Albany, Home of Bobsledding

Just in time for the Olympics, this post is. Or it will be if I backdate it.

Last run

The folks at All Over Albany dug up an amazing test of the knowledge of eighth-graders in Albany in 1882. Not least amazing, besides the assumption that schoolchildren should know how to divide opium to the smallest scruple, was this instruction: “Write an exercise of 15 lines on the pass time of bobsledding.”

Several years ago, it was asserted that scenic Albany, New York, and not scenic St. Moritz, Switzerland, was the original home of the bobsleigh. Writing on the debate back in 2002, the Times Union’s Tim Farkas said a report from Albany City Historian Virginia Bowers listed the year of origin as 1885. This test would make it clear it was on the minds of Albanians at least three years earlier than that. The story goes that the earliest bob sleds were adapted from their use as lumber sleds, where two short (“bobbed”) sleds were linked together and hitched to teams of horses that could carry enormous loads of lumber.
It certainly makes sense –


– in 1872, Albany’s Lumber District, stretching north of Colonie Street along the Erie Canal (now Erie Boulevard – think Huck Finn’s Warehouse), was home to 47 lumber dealers, 35 of which were strictly wholesale, and 13 of which had multiple yards. That’s lots of lumber, and lots of sleds, and it wouldn’t be surprising if one day someone noticed how nicely one of those “bob sleds” could slide down the snow-packed hills. (In the days before the automobile, far from plowing the snow, cities packed it down to make the best sledding surface possible, and travel was usually much smoother in winter than any other time of the year. The thaw of spring brought rough sledding, a phrase still with us to this day.)

 Harper’s Young People, apparently a juvenile version of the venerable magazine, wrote in its March 17, 1885, edtiion, “‘Bobbing’ Under Protection of the Law.”

“. . . American boys and young men are rapidly pushing the bob sled to the front as an American institution. Last month the Common Council of Albany, the city of hills as well as the capital of the Empire State, passed an ordinance making it lawful to use, every evening after half past seven, certain streets within the town limits for bobbing or coasting. Therefore doth the heart of the young Albanian rejoice to know that now, instead of running the risk of being arrested for indulging in his favorite pastime, the once-dreaded police are detailed to clear the track for him. The deepest snow of the season lay on the ground the week this marvellous change was wrought, and every night the favored streets echoed to the shouts of the happy ‘bobbers’ and to the clanging of their gongs of warning.

“A ‘bob,’ we may here explain for the benefit of some of our readers, is simply a long board set on two independent runners. The picture on the front page of this number shows one of the ordinary kind. The sleds of the Albany boys are provided with appropriate names, such as Avalanche, Polaris, Dynamiter, etc. The largest, called the Brooklyn Bridge, measures twenty-nine feet in length, weighs over five hundred pounds, and will carry thirty-three persons. When it is remembered that some of the Albany hills are ten and twelve blocks long, the speed which a ‘bob’ of this description will attain can be imagined. Already, and in spite of every precaution, several accidents have occurred, some resulting fatally. The streets devoted to the sport are lined with spectators, and the horse-cars on a route crossing the favorite avenue are withdrawn early in the evening. On the other hand, many of the citizens are in favor of repealing the law, and it is probable that the privilege of bobbing under legal protection will not last as long as this winter’s snow.”

On January 21, 1886, by anyone’s account very early in the history of
the bobsled, the New York Times wrote about “Albany’s ‘Bob’ Carnival –
A Parade of Coasting Clubs and a Night on the Hillside.” The references
to “old” clubs and the tremendous development of the sleds make it
clear that this sport had not appeared suddenly the previous winter:

“Albany, N.Y., Jan. 20 – The ‘bobbers’ are holding high carnival
to-night. In Albany the bob sled has probably reached its greatest
development. Built on a series of hills the city is naturaly adapted
for coasting, but before last Winter the sport was not openly permitted
by the authorities. When the Common Council last Winter granted the use
at night of half a dozen steep streets, ‘bobbing’ became a tremendous
craze. Great preparations were made weeks ago for the enjoyment of
coasting on a huge scale this season. The streets, however, have not
heretofore been favorable for the coasters on account of the light fall
of snow, but yesterday’s heavy storm put the hills in splendid
condition, and the town will be wild over bob sliding before next week.
Tonight the coasting clubs had a parade and carnival, picturesque and
novel in character, which was witnessed by thousands. Eighty clubs,
with gayly decked machines and bright uniforms, marched through the
principal streets with bands, torches, lanterns, and a blaze of
fireworks. At the head of the line was the stalwart politician, James
W. Bentley, in one of the oldest sleighs in the city. Behind the
mounted staff came the 80 bobs, divided into two sections, with bands,
the machines being arranged in a double line, 10 feet apart, with a
sled in the centre at intervals of 100 feet.

“An Albany bob is not simply a plank fastened upon two hand sleds. It
is an elaborate machine, 15 to 40 feet long, gorgeous in fancy paint,
gold lettering, and cushions, and equipped with complicated steering
apparatus, head lights, steel brakes, and trip gongs. Many of the bobs
are surmounted by handsome canopies, hung with lanterns, adorned with
rosettes and festoons of evergreens. Besides these decorations which
were displayed by nearly all of the clubs a few of the older and more
powerful organizations had mounted upon their machines transparencies
bearing the club name and some motto or emblem illustrative of the
club’s age or prowess. Many of the men in the line wore the picturesque
toboggan costumes. The ‘Mikados’ paraded in Japanese suits and had
Japanese decorations on their bob. While most of the machines were
drawn by the members of the clubs, the heavier ones were preceded by
gayly caparisoned horses. The pioneer bob, the ‘Monitor,’ was drawn by
a horse draped with the American flag and ridden by a youth of
Ethiopian extraction. The sled was covered with a red canopy, with
evergreen festoons and a row of Chinese lanterns along each side. At
the forward end was a transparency, inscribed with the club name, and
bearing a picture of the original monitor of naval fame. On the rear
end was a similar transparency bearing the legend ‘The Pioneer Bob.’
The ‘Brooklyn Bridge,’ the largest bob in America, was not in line as
expected, because it is not finished. It is 40 feet long, strongly
trussed, equipped with steering apparatus before and behind, weights
about 1,000 pounds, and will carry 40 people, so that when loaded it
will rush down the hill with the increasing impetus of a projectile of
nearly three tons weight. Several bobs in line were over 30 feet long.

“As the long and unique line rounded along North Pearl-street and up
Clinton-avenue the sight called to mind the scenes in the Montreal
carnivals. At many points fireworks were discharged and colored lights
burned. The procession came to an end at the corner of Madison-avenue
and Hawk-street, when the carnival proper began. Until nearly midnight
the steep hill stretching out half a mile to the river was alive with
flying bobs carrying hilarious loads, and watched by crowds that packed
the sidewalks. The snow was rather heavy for very fast time at the
start. Later in the evening the track worked into better condition. The
parade, it is said, was the first of the kind in the United States.”

The Times years later wrote a glowing review of Albany’s Winter Carnival on February 4, 1888, which proved less than prescient regarding the permanence of the Carnival but usefully notes the large number of bobbing clubs then in existence: “Albany’s first attempt at a Winter carnival was so successful that it is likely to become a regular annual attraction for the local population, for legislators, and for visitors . . . it made a specialty of bobsledding, with competition by nineteen Albany bobbing clubs, besides others from a distance . . . . Albany must be permanently reckoned among the carnival cities, and will no doubt henceforth be visited by many lovers of midwinter frolics who cannot go as far as Montreal and Quebec.”

Whish’s “Albany Guide Book” of 1917 called it “coasting,” and said, “This winter pastime was popular with the early settlers and continued to be so for years until the city’s growth and the street cars made it too dangers. In 1887 a winter carnival was held which was notable for the ‘bob sled’ parade, in which the Beverwyck, 28 feet long, and the Brooklyn Bridge, 40 feet long, took part. The coasting was done on Madison avenue hill, which was roped off and policed for safety. In 1888 an ice palace was erected in Washington park and a carnival held on January 15. In 1889 on February 2, during a carnival, the sled races on Madison avenue were marred by fatal accidents and Charles O’Hara was killed by the ‘bob’ [of] Alderman Connors. Thereafter the sport was discontinued because of the danger at the street crossings and the many serious accidents which kept occurring.”

While I’m doubtful that the early settlers indulged in bobsledding (after all, their free time was taken up selling sugar cookies to the Indians), these accounts of the long-forgotten bobsledding craze of the 1880s really make me wish we could still go sledding down Madison Avenue, banging gongs, frightening (and occasionally killing) horses and passersby and generally having a grand time.

There was even a landmark legal case, Toomey v. The City of Albany, 1898. Toomey’s horse and sleigh, standing on a public street, were struck and damaged by a bobsleigh engaged in coasting down the street. Toomey claimed that the accident was due to the city’s negligence in allowing the street to be used for coasting. The court found that “prevention of fast driving and the like is a part of the police business of the city. And a negligent performance of that business or duty is not a ground for action against the city.” I think the law has changed since then, but it’s still a not a good idea to tie up your horse on a bobsled run, and that’s why you rarely see horses at modern winter Olympics. 

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2 thoughts on “Albany, Home of Bobsledding

  1. LB

    A modern revival of the Winter Carnival would be a wonderful idea, except today we can’t be sure whether the chosen weekend will be below zero and coated in an inch-thick layer of ice, or 75 degrees.

    1. Carl Post author

      Sadly true. Even in the ’80s, Syracuse had a hard time timing winter carnivals, and always seemed to hit the February thaw.

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