The corner of Center Street and Washington in Bath features a parking lot for the Five County Credit Union.

Before my time this was the site of the Bath Opera House, a popular movie theater that many older folks remember fondly. Before that was the Alameda, a large open building 150 feet long and 80 feet wide, with a half-circle roof similar to a Quonset Hut.

I have in my collection an invitation to the 1894 Bath High School alumni banquet, held at the Alameda. As the largest public building in town, it held grange fairs, political rallies, balls, graduation ceremonies, and banquets, much as the Middle School gymnasium does today. In later years a large stage was added, and the Alameda was used for theater productions, operas, concerts, and probably Vaudeville. However, it was originally built in 1882 as a roller skating rink.

I think of roller skating as a 1970s phenomenon, with girls in short shorts rolling down a boardwalk in old “Charlie’s Angels” reruns.  But roller skating was a big hit with the Victorians, and the fad led many towns in England and America to build rinks.  The Alameda was sponsored by several of the old town fathers, such as John Patten and Thomas Morse, who wanted the biggest and best skating rink in Maine.

While roller skating was exciting and featured many a spill (one can imagine the shame and horror of a Victorian lady falling splay-legged on her back, skirt flying, knees and ankles exposed to the world), more violence was needed.  Soon the sport of roller polo became an even bigger craze than skating itself.  According to Owen’s 1936 “History of Bath,” the city fielded a professional team called The Alamedas, which counted every citizen of Bath as its fan base.  The game was introduced locally by Fred D. Hill, who brought the game from Cornell University.

Roller polo was a rowdy sport. Basically hockey played on roller skates, the players used a hard rubber ball and thin sticks similar to those used in field hockey today.  Normal roller skates were used – the metal type you see in antique stores that strapped onto normal shoes.  Players wore wool jerseys and leggings, with only shin guards as protection.  Only the goalie wore a mask and chest pad.  It was an extremely fast and violent game, with fights, black eyes, and missing teeth a common sight.

Roller polo enjoyed extreme popularity in Bath and around the country, and The Alamedas won many a Maine championship.  Local boys dreamed of becoming stars, and a couple went on to play professionally in the National Roller Polo League.  Unfortunately, the popularity of the sport died as quickly as it began.  The Maine league collapsed a few weeks into the 1898 season, due to waning interest and attendance.

“It is as if the game,” Keith Hogdon wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1972, “had sunk without a trace. Gone now are the small wooden arenas heavy with smoke and the deafening noise of roller skates, the crunch of bone on hardwood and the rabid, rollicking crowds. … All that remain of those glory days are some fading memories, a few mementos and newspaper clippings.”

The Roller Derby craze of the ’70s didn’t last long either: roller skate-based sports don’t seem to have sticking power in the USA. But a game similar to roller polo is still very popular in South and Central America.

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