Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Finding Petersburg's New Market Race Course



A couple of months back I offered a couple of posts regarding horse racing in Virginia. One focused on noted turf man William Ransom Johnson, and the other on William Wynn's Dinwidde County farm, stables, and home, known as Raceland. One of Johnson's and Wynn's most visited racetracks was just about a mile east of the Petersburg town limits. It was known as the New Market Race Course.

I had read about New Market, and often viewed advertisements while searching period newspapers, but I had never been able to put my thumb exactly on where the race track was located. That was all before a colleague at work shared a map of Petersburg (partly pictured above) and its environs produced by Confederate engineer and topographer Jeremy F.Gilmer in 1863. The map clearly shows the circular New Market Race Course located at the split of the Petersburg and City Point Railroad and the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, and situated just south of the Appomattox River and northwest of the Hare House site. The Price George Courthouse Road ran on the track's eastern border (just off the above image's right side).


A modern satellite view provided by Google Earth shows the present-day area in the center of the above image. The railroad split can still be easily seen, as well as the Prince George Courthouse Road running southeast off of modern day Highway 36 (East Washington Street). The New Market Race Course was located in the vicinity of the squares formed by the streets in the center of the photograph. The Union earthworks of Fort Stedman and the Confederate fortification of Colquitt's salient can be seen in the bottom right center of the photograph.


Although now mainly developed into streets and single family homes, part of the area where the track once stood is still open and on the grounds of Robert E. Lee Elementary school (shown above).


Just through a little skirt of woods and up the hill from the track once stood the Hare House. This land is now part of the Petersburg National Battlefield (PNB). The Hare House is long gone, but its former location is marked on the PNB grounds by the small metal sign shown above.


The Hare House was sketched by noted Civil War artist Alfred Waud in 1864 (above). The Hare House became the center of the furious fighting on June 18, 1864, during the early stages of combat of the Petersburg Campaign. The desperate charge of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery (fighting as infantry) toward Colquitt's Salient that day crossed the Hare property.

Otway P. Hare, or more commonly called O. P., owned the New Market Race Course. I found Hare listed in the 1850 census for Prince George County. He was described as a forty-seven year old "farmer," and owned real estate valued at $6300. His wife, Elizabeth, was three years his junior. Their children were Macon (seventeen), Laura (eighteen), and Walter (thirteen). Also in the household was Thomas Gentry, a 46 year old race horse "trainer." Both of Hare's sons were noted as having attended school within the last year. The slave schedule census shows Hare as owning twelve slaves at that time.


I was not able to determine when racing started at the New Market track. However, I was able to find advertisements in Petersburg newspapers as early as 1820 (above from the Petersburg Republican April 18, 1820). One reference I found mentioned that the track was owned by Petersburg commission merchant Thomas Branch before Hare purchased it. Another, in 1829 called New Market "the oldest and most popular club in Virginia; its races are over a course, one mile in length, of good soil for running, and commanding an extensive and beautiful prospect in every direction; the commence, regularly, the first Tuesday in May and the second Tuesday in October." 


The New Market Race Course drew turf men and racing fans from far and wide. Apparently some of the ladies that attended viewed the heats from Hare House Hill. The Civil War fighting around Petersburg brought racing at New Market to a halt for a time. A brief revival in the late nineteenth century brought horse racing back to the course, but it was not long before the track's land was turned into a housing development just before World War One.

Gilmer Petersburg Map courtesy of Baylor University.
Hare House sketch image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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