I first wrote about the Island Trotting Park back in 2010. This was a harness racing track located in Ligonia in the 1850s, in the area where you’d find the Sprague terminal today (think of the fuel storage tanks that are painted with the geometric designs).

An advertisement for upcoming races at Island Trotting Park, published in the Boston Herald in September of 1857. South Portland Historical Society image

Jackie Dunham and I recently took this on as a research project. It has been a particularly tricky piece of South Portland’s past to document, in part because the race track existed before the Civil War.

The trotting park also doesn’t seem to have any particular set name, which has led me to believe there was likely no signage at the entrance. We have found a variety of names for the park, including Baldwin’s race track, Island Park, Island Track, Bailey’s Island Park, and Floyd & Bailey’s Island Park.

Some of these names seem to indicate simply who had taken on the planning of a race that was taking place.

Whether researching a piece of community history or your own family’s genealogy, sometimes it takes just one lead to break through those walls that we sometimes hit. In the case of Island Trotting Park, that piece was a news article that Jackie found from the 1890s in which we finally found more information on the man who built the track.

In March of 1857, William Baldwin, listed as a railroad subcontractor, bought the 75-acre lot in Ligonia from Samuel Barrell. While the piece of property is not actually an island, it was bordered by Long Creek on one side, the Fore River on another, and the creek that flows through Calvary Cemetery passed along the bottom edge of the property, widening as it emptied into the Fore River.

Passage over the creek was by bridge, giving the property the feel of an island. Much of the creek area has been filled over the years, so the “island” feel is now gone.

According to the 1890s article, Baldwin immediately set to work constructing the oval mile track with the financial support of several Portland businessmen. According to the article, “This was a splendid track, the natural soil being a soft reddish loam and the sub soil of peculiar elasticity, which made it very fast and easy for horses’ feet. Work them as hard as they would, a sound horse never got sore on the track.”

Another description of the track is given in “A Trip to Portland” by J.A. Carnes, published in 1858: “I found myself in a newly finished and spacious trotting park or race course, which my informant said was second to none in the United States. It is just one mile in circumference, with a good, substantial wooden fence, the track for horses and vehicles about fifty feet in width, and the ground hard, smooth, and perfectly level. It is partially surrounded by a wood, the side facing Portland being separated by a branch of the river. In short, it is a beautiful location, with picturesque scenery in every direction, and just such a spot as I should think would be desired for the purpose intended. Before we left, a gentleman in a light buggy entered the premises to try the speed of his ‘racker.’ He started, and we followed in our vehicle, making the time a little over three minutes, arriving at the judge’s stand not more than ten or fifteen rods behind our leader in the buggy. In taking our departure from the race-grounds, where probably at different times swift horses with their riders may win or lose many thousand dollars for those who employ them, and congregated multitudes will look on in exciting gaze upon the sport as unconcerned spectators, or betting upon this or that horse in all the intense anxiety …”

Interestingly, the first race that we could find at the track wasn’t a horse race at all, but instead a 10-mile foot race between Mr. John Stetson of Boston and Mr. John Munday of St. John, New Brunswick. Luckily an article about the race gave the split times for the miles, so with the winner, Stetson, running about six-minute miles, we can conclude that he was indeed a man and not a horse.

The first horse race that took place at Baldwin’s race track, now called Island Trotting Park for this event, was a three-day affair, on Sept. 9, 10 and 11, 1857. According to a news report after the second day of racing, “The track was in good condition, and the trot was witnessed by one of the most respectable assemblages of the season. The near proximity to the city, and delightful location of this Park, together with the long experience of Mr. Brownell, as the popular proprietor of the Cambridge Track, and his well known reputation as a caterer of public amusements, must always insure a good attendance of the right sort.”

There were some notable events designed to draw in a bigger crowd, such as a race that included a trotting moose, known as “The Galloping Ghost.” The moose was trained to pull a sulky and reportedly only the fastest horses could beat it.

The biggest race event ever to take place at the Island Trotting Park was in 1859. Well-known Maine horseman, Dr. George H. Bailey, organized the event. At the time, Bailey operated a livery stable in Portland known as Floyd & Bailey, on the corner of Federal and Market Streets. Bailey had attended an exhibition race in Boston and convinced the owners to bring the horses here to Cape Elizabeth for what he guaranteed would be a well-attended event with admission ticket prices at $1 apiece.

The following excerpt was taken from an old newspaper, The Eastern Argus, dated Aug. 26, 1859: “Great Sporting Day in Maine – Flora Temple and Princess to Trot in Portland! These world-renowned horses will trot at Island Trotting Park, Portland, September 1st, for a purse of $1,000 … the citizens of this state will now have an opportunity of witnessing a contest between the two fastest trotters on the turf. These trots are patronized by the best portions of the community in New York and other cities … this will be a faster race than will ever, in all probability, be made again in this state, and the only opportunity to see the little bay mare, and her California rival, who have astonished the world with their unprecedented speed.”

It was very unfortunate for the track, and for the financial feasibility of any event planned there, that the Western Promenade is just across the Fore River, providing an uninhibited view of races for anyone, with no fee for admission.

Races continued at the track through 1860 and 1861, but as time went on, the reputation of the track went downhill, as rowdy and drunken spectators became associated with the operation. As the Civil War broke out in 1861, times were changing. The last race that took place at the track was on Aug. 2, 1861. This late date was surprising to me as the 5th and 6th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiments had mustered in on this site in the summer of 1861.

The park was free for the race in August, however, as the soldiers had already shipped out. The 5th Maine had organized at Island Park – they mustered in on June 24, 1861, and shipped out to Washington, D.C., on June 26. The 6th Maine had organized at Island Park, as well – they mustered in on July 15, 1861, and left for Washington, D.C., on July 17. The entire land area that made up Island Park was leased by the state of Maine. The state officially named the site Camp Abraham Lincoln in 1862, later changing the name to Camp Berry.

Do you have information, photographs, or artifacts to share related to South Portland’s history? Please contact the South Portland Historical Society by email at [email protected], by phone at 207-767-7299, or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106. If you have items to donate, please call to arrange for a contactless drop-off of the donation. Thank you.

Kathryn Onos DiPhilippo executive director of the South Portland Historical Society.

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