A snowy boulevard in Saco made for a perfect racecourse almost a century ago.
These days most drivers dread a heavy snowfall, but nearly a century ago a good dumping of the white stuff was like raising the "start your engines" flag for anyone with a horse and sleigh. It was especially welcome around Eastman Park in Saco, where local photographer Charles E. Moody set up his camera in 1912 and caught racer Joseph Newell warming up his pacer. The park, donated by the Eastman family who lived in the Federal style home at far right, served as a finish line for the quarter-mile sprints that began at the North Railroad Station on North Street, one of many such impromptu racecourses that sprang up in Maine cities and towns during the winter. "Many a coachman, unknown to his employer, contrived to drive around to the speedway, perhaps with a horse he had been quietly conditioning, in the hope of indulging in a brush or two in the keen air," wrote Edwin Valentine Mitchell.
Judging by Newell's sleigh, though, he took more than a passing interest in such races. Instead of driving a standard Portland Cutter like the one behind him, left of center, he has retrofitted a sulky with short runners instead of wheels. Newell likely learned from racing on the frozen Saco River that a sulky could out-perform a sleigh on ice, and has decided to adapt the technology for the snowy surface of Main Street. His unique speedster has begun to draw a crowd: the bearded gent behind him who has left the comfort of his sleigh to watch Newell might well be John B. Gregory, the agent of the Saco River Lumber Company who owned the impressive Queen Anne behind him. And while this small group doesn't compare to the numbers who would gather here for the regular Sunday afternoon races, Newell seems to have attracted a competitor, as the white horse barely visible over his right shoulder appears ready to go head-to-head.
For racers, conditions didn't get much better than this. The snowdrifts are deep enough to almost cover the low railing, at right, that surrounds Eastman Park, but the small amount of snow on the rooftops indicates that it's been a day or two since the storm and so crews have had time to roll the road smooth. Only the horses might prefer different conditions: they probably consider the frozen fountain, just visible behind Newell, a cruel reminder of warmer days.
To capture this wintry scene Moody had to have practically stood on the trolley tracks that crossed this well-to-do neighborhood, ironic because the trolley - and the automobile that would come after it - spelled the end of the horse and buggy and likewise the end of the North Street races in Saco. If not for Moody's photograph and the ongoing presence of the Gregory and Eastman houses that still lord over this village square, this scene might have melted away like a February snow.
- By: Joshua F. Moore