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Harlem River Speedway

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

The Harlem River Drive runs north to south along the west bank of the Harlem River. But way before that it went by other names, such as the Harlem River Speedway and the Harlem River Driveway.

In 1894, the Harlem River Speedway and was built with the upper elite in mind. It stretched from 155th Street in Washington Heights to Dyckman Street in Inwood.

As early as the 1870s and 1880s, New York City had become a mecca for very wealthy rich men who enjoyed racing along the city’s streets. As early as the 1870's, Harlem Lane, which later became Seventh Avenue, was widely considered the best of the city’s roadways for racing, and wealthy men were able to sprint down the road at breakneck speeds. Pictured below is 113th and Harlem Lane.

As the city grew, the excessive speeds of both these horsemen and their carriages sparked growing alarm among many of the city’s residents.

In 1893, Mayor Gilroy offered a compromise location: a 2.3-mile track along the Harlem River. The new speedway was to be carved out of the bluffs overlooking the river. Varying in width the road would allow for several carriages to compete on the speedway at one time.

Of course, right off the bat New Yorkers were not happy that their tax dollars were going to be spent on a rich man's project when they could build some much needed schools. By the time it was built, in July of 1898, 25,000 kids were turned away from attending school due to overcrowding. But, as it had been argued earlier, New Yorkers of all classes would be able to watch the races from a safe distance on the sidelines.

The speedway became a tourist destination where people could watch horse and boat races, visit Highbridge and Fort George Amusement Parks, and enjoy the scenery along the Harlem River. Winter and summer, the cream of New York society brought their “trotting and pacing stock” to the speedway.

It was not until 1919 that the Harlem River Speedway was opened to motorists, who quickly dominated the field. After much complaints regarding pot holes, and three years later, it was paved and the race course was now given the name the Harlem River Driveway.

Today, Harlem River Drive, built for $38 million in 1940, include sections of the old Harlem River Speedway, linking the Henry Hudson Parkway, the George Washington Bridge, and the East River Drive as it is commonly called, serves as one of the most important north-south access roads in New York City.

Pictures from the Museum of the City of New York.


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