Walking through the history of Union Course
by Ed Wendell
Jul 18, 2017 | 570 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Union Course Racetrack was launched in 1821, and was located close to the border of Brooklyn in a part of Woodhaven first dubbed Unionville then Union Course, a name it would retain well into the 20th Century, long after the track had disappeared.

The track itself was huge. At the time it was built, the Union Course was the largest track in the United States, running from Jamaica Avenue to Atlantic Avenue from 78th to 84th streets.

The Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society will be leading a free walking tour around the perimeter of the old racetrack on Saturday, August 5, at noon. The tour will start and end at Neir’s Tavern at 78th Street and 88th Avenue.

In the early 19th century, it was common for horse breeders down south to send their very best horses north to compete for bragging rights. One of the most famous races took place in 1822, a best-of-three that saw Eclipse (representing the North) defeat Sir Henry (defending the South).

Over 60,000 people came to Woodhaven to witness this battle and over $200,000 changed hands, a figure that would be worth just over $4 million in today’s money.

The popularity of these races led to rapid development in the area, with roads being paved, houses built and hotels, general stores, and saloons popping up along the outer rim of the track.

We will walk in the footsteps of the earliest residents of Woodhaven, some of them legendary names. We’ll introduce you to Hiram Woodruff, a horse trainer, a jockey and hotelier. We’ll walk down Snedeker Avenue and tell you about John Snedeker and his famous hotel, which had a large ballroom that straddled the Brooklyn-Queens border and was extremely popular with the racetrack crowd.

We’ll also talk about the various legends surrounding Dexter Park, which had its own life as a place for recreation before achieving fame for semi-pro baseball and stock car racing.

With the rise of racing in Woodhaven came a real need to transport people to and from the track, and as a result the Long Island Railroad built a line along Atlantic Avenue with a stop near Rockaway that was constructed so you could walk directly into the Union Course race track from the station.

The line and the station opened in April 1836, and just two weeks later history happened here in Woodhaven when a train hit a cow and a second train slammed into the back of the first. It was the first accident in the history of the Long Island Railroad.

As the decades passed and other tracks opened nearby, the Union Course's popularity faded. But during the 1860s, the land was temporarily used as an encampment for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

A turn to trotting breathed new life into the track and it experienced a burst of renewed energy, but it faded as quickly as it blossomed. By the 1870s, it began to keep an irregular schedule and show signs of disrepair.

For the next 15 years or so, it became a community eyesore. The once-beautiful fencing around the track was torn apart by locals for firewood, and many of the buildings and businesses that depended on the track’s customers began to close their doors and disappear.

The Union Course has been gone from the Woodhaven landscape for over 130 years, but amazingly there are still a few signs that a racetrack once existed in this part of Woodhaven, and at least one of them is a very familiar and famous landmark to residents.

We’ll point out all these landmarks as well as other points of interest as we walk around the footprint of the old track, which should take approximately 90 minutes and covers about 1.75 miles.

Again, this walking tour is free and open to the public. If you have any questions, feel free to email us at woodhavenhistory@gmail.com or call (718) 805-2002.

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