Prior to the Civil War sporting events were manifestations of everyday life: marksmen toted their hunting rifles to the shooting range, teamsters raced their wagons along dusty country roads and even fire departments dueled in city streets for recognition as the fastest rescue squad in town.
By the 1870s leisure activities began to evolve for their own sake. In Delaware baseball was the first team sport to come to the fore. Every town fielded its own nine: the Tammany Club of New Castle, the Newark Agiles, the Milford Academic, the Bumble Bee Club of Laurel, the Odessa Mutuals. By mid-decade the Every Evening in Wilmington was calling baseball the national game and reported, “the fever for this game is becoming more prevalent than for several seasons. Practice games are constantly going on in lots about town.”
While First Staters up and down the peninsula were picking up bats and balls, trotting races reigned as the premier spectator sport in the state. Trotting horses were America’s first sports super- stars and Delawareans turned out by the thousands to cheer - and bet - on some of the country’s top trotters at tracks in Wilmington, Middletown and Dover. Local horses also raced around ovals in Felton, Christiana and Hares Corner. When a 1/2-mile dirt track was leveled in Newark local residents expressed relief that “we will now know who has the fastest horse without endangering the lives of our people.”
By all accounts sports were booming in Delaware by the 1870s. On September 25, 1871 the state’s first sporting grounds opened at Scheutzen Park as the home of the Wilmington Rifle Club. The Park would soon be hosting wheeling matches, running matches, walking matches, foot and sack races and trotting races. In July of 1873 Scheutzen Park witnessed the birth of women’ s sports in Delaware.
In reporting on the running races it was recorded by Every Evening that “perhaps the crowning feature in the afternoon sport was the race between Mr. and Mrs. Moulton, 100 yards, this being the first opportunity of witnessing female pedestrianism. All eyes were centered on her. We are pleased to say that she proved that ladies could enjoy athletic sports and yet not be coarse and vulgar. Her lady-like deportment excited considerable comment. Mrs. Moulton is a fine-looking, fluty formed lady and judged from the time she made (13 3/4 seconds) she bids to be the fastest runner in America.”
Elsewhere croquet was sweeping the state; there were reports of playing even by moonshine. On the waters of the Christina and Delaware Rivers boatmen raced their yachts and skiffs. Crow merchants in Delaware City enjoyed a brisk business supplying birds for shooting matches. Indoors there was bowling at the Atlantic Garden on 224 King Street in Wilmington. Across the street at 104 Market Street were team and single-handed shuffleboard matches between Wilmington and neighboring cities. Down the street in the Hardings Billiard Room at 6th & Market billiards and finger billiards were extremely popular.
Delaware hotels staged many a sporting exhibition; there were boxing and wrestling matches in the Dobbinville Hotel in New Castle; the Washington Hotel in Wilmington hosted an in- ternational checkers match won by Wilmington’s Matthew Priest - 9 games to 3 with 33 draws - at $100 a side; and the National Hotel in Middletown witnessed the first visit to Delaware of the famed billiards players Joseph and Cyrille Dion. The Dions spotted some crack Delaware amateurs 90 out of 100 points and beat them routinely. If not overwhelmed by the quality of local billiard playing the invaders were said, however, to be much impressed with Delaware’ s magnificent peach orchards.
But as the decade drew to a close the novelty of sport was tattered. Attendance at the Scheutzen Park trotting races was dwindling and its Wheel of Fortune was doing the lion’s share of the business. Several meets had to be cancelled. The Quickstep Baseball Club, the darlings of Wilmington, was disbanded. In desperation, with the prospect of no games to bet on in 1880, the Every Evening re-printed an account of a Quicksteps glory game from 1876 explaining that “sport is at such a low ebb in Wilmington that raking over the old ashes is found more satisfactory than doing nothing.”
First State Sports Hero of the Decade: Bachelors Boat Club
Undoubtedly the greatest sporting venue in Delaware in the 1870s was the Christiana River, as the Wilmington stream was known until 1937. Large crowds gathered on wharves and bridges and lined her banks to view crew races. The first big race occurred in 1873 when the Falcon of the Undine Club tangled with the Thistle of the Pioneer Club. The course stretched from the 3rd Street Bridge to the Wilmington & Western railroad bridge and back, about 1 1/4 miles. Falcon reached the finish line first in the opening heat, winning 20 minutes to 20:20 and took the second heat more decisively, 19:30 to 20:30.
The next year a third club joined the Christiana regatta to race before a crowd estimated at 8000. The Bachelors Boat Club was only together one month and using a hastily acquired boat from Philadelphia. The new crew was lightly regarded among the bettors. They entered the 5-man gig class with Idalia and, averaging less than 140 pounds a man, thumped the Pioneer Club by 26 seconds in the 3-mile feature. Undine, the heavy betting favorite, was more than a minute back. In the 7-man barge class Falcon once again ruled over Thistle.
The Bachelors performance excited Wilmington boatmen. Their time was competitive with prominent crews around the country. A rematch was arranged for the fall of 1874 to further showcase the three boats. Bachelors raced to a three-length lead early but collided with Undine making the turn at the buoy, allowing the Pioneer Club to reach the finish line first. After great deliberations over many days a re-row was ordered and Bachelors prevailed by ten open lengths.
It was the end of the heyday of rowing on the Christiana. In 1876 Undine and Pioneer merged to form the Delaware Rowing Club but their challenge to Bachelors was not accepted. In 1879 the barges from the defunct rowing clubs were sold to the University of Virginia where they were quite successful again, this time on the James River.
The Battle For The Lady Fayre
Jousting began in 11th century France as a military exercise and soon spread throughout Europe. Despite church opposition for its savagery and occasional state banishments jousting continued through the Middle Ages until the death of King Henry II of France from jousting injuries in 1599.
Its revival, in a decidedly more humane form, occurred in Mount Solon, Virginia in 1821. Surely no sport in America has more romantic origins than jousting. A young Virginia maiden could not choose between the affections of two ardent suitors. So she decided to bestow her favor on the winner of a jousting contest.
The site chosen for the joust was the the Natural Chimneys, a rock formation in the Shendandoah Valley that resmebled medieval castles. The two contestants were to ride at three rings suspended from arches 30 yards apart. The young “knights” practiced for weeks and on the day of the event a large crowd turned out to view the spectacle.
Such a good time was had that it was decided to make the joust an annual event. From that day to this, on the third Saturday in August, the winning knight has earned the right to name and crown his “Queen of Love and Beauty,” making the Mount Solon jousting tournament the oldest continually held sporting event in America.
In Delaware riding tournaments were staged at St. Georges, Hares Corner, and elsewhere. Carriages bearing hundreds of spectators streamed to the tracks and fans would line the long, straight course behind fences. Near one end of the course, where the horse and rider would start, stood a stand where a man was at the ready with the starting flag.
Riders, competing under colorful jousting titles, lanced the three successively smaller rings - some as small as 1/4” in diameter - from iron hooks suspended below wooden arches while riding their charging mounts down the 90-yard course in not more than eight seconds. A single ride was known as a tilt and a tournament typically would feature five tilts per rider before lunch and five afterwards. As many as three dozen knights would compete with the one capturing the most total rings being declared the winner.
The hand of a fair maiden was soon ignored; by the 1870s the top prize at a Delaware riding tournament could be a $300 buggy. Perhaps it was this loss of tradition that sounded the death knell of big-time jousting in Delaware but with the advent of more modern sports riding tournaments began being supplanted as sporting entertainment in the last decades of the century.
Oh, and the fate of that first winning modern day knight and his “Lady Fayre”? Alas, it is lost to history.