Auto races attracted large crowds to track in Washington Twp.
It was known as the Belle Vernon Racetrack but was, in reality, located in Washington Township.
And today, more than a century after it opened and long after it closed, the sports venue still draws attention.
“Do you recall the auto racing track that was located in Fairhope in the 1920s?” a reader from Rostraver Township asked. “I've heard it was one of the most popular attractions of that era in the area.”
The track and the races held there were before our time, but the late R. Mitchell Steen Jr., longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent and noted historian, recounted those subjects in his popular Backward Glances column on Saturday, April 25, 1970.
“Racing cars breaking through board fences, drivers and mechanics tossed through the air, speeds of better than 70 miles per hour,” Steen said. “That was just part of the excitement at the Belle Vernon Racetrack 55 years ago.'
The Labor Day races on Monday, Sept. 7, 1915 featured drivers and cars from all over western Pennsylvania. Those events evolved as the result of a two-day card per week earlier being reduced to one day because of inclement weather.
The Daily Independent of Monessen proclaimed on Saturday, Sept. 5, 1915, that the races would “overshadow anything else scheduled on Labor Day.”
A crowd of more than 5,000 attended the Labor Day races, which offered cash prizes totaling $1,500.
Seven events were held and the featured competition was a 20-mile race.
Special cars were needed by the trolley lines leading from Mon Valley communities to handle the crowds. In addition, special automobiles were chartered to transport people to and from the track.
Headquarters for the auto races were at the Hotel Wilbur in Charleroi, where C.W. Hunter was in charge of applications, registrations and other arrangements.
“Considerable excitement was generated by the races, with hundreds of persons visiting garages in the area just to get a close-up glimpse of the cars entered in the races,” Steen wrote.
Some of the vehicles taking part in the races included G.B. Gardner's famous “Beaver Bullet,” the second American car to finish in the 1914 Indianapolis Sweepstakes, and C.W. Johnson's “Packard Greyhound,” the automobile in which he defeated a number of others, including the favorite, Ralph DePalma, in the highly-touted Uniontown Hill Climb.
Gardner broke the track record in the Aug. 27 races but was injured when his Beaver Bullet crashed through 40 feet of high board fence during a run against the Packard. Both cars were damaged but were repaired in time to compete in the Labor Day classic.
Two Charleroi drivers, Addison D. “Ad” Spencer and Guy Woodward, also were entered in the races. Spencer, a well-known Charleroi auto dealer, was driving a Buick Wildcat and Woodward was behind the wheel of his June Bug Ford.
Woodward won the hometown rivalry in a three-mile event in which Spencer finished third.
Both men also tested their racing skills in a highlight of the day - a five-mile “Free-For-All.”
It was in that event that Spencer's big Buick smashed through the high board fence around the track on one of the turns and ran over a steep embankment. Newspaper accounts of the accident recalled that Spencer was pinned in the car and his mechanic, Martin Deitz, was tossed through the air a distance of 25 feet.
Spencer suffered cuts about the face and legs and was taken to his home in Charleroi. Deitz's left leg was broken, as was his nose. He was taken to Charleroi-Monessen-Hospital, where he was also treated for cuts that required 48 stitches.
Steen reported in his 1970 column that accidents were not confined to the track.
“A 13-year-old Donora boy, Steve Gumbush, was hurt when he fell from a car on his way home from the races and was hit by another vehicle,” he wrote.
Steen also noted that officials for the Labor Day races were: Judges – C.J. Morgan and A.N. Shuster, both of Monessen, and T.G. Brown of Belle Vernon; timers – D.R. Hormell of Charleroi, R.A. Johnson of Bentleyville and Carl Miller of Donora; scorers – S.O. Fleming of Fayette City, W.H. Seibert of Donora and G.H. Murphy of Monessen; referee – Kerfoot Daley of Charleroi, and starter – I.J. Cadwallader of Pittsburgh.
The Labor Day action in 1915 extended a tradition at the Belle Vernon Racetrack, which was built in 1907 for horse racing meets, Steen said.
“The track, built just at the end of the trolley line near Arnold City, was a half-mile in length and averaged from 45 to 50 feet in width,” he said in a March 4, 1967, column. “The grandstand, built by Charleroi Lumber Company, was 160 feet long, 48 feet wide and 24 feet high. A high wood fence circled the structure.”
That facility, Steen emphasized, was “one of the finest horse racing plants in the tri-state area at one time.”
“Belle Vernon, in the early 1900s, was on the Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia Racing Circuit,” he said. “Horses were brought to race at the track located near Fairhope, at the end of the old Belle Vernon-to-Monessen trolley line.”
The harness racing organization included 14 tracks in three states. Other tracks in Pennsylvania were located in Dawson, Greensburg, New Castle, Johnstown and Altoona.
The prime mover in the Belle Vernon Racing Association was Joseph A. Cook, who built a track on his own land in Washington Township, Steen said.
Cook was a descendant of Col. Edward Cook. a prominent figure of the Revolutionary War and Whiskey Rebellion who also served as a justice of the peace and a judge. Col. Cook founded Fayette City, which for many year was named “Cookstown” for him. He is buried at Rehoboth Cemetery in Rostraver Township.
Meets held at the harness racing track, usually for two seasons during the year, attracted thousands, Steen said. It was not unusual for 15,000 persons to witness the competition.
At least four stables were erected on the grounds owned by Joseph A. Cook, providing quarters for as many as 140 horses at one time.
“Horses were transported between the various tracks on the circuit and the program usually consisted of 12 trotting and pacing races during the four-day meets,” Steen said. “Prize money of $400 for each race was offered. All races were held in heats, with the horse clocked in the best three of five heats being declared the winner.”
Malcolm Ferguson was the meet programmer for Belle Vernon Driving Park Association, Steen said. Mr. Cook was president, C.N. Luce served as vice president, and William Allen fulfilled the duties of secretary.
There is no media mention of auto racing at the track after the early 1930s and it is uncertain when the grandstand and fence were razed.
Ensuing references called the site the Old Racetrack Field and said it was located in Washington Township, Fairhope or Arnold City as well as being “near Belle Vernon” or “just over the Rostraver Township line.”
A story in The Valley Independent on June 24, 1967 called attention to a softball game being rescheduled for “the Old Racetrack Field behind Steinberg's Super Market on Perry Avenue in Fairhope.”
On Jan. 12, 1967, the newspaper reported that the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department had contracted a circus to appear at “the Old Racetrack Field near Cook's Farm” for a fund-raising project.
A May 6, 1969 report by The Valley Independent said the Washington Township Recreation Board was considering the site, among others, for an expanded playground program for children of the community.
The Old Racetrack Field also was used for several years as a prime location for games in the Mon Valley Softball League and the Belle Vernon-Rostraver Softball League.
Efforts to subdivide and purchase the property years ago failed to come to fruition.
Today, the area is now fenced off, overgrown with weeds and brush and the site of a natural gas well is in place roughly in the area where home plate was located for softball games and practice sessions for youth baseball teams.
The property exists as a silent reminder of those proverbial glory days of the past.
(If you have memories to share or a story idea, contact Ron Paglia at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o The Valley Independent, Eastgate 19, Monessen, PA 15062.)
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.