Images of this Property
17 images: Press to view larger or scroll sideways to see more. Contributions from the Providence Historic Aerial Viewer and the Rhode Island Photograph Collection, Providence Public Library (aerial, postcard, photo 1, photo 2, photo 3)
Copyright prevents the display of these images: Gallery: Horse Racing in Rhode Island — ProvidenceJournal.com
About this Property
Narragansett Park was located on the the Pawtucket, East Providence border — six miles from Providence and 36 miles from Boston. It was a glass enclosed facility with a capacity of 15,500 — 10,000 in the grandstands; 5,500 in the clubhouse; and 1,500 in the turf club. The track was a one mile dirt oval and the stables could accommodate 1,200 horses.1
Taking a Gamble
Judge James Dooley worked for 15 years to pass legislation that would allow horse race gambling in RI. Speculating that the necessary bill would one day pass, Judge Dooley and mill operator Walter O’Hara bought 130 acres in Pawtucket – what was once the site of the What Cheer airport. The land cost them $150,000.2
The park cost $1,200,000 to build. The track was a one mile oval with footing of sandy loam. The width of the stretch was 90 feet 6 inches. The width of the backstretch was 70 feet 2 inches. Width of the turns was 87 feet. The distance from the judges’ stand to the first turn was 360 feet and 1,050 feet from the last turn. The track had an automatic starting gate and camera finish, which Narragansett was first to adopt.3
The Park opened on August 1, 1934, just two months after the proper legislation passed to allow horse gambling. During its first few years the park was quickly profitable.4 In less than 2 years it posted a net profit of $2,017,381.54. In 1934 Rhode Island received over $800,000 in revenue from the track, which was more than 10% of the state’s entire budget.5
Races such as the Narragansett Special, Rhode Island Handicap, Governors Handicap, King Phillip Handicap, Providence Stakes, Narragansett Nursery, and Sophomore Special were held at Narragansett Park. Famous horses such as Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Alsab, War Relic, and Gun Bow raced there. Crowds of 40,000, sports celebrities, movie stars, and millionaires such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gergig, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, and Milton Berle appeared for races. There were even racetrack trains to bring racing enthusiasts to the park run from Boston and New Haven.6
The track began a slow decline in the 1950s. On October 9, 1960, two of the track’s barns burned down. Ten horses were killed and the damages were estimated to be between $350,000 and $500,000. Many horses fled the barns and ran into neighboring yards and streets. By the 1970s the track had fallen upon hard times. Due to reduced public interest in thoroughbred racing, competition for racing dates with other New England tracks, and competition from greyhound racing and state lotteries for gambling dollars, attendance dropped and handles decreased rapidly. This led to an inability to attract high-quality horses. The physical condition of the track deteriorated as well. On March 23, 1976, 36 horses died when a fire spread from the hay barn to two adjacent stables. On Labor Day 1978, the final day of the racing season, the track drew only 2,882 patrons.7
On June 29, 1979, the stockholders of Narragansett Park voted to sell the track to the City of Pawtucket for $5.6 million. The city used a grant to buy and improve the land, which they sold below market value to stimulate employment and business investment. On May 30, 1981, the clubhouse was destroyed by a suspicious fire.8
- The Great American Race Track War: What happened to the most profitable horse track in the country?, Town & Country, June 2017
- Remembering Narragansett Race Track (YouTube), The Rhode Show, April 2019
- Narragansett Park, Preserving History (YouTube), Corrie McDermott, 2007
All that remains of the park in 2021 is the grandstand, which was used as a flea market and later a discount store. The grandstand building has been unoccupied since 2014.
#In the News
Around New England: Building #19 at Narragansett Park, Another Race Lost
Boston.com | November 15, 2013
Where architecture critic William Morgan laments the demise of Building 19 and also reminisces about the former race track
The uniqueness of New England is taking another hit as yet one more beloved and quirky regional business is unable to survive in a commercial world dominated by the internet, Walmart, and globalization. For just shy of half a century, Building #19 has sold all sorts of odd lots from warehouses in eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. As its founder Gerry Elovitz, a.k.a. Jerry Ellis, a once unemployed appliance salesman who started the company in 1964, cheerfully boasts, “We profited from mishaps and mistakes.” (Yes, Building #19 did sell the pieces of glass that were removed from Boston’s Hancock Tower for $100 each.)
The store started in a warehouse in the old Hingham Shipyard on Route 3A just 15 miles south of Boston (now the site of a shopping mall, restaurants, condos, and a marina all in cookie cutter buildings that might be in Texas or Oregon as well as New England). Since the structure was already marked Building #19, Ellis saw no point in spending money to paint over the sign. Through the years, the company prided itself on homemade-looking signs featuring critters like the “Good Stuff Chimp” and slogans such as “Free Admission on All Days Ending with the Letter Y” and “We Now Accept Credit Cods.” That freewheeling “Suffer A Little, Save A Lot” approach also characterized Building #19’s actual buildings — old mills and tired industrial structures. (Ellis dubbed his retail emporium “America’s laziest and messiest department store.”)
Yet, the Pawtucket store building has quite a glorious history. This enormous structure on a very flat piece of land had been part of Narragansett Park, a thoroughbred horseracing track. The mile-long oval was built on the site of Rhode Island’s first state airport, named What Cheer (for the greeting with which the Narragansett Indians hailed Roger Williams when he set foot in Providence). The moving of the airport to Warwick coincided with the state’s reinstatement of pari-mutuel betting after a 30-year ban.
Narragansett Park opened on August 1, 1934. Building #19 occupies the main grandstand, but the nearly 200-acre complex had a score of barns and could handle 1,000 horses. (The name carried over from an earlier racetrack in Cranston, Rhode Island, that in 1915 became America’s first paved automobile speedway.) Despite The Great Depression, the track was popular; thoroughbreds such as Whirlaway and Seabiscuit ran there for Newport and New York society in such contests as the King Phillip Handicap and the Jeanne d’Arc Stakes (for fillies).
New England could not sustain a large thoroughbred racing industry after World War II, and by the 1960s the Pawtucket track was barely holding on. It folded in 1978, following a disastrous fire two years before that killed three dozen horses. The playground for the sport of kings was developed as an industrial park and Building #19 moved in. True to Ellis’s laid-back approach to design, one of the boards that posted the racing odds still graces the ceiling above the bargain tables. And a sign at the entrance equates Building #19’s run against the malls and the big box stores as a horse race. Alas, this was a Retail Derby that these Yankee retailers were doomed to lose.
Captured October 16, 2021 from https://archive.boston.com/lifestyle/house/blog/dne/2013/11/around_new_engl_9.html
Captured October 16, 2021 from http://www.horseracing-tracks.com/tracks/ri/homeNar.html ↩
Written from facts and prose taken off a page by Corrie McDermott, source now defunct. Captured in 2009 from http://www.intothesunstudio.com/narragansettpark/, now found on Archive.org at https://web.archive.org/web/20091122065109/http://www.intothesunstudio.com/narragansettpark/ ↩
Captured October 16, 2021 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narragansett_Park ↩
Corrie McDermott ↩