — flicked deliberately or not — would have been enough.

An abandoned grindstone, very likely from Gerritsen’s Mill, survives somewhere in the marshy reaches of Marine Park. And the mill’s foundation, along with the pilings that formed its dam, remain visible at low tide. These traces, and two relics — a hand-forged iron nail and a wooden peg — preserved by someone who picked them from the ruins and fixed them in a shadowbox, are all that is left of Brooklyn’s first industrial plant.

[Be sure to read Thomas Campanella’s haunting essay on this vanished landscape, “The Lost Creek.”]

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (


Filed under Charles Andrew Ditmas, Gerritsen family, Marine Park, Maud Esther Dilliard, racetracks, Sheepshead Bay

How Gravesend celebrated Independence Day 99 years ago…

The celebration of July Fourth was truly a community event in the Brooklyn of a century ago. On 5 July 1912 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a full-page account of the day’s fesitivities, devoting a few paragraphs to each neighborhood’s offerings. In Gravesend, school children waving flags paraded through the streets to the grounds of the closed but not-yet-demolished Brooklyn Jockey Club (a.k.a. Gravesend Racetrack), where the winners of various foot races received medals like the one seen here for the 100-yard dash. Thanks to the Eagle, we know it was awarded to William Faith (see the transcription below). According to the 1910 census, he was William H. Faith, a son of Joseph and Anna Faith, who lived at 234 Van Sicklen Street. William was about 15 in 1912. (The Faith family moved to Queens by 1920.)

Obverse of medal presented to William Faith, winner of the 100-yard dash, Gravesend, 4th July Celebration 1912 (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Friday 5 July 1912, p. 5, col. 4:

2,000 Children Enjoyed the Day at Gravesend.

The programme for the observation of a Safe and Sane Fourth of July in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, held under the auspices of the Gravesend Board of Trade, was one full of pleasure for the youngsters in that locality. The festivities, which commenced at 9 A.M. were continued up to a late hour last night.

The children of the Marlborough [sic] and the Edinboro sections met at Gravesend avenue and Avenue P, whence they proceeded to Public School No. 95, in Van Sicklen street and Neck road, where the parade started.

At 9:45 A.M. the line formed in the road in front of the school and each child was provided with a flag. Then, escorted by a delegation from the Gravesend Board of Trade, and headed by the Thirteenth Regiment Band, which was followed by a boy and girl dressed as George and Martha Washington with an old negro attendant, the line moved forward along Van Sicklen street to South Village road then to East Village road, to North Village road and back to Van Sicklen street, thence to Kings Highway, where is [sic] was joined by the children of the High Lawn section. Then the parade, with over 2,000 children in line, proceeded to Gravesend [now McDonald] avenue, to Avenue T entrance of the Brooklyn Jockey Club’s race track, marching to the old betting ring, where, after the flag raising, during which those present sang patriotic songs, Senator James F. Duhamel made a short address to the children.

At 11 o’clock all the children were served with milk and cake. Following the refreshments came the athletic events. These took place on the track in front of the judges [sic] stand. The summares [sic?] were:

  • 60-Yard dash for boys between the ages of 8 and 9 years—Won by W. Ellwood; second, W. Short; third, Bertran [sic] Van Buskirk.
  • 60-Yard dash for seniors—Won by W. Ellwood; second, Charles Crofte [Crofts?].
  • 100-Yard dash for seniors—Won by William Faith.
  • Junior broad jump—Won by Peter Luchelli [sic] with a jump of 10 feet 10 inches; second, Austin Mazzarelli.
  • Senior broad jump—Won by William Hand with a jump of 12 feet 2 inches, with Thomas Hand a close second.
  • Sack race—Won by Jack Mermaugh; second, Thomas Hand, third Jack Hennessy.
  • 220-Yard dash—Won by Wilfred Van Sicklen; second, Walter Pau; third, Fred Pack.
  • Two-mile race—Won by J.C. Faith; second, Lou Ross; third, Harry Ellwood.
  • Potato-race for girls—Won by Emma Fowler; second, May Maloney; third, May Dougherty.

At the conclusion of the games all those present were served with ice cream, cake and milk.

The feature of the afternoon was a ball game between the “All McCoys” and the “Board of Trade.” The players on each team were married men, and their plays were loudly applauded. The game was to be a regulation nine-inning game, but as a result of the heavy hitting the bat was soon split and the players were beginning to feel the presence of long forgotten muscles, causing the game to be called in the sixth inning, the decision being given to the “All McCoys” with a score of 9 to 7.

The line up of each team was a[s] follows: “All McCoys,” Hagle, catcher; Thompkins, pitcher; Van Sicklen, first base; Hart, second base; Down, shortstop; J. McCoy, third base; Martin, left field, and W. McCoy, right field. “Board of Trade,” Lorimer, first base; Bergen, second base; Bush, shortstop; Crofton, third base; Howard, catcher; Rucker, pitcher; Doremus, right field; Smith, left field, and McHune, center field.

The ball game completed the programme for the afternoon. At 8 P.M. there was a grand display of fireworks and a band concert at Second street, West street and Kings Highway.

After the fireworks the celebrants proceeded to the race track where dancing was continued until a late hour.

Theodore J. Smith was chairman of the Fourth of July Committee and D.C. Young of the athletic committee. The judges of the games were Jacob Stryker, Melville Ketcham and Clarence R. Van Buskirk; the starter man was L. Hardenberg, and D.C. Young was clerk of the course.

Sounds like a fun time was had by all!

Reverse of medal presented to William Faith, winner of the 100-yard dash, Gravesend, 4th July Celebration 1912 (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

With her signature lyrical flair, Gertrude Ryder Bennett, described earlier but very similar July Fourth observances in Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Company, 1982), 9-11:

Independence Day festivities around the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead [at 1669 East 22nd Street] began in the morning, in a grove of ancient oaks in a triangle formed by the intersection of Kings Highway, East 19th Street and Avenue P. We gathered to hear patriotic speeches by Dominie Tibbles, Father Hickey and Rabbi Piper who spoke from a platform built for the occasion, while the listeners brought their own chairs or stood on the soft earth of the grove. Neighbor greeted neighbor. The tinkle of the hokey-pokey wagon had the effect, with the children, of the notes played by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. They broke away from their parents in the audience and, forsaking the eloquence of patriotism for a nickle’s worth of ice cream, they would cluster at the wagon, like humming birds after nectar. Then they popped caps on any hard surface they could find–minor explosions punctuating the day’s oratory.

Speeches over, families gathered in their own houses for the noonday meal, then reassembled in Edward Ridley’s meadow behind his elegant, Victorian mansion on King’s [sic] Highway [southwest corner of Coney Island Avenue].

Here, all afternoon, neighbors participated in the usual country games–potato races, three legged races, bag and wheelbarrow races. The baseball fans preferred to gather in the fields not far from our house and play ball. The married men played against the single men, with their women folk cheering from seats on planks placed on boxes. Their comments and good-natured banter filled the air like a musical accompaniment.

In the early evening, Mother, Father and I walked along Kings Highway to a block of street-dancing. We listened to the band awhile, then returned home for what I considered the cream topping of the day.

From the south end of our porch, we had an unobstructed view of the sky filled with bouquets of gorgeous flowers as Coney Island sent fireworks into the air. Today, with all the high buildings between our house and the ocean, it seems incredible. I watched in fascinated delight and always felt sorry when the final burst of splendor, accompanied by a large boom, lighted the sky. Then till midnight, the neighborhood boys set off their own firecrackers, while adults cringed with the noise and worried over possible catastrophies [sic]. It usually took a day or two to recover from this holiday.

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (

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