Friday, January 29, 2010

How we played: A look back at the history of winter sports in New York

Editors note: This originally appeared in the Register-Star in a different form. I've edited the piece to only include winter activities that would have been popular during John Morrissey's lifetime. I've also included a different introduction.

New York City in the mid-19th century was often a place of abject despair, filled with disease and death. But even the poorer classes weren't above a snowball fight after a snow storm to enliven a desultory existence. Winter sports such as ice skating became hugely popular during Morrissey's lifetime, but had their beginnings years before.

When the Dutch settled New York they brought with them a number of winter sports, including ice skating and hockey.17th century skates were made of iron and wood and were often attached to the wearer’s shoes by leather straps. Skating matches were common, but in some areas skating was used as much for business as pleasure. Charles Wooley, an Englishman who visited New York in the 1670s said he found it admirable “to see men and women as it were flying upon their skates from place to place with markets upon their Heads and Backs.”

A form of ice hockey was also brought over from the Netherlands as well and, according to some, the word hockey is derived from the Dutch slang word for a goal—hokkie—which roughly translates as “doghouse.”

Ice skating had been around for thousands of years by the time the Dutch brought the sport to New York, but it would take the Industrial Revolution to popularize the sport. By the mid-19th century ice skating was becoming a craze among the middle and upper classes, so much so that many American artists began to paint images depicting the sport.

While some of the Dutch sports became part of the American fabric, other died out over the years, including a game that involved rolling a disk across the ice. “Cleverly thrown, it would roll a long distance. When it fell, it was thrown again. He who covered the most ground, in a certain number of throws, while the disc rolled upright won the game,” wrote Esther Singleton in her 1909 book “Dutch New York.”

Another game, brought to America by Scottish immigrants in the early 19th century, continues to be popular in many parts of the world and even parts of the United States, but has nearly died out in the Hudson Valley. The sport’s history goes back to the 1500s where it was played in Scotland and Holland, with the Scottish codifying its rules around 1807. According to the Ardsley Curling Club Web site, the game involves members of the team sliding 42 pound polished granite stones down a 146 foot long sheet of ice helped by the sweeping of teammates to melt the ice and control the distance and direction of the stone. The closest stones to the target score points. The typical game consists of eight innings. Located in Irvington, in Westchester County, the Ardsley Curling Club was formed in 1932 and is one of only a few clubs left in the region. Both New York City and Albany were centers for curling, both having large populations of Scottish stone masons, and small clubs remain in both cities today.

The late 1800s were curling’s heyday in New York with clubs up and down the state. But, according to John Kerr, writing in “Curling in Canada and the United States,” in 1909, the sport was beginning to wane within the state by the turn of the century.

“The younger generation don't seem to have the same sentiment, nor are they imbued with the same love for the traditions of the game, or the grand old land that has given to the whole world the best, the cleanest, and manliest of sports that is played outdoors,” he wrote. “There are a few of us left yet who are ready to make any reasonable sacrifice to the end that curling in the States is to go on and progress.”

Curling remains hugely popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Scotland and Canada and became an Olympic medal sport in 1998.

A winter sport that has risen in the United States from an obscure activity of California Gold Rush minors to a national pastime is snow skiing, especially the Alpine or down hill variety.
Skiing had been a part of Nordic cultures for thousands of years before making its way to the United States with Nordic and German immigrants.

In the 1850s skis were in use on the West Coast during the gold rush, but didn’t catch on until the next century.

Ice yachting, the sport of the Robber Barons, came into the fore during Morrissey's time. These wooden hulled machines were the apex of speed and style in the mid-19th century, able to reach speeds of 70 mph or more. The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, formed in 1885 by John Aspinwall Roosevelt, uncle of 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still exists today with around 60 members.

While not a sport per se, sleigh riding was popular in the area since the time of the founding of New Amsterdam. While sleighs served as transport they also served as a means to an end, with people taking rides out into the country for entertainment.

Sarah Kemble Knight writing of her visit to New York in 1707 commented on the variety and number of sleighs that were present on one excursion. “I believe we mett 50 or 60 slays that day — they fly with great swiftness and some are so furious that they’le turn out of the path for none except a Loaden Cart,” she wrote. According to Singleton, the Dutch often made their sleighs into fantastic shapes, “such as animals, ships, fabulous monsters, or shells, carved, gilded, and brightly painted.”And while it has almost completely passed away every winter around the holidays the sounds and images of this pastime come to life through the classic carol that begins “dashing through the snow...”

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