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Washington Race Course

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

In 2011 the Edmondston Alston House did a Special Exhibit titled: “The Races! The Races! Charleston’s Gala Race Week”, this article is based on that exhibit and some additional information.

From 1792 until 1882, the Washington Race Course, a one-mile loop around today's Hampton Park, featured the finest horse racing in the South. The track was a venture of William Alston (Charles Alston’s father), William Washington, Wade Hampton, Charles Coatsworth Pinckney, Robert Gibbs, Henry Middleton Rutledge, Gabriel Manigault, William Moultrie and 11 other breeders of thoroughbred racehorses. The track a portion of The Grove farm on Charleston's rural upper peninsula. The August 1791 purchase provided a new venue for the South Carolina Jockey Club   -- Washington Race Course. The course was opened Feb. 15, 1792

William Alston’s grandson, J. Motte Alston (1821-1909) wrote in his memoirs a description of the Alston livery: house servants wore dark green broadcloth coats trimmed with silver braid and red facings and green plush trousers. He recalled the green and red coach, driven by Thomas Turner, a slave at Fairfield Plantation. “Thomas Turner was a great favorite and was indulged and respected. He was my grandfather’s most trusted race-rider – when he owned a number of famous horses… horseracing was confined to gentlemen, and not gamblers, and was a pastime and not a profession. There were Gallatin, Shark, Comet, Black Maria, Symmetry and many others.” He told how in the summer the horse racers met in Virginia and in the winter at Charleston, Columbia, Camden, etc. 

For seventy years, Washington Race Course came to life for a week in February, with racing on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Tavern-keepers rented houses near the track to use as restaurants, bars and inns. Lavash parties were held at the homes of the Charleston elite.

“Mrs. Alston (Emma Pringle Alston of the EAH) left a record, “For the Ball of 1851,” that gives an idea of her lavish hospitality. There is no wine list but were six dozen wineglasses and all the champagne glasses “as could be collected.” Eighteen dozen plates, fourteen dozen knives and twenty-eight dozen spoons were needed for the consumption of four wild turkeys, four hams, sixty partridges, six pair of pheasants, six pair of canvasback ducks, five pair of wild ducks, and ten quarts of oysters.  There were also four pyramids (two crystallized fruit, two of coconut) four orange baskets, seven dozen Kiss cakes, seven dozen macaroons, eight Charlotte Russes, four Italian creams, four chocolate cakes, four ‘small black ones’ and ‘an immense quantity of bonbons’. Coffee for those who wished it and ‘three dollars’ worth of celery and lettuce completed the menu.” 

Samuel Williams was born into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina. In his later years, Williams wrote about his life before and after slavery; but he published his memoir under a pseudonym, Sam Aleckson. Williams remembers the excitement of riding horses as a child jockey, while entertaining white audiences at great risk: 

 

“My mother and her children fell to the lot of Edward Dane, brother of Thomas. This young gentleman was of a gay disposition; fond of horses and the sports of the day. . . He taught me to ride, and when I could sit my horse well "bare-back" he had a saddle made for me. I would often accompany him "up the road" on horseback to the Clubhouse, there to exhibit my youthful feats of horsemanship, for the divertissement of Mr. Dane and his friends. Williams was convinced that Edward Dane, his enslaver, was training him to ride with the hopes of using young Williams as a jockey, only to have the plans dashed by the onset of the Civil War and a cessation to such entertainments.”

 

During the Civil War, Washington Race Course was a camp for Union prisoners of war. The death rate in the open field was high - at least 257 men died and were buried in unmarked graves. After Union forces occupied Charleston in 1865, the dead were exhumed and reburied under respectful markers. In April 1865, freedmen built a fence around the burial ground, with an arch reading "Martyrs of the Race Course." On May 1, 1865, thousands of African-Americans - freed slaves, children, Union soldiers - made a procession to the cemetery. General Rufus Saxon, who resided in the EAH, was one of the speakers. Many consider this event the first Memorial Day.

The course was last used for racing in December 1882. In 1899, members of the South Carolina Jockey Club finally voted to disband. The club's remaining assets - the race course and adjoining farm, along with $13,500 in securities and cash - were deeded to the Charleston Library Society. In 1900, the society rented the grounds to the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition.  

After the exposition closed, the City of Charleston paid the Charleston Library Society $32,500 for the land, seventy acres of high ground and twenty acres of marsh. The racecourse entry posts became surplus property when the parcel was redesigned as Hampton Park. In 1903, August Belmont, Jr., a New York racehorse owner and part-time South Carolina resident, asked to buy the four piers. The City of Charleston, instead, offered them as a gift. The brick posts were boxed and shipped to New York, to be repaired and reinstalled at the new Belmont Park on Long Island, New York.

 

The city retained the services of Olmsted, Olmsted & Elliott, a landscaping firm from Boston. John Charles Olmsted, the adopted son of Frederick Law Olmsted, designed a plan for a park following his first visit to Charleston in 1906. At least part of his plans for long parkways along the Ashley River were disrupted when the city sold the approximately 200 acres along the Ashley River, the Rhett Farm tract, to the Citadel for the relocation and expansion of its campus.  The oval track of the Washington Race Course remains as the bed of Mary Murray Drive, which encloses Hampton Park.

References:

-Behre, Robert. “Charleston Pillars Greet Belmont Fans.” The Post and Courier, June 13, 2005.

-79. Washington Race Track 1792-1900; Preservation Society of Charleston

-Rice planter and sportsman: the recollections of J. Motte Alston, 1821-1909; University of South Carolina Press, c1999.

-Samuel Williams and His World: Before the War and After the Union Exhibit: (Lowcountry Digital History Initiative: A Digital History Project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston)

-History of Belmont, NYRA

 

Dave Berg, 2018