If the post-Civil War years witnessed the birth of spectator games in Delaware, the 1880s must be acknowledged as the decade of participation. In 1880 one observer noted that, “the prospects for tennis and archery will come into general use this year, with much improved equipment in these games.” Gymnastics became so popular by 1882 that Every Evening editorialized that, “we should have a first-rate gymnasium here and we could if young men would take hold of the thing in popular spirit. If the time that well-dressed loafers spend in ogling women on Market Street were spent in healthful exercise it would be pleasanter for the women and better for their overbold admirers.”
Such athletic spirit indeed swept over Delaware. Young men banded into clubs to indulge in their favorite sports. Soon in existence were the Delaware Cricket Club, the Wilmington Bicycle Club and the Wilmington Camping Club. The oldest gun club in the state, the Wawaset Gun Club started in 1883. The Wilmington Croquet Club organized in 1888 and rented a plot of ground at the corner of 7th and Franklin for competition. The historic athletic clubs, the Delaware Field Club and the Warren Athletic Club, both organized in this decade.
July 4th was the greatest sports day of the year with bicycling, cricket, baseball, shooting matches and horse racing all available throughout the state. Indoors, in addition to gymnastics, there were two seasons: the roller skating season which started on October 1 and the swimming season which opened on May 1.
The Wilmington Natatorium opened at 4th and Jefferson in 1885 and the aquatics were instantly said to exceed even roller skating for “pure, unrestricted enjoyment.” Women were especially enamored with swimming. Whereas the women of the Delaware Field Club held their tennis tournaments in secrecy away from the critical male eye, women swimmers were much in evidence at the Natatorium. The services of a woman instructor were retained and she quickly had 35 ladies in her class. When an observer dropped in one day he reported, “Four or five ladies, one a swimmer, the other learners, took a dip at the Natatorium this morning. They enjoyed the clear water and, under the instruction of Madam Pagenstecher the neophytes made satisfactory progress. The swimming lady of the party was bold enough to essay the high dive, a feat many of the males prefer to avoid.”
In the manner of all converts, promoters of the new athletic fervor oft times took their passion to extremes. Thus the odd marathons of the day. Milford’s Dorsey Hall hosted a 12-hour pedestrian contest open to all for $100 in gold. In Wilmington, the sports halls featured days-long, go-as-you-please walking matches.
The greatest such event occurred in the Wilmington Rink in 1888. A track of tan bark and sawdust was laid out for the 75-hour marathon, refereed by world champion James Albert. Albert was the first man to run over 1000 kilometers in a six-day race, logging 621.75 miles earlier that year. Albert gave exhibitions and expounded on his diet necessary to triumph in such a contest: no solid food, not even bread; calves foot jelly; ten quarts of milk daily; beef extract; ice cream to keep his stomach cool; 30-40 bottles of ginger ale and daily raw oysters.
Five runners competed and 500 fans, many spending the night, looked on. The contestants averaged about two hours of sleep a day and Frank “Black Dan” Hart, led the entire way, winning by less than a mile before an enthusiastic crowd of 1300 on the final night. Hart, a superstar “pedestrian” who had set the world record by covering 565 miles in Madison Square Garden in a six-day race in 1880, covered just over 216 miles for the three-plus days in Wilmington.
At the Natatorium on June 7, 1887 Wilmington favorite John Pierson and United States champion Dennis Butler of Philadelphia met in a much-publicized marathon swim. Butler and Pierson were lifeguards together in Atlantic City in the early 1880s when both were credited with more than 80 ocean saves. Since then each had often engaged in lengthy river and ocean swims.
Now the game was to swim for two hours each night for six days with the winner taking $200 of the $250 purse. Butler entered the water first on opening night and entertained the crowd with feats of eating and smoking underwater, imitating a number of fish and demonstrating different styles of swimming. Predictably, perhaps, he battled through cramps much of the first night and Pierson swam to a half-mile lead. The national champion made up the advantage the next night and by the end had won handily.
With the demise of the Middletown Fair in 1883, Dover was the indisputable capital of Delaware horse racing throughout the decade. But the horsemen were now sharing their tracks and roadways with a new contraption that was rapidly eclipsing some of their popularity: the bicycle. Wheel clubs formed in Smyrna and Middletown and the Wilmington Wheel Club members were so successful on a national scale that Wilmington became a mecca for top riders.
The Delaware sports fan continued to greet tries at professional baseball with an impassioned indifference. In 1889 Wilmington baseball talent was consolidated into a single team which took on all comers. The club started by winning its first seven games but attendance was “distinctively Wilmingtonian - small.” Fans countered with complaints that the park was the most dreary place imaginable, littered with broken seats and filthy walls in need of paint. Professional baseball again fizzled in Wilmington.
Amateur baseball, on the other hand, was booming in other Delaware towns in the 1880s. Newark was “infested with the baseball epidemic” and it replaced horse racing as the prominent topic of conversation at the agricultural fairs. The Kent County teams in Dover, Smyrna, Milford and Camden engaged one another with nothing short of open hostility. During the State Fair upwards of 6000 would attend these spirited games with thousands of dollars changing hands among the spectators.
Finally, as the decade drew to a close, on October 26, 1889 a little event took place that was destined to become the most enduring sporting passion in Delaware: Delaware College, with all of 68 students, was demolished by the Delaware Field Club 74-0. The University of Delaware had played its first football game.
First State Sports Hero of the Decade: Warren Athletic Club
For five years during the 1880s the Warren Athletic Club staged track and field exhibitions that were the envy of cities ten times again the size of Wilmington. In the five-year run of the games, despite persistent bad weather that became the hallmark of the event, a slew of American and world records were toppled. Nationally prominent athletes paid their own way to Wilmington, with only the lure of gold and silver medals and the hospitality of the Warrens. The first exhibition, in the spring of 1885, featured dashes of 100 and 220 yards, runs of 1/4 and 1/2 mile, a hitch-and-kick, a tug-of-war, and a 2-mile
bicycle race for the championship of Delaware. The races were handicapped with lesser competitors granted either a head start or a reduction in distance.
In 1886 the Warren Games began attracting national athletes and a spring and fall meet were held. By 1887 the only Delaware winners remaining were in “Delaware state championship” events. That year Wilson Coudon, the North East, Maryland strongman, shattered the American record in the hammer throw with a toss of 102’ 7” and in the high jump William Byrd of the University of Pennsylvania soared 6’ 3/4” for a new national mark. Byrd narrowly missed a world record and the spring 1887 edition of the games was widely acclaimed as one of the finest meets ever staged anywhere.
The next year Coudon made 28 throws with different hammer weights, establishing 13 world records at the Warren games. In 1889 he again favored Delaware with a world record toss. Despite the excellence of the athletic performances and the first class accommodations provided by the Warren Athletic Club the games were never a financial success. Once again Delaware sports fans were chastised by the local press: “There was a fair attendance (roughly 750) of spectators filling the grandstand but not so large as the character of the sports and contestants merited or is due from the public of Wilmington.”
Unable and unwilling to shoulder the monetary burden of first-class national track meets the Warren Athletic Club stopped the games in 1889. It was the last time the track and field world would ever take notice of Wilmington.
Delaware Bicycle Racing in the 1800s
The first high-wheeled bicycles began appearing in Delaware in the 1870s. These unwieldy contraptions could only be urged with great exertion to speeds approaching 10 miles per hour, slower than a good distance runner. By 1880, however, the sport had gained enough enthusiasts to form the Wilmington Bicycle Club. The Club rented out the Old Foundry at 10th & Orange streets and built a bicycle track 10 feet wide and 210 feet around, making 25 laps to the mile.
Still, when the first Championship of Delaware bicycle race was staged later that year at Scheutzen Park no Delawareans were as yet accomplished enough riders to enter. A New York invader took home the title. By 1885 when the 2-Mile Bicycle Championship of Delaware, now part of the Warren Games, was open to only Delawareans there was only one entry. Harlow H. Curtis pedaled the solitary distance in 11 minutes and 52 seconds. In 1885 there were but 42 members in the Wilmington Bicycle Club.
Then, the mania hit. Wheel clubs sprang up throughout the state. The riders of the Wilmington Wheel Club were acknowledged as some of the country’s best. Wheelmen strove to cover each of America’s major roads in record times. Frank Dampman of the Wilmington Wheel Club set the 20-mile record on the Lancaster Pike in 1888 in 74:50.3 and won the prestigious 100-mile Buffalo to Erie road race against many strong entries from around the world. Also in 1888 B. Frank McDaniel recorded over 5000 miles on his bike, comparing with the best totals recognized in the country. And neither of these men was the top rider in Delaware; that honor belonged to Wallis Merrihew. McDaniel and Merrihew would trade championship honors for several years before establishing a cycle shop together on Market Street.
In 1889 Delawareans took five of the first 20 places in the nation’s biggest race in Newark, New Jersey and plans were made for Delaware to host its own 25-mile road race. The course was planned for the main road between Wilmington and Middletown and offered the most prize money in the country’s history, mostly in the form of new bikes, athletic equipment and even cigars.
Attendance was estimated at between 5000 and 8000. So many fans crowded the route in some spots that the 23 riders were forced to navigate single file through a small aisleway of humanity. The roads were sandy and pitted with stones and every rider tumbled at least once. There were several reports of collisions with racing fans as well on the road. William Van Wagoner, the United States Champion from Rhode Island was in 8th place at the mid-way point but overtook the leaders with four miles to go and beat Dampman to the finish line. Van Wagoner was carried off his wheel by the enthusiastic crowd; eventually he would join the Wilmington Bicycle Club.
The next year Van Wagoner repeated his triumph in the greatest bicycle race yet seen in this part of the country. To accommodate the eager crowds the 25-mile route ran from Wilmington to New Castle and back, beginning and ending on the track at Hazel Dell in South Wilmington. For most of the race Van Wagoner and Washington Seeds of Wilmington raced in tandem. They reached the Hazel Dell track together for two final trips around the oval. They traded slight advantages to the deafening screams of fans until Van Wagoner out-sprinted Seeds in the final 15 yards as the Wilmingtonian hit a puddle.
Seeds was relatively unknown in Delaware sporting circles before this performance but within a year he would be the state champion cyclist and establish a record time between Wilmington and Dover of 3 hours and 32 minutes. By this time bicycle racing was the dominant sport in Delaware. Thousands would turn out for the big races to cheer the colors of their favorite club.
In addition to the great road races regular events were held on the horse tracks. Although not suited for the “silent steeds” some impressive records were set by top riders from across the country. At the kite track in Kirkwood Carroll B. Jack of Wilmington set the state record for the mile in 2 minutes and 22 seconds, averaging over 25 mph.
Indoors the Old Foundry had evolved into the Pyle Cycle Academy with indoor races and training facilities. Starting in 1896 the Academy sponsored the first great Delaware exhibition for bicycles, the modern-day car shows of the 1800s. “Come see 10,000 wheels,” gushed the promotional flyers. Proceeds went to the construction of a first class banked, cinder track at the Riverview grounds. That year 2000 fans packed the new track for regular Friday night races under the lights. Delaware sports fans were enjoying the best cycling in America.
But just like that it was over. Even without competition from the automobile bicycle racing died out in Delaware before the turn of the century. It would be nearly another 100 years before sporting America would cast its eye back to Delaware for bicycle racing.
The First Delaware Thanksgiving Football Game
Traditional Thanksgiving football kicked off in Delaware in 1889 when the top athletic clubs, the Warren Club and the Delaware Field Club, tangled on the Union Street grounds. Both teams were about equal in weight but the Warrens had not even known how to play football until two weeks before the game. Despite the impending mismatch 700 people turned out for the contest, played through a steady downpour.
Out in the quagmire the more experienced Delaware Field Club did not hesitate to take advantage of their opponents’ ignorance of some of the technicalities of the game. An impressive winning margin, it was thought, would inspire terror in upcoming opponents. Even the umpire was woefully lacking in the rules and occasionally turned to the Field Club for help with some calls. All told, Warren was lucky to get out of the first half trailing only 40-0.
After the ten-minute intermission the game Warren Club, dressed in canvas suits with blue stockings and caps, grew accustomed to the game. They tackled better and even gained some yards with their primitive offensive thrusts. Delaware’s first Thanksgiving game ended with the final score 68-0.
Roller Skating Mania
With the introduction of the ball-bearing wheel in 1884 the popularity of roller skating zoomed. An indoor rink was hastily built in Wilmington at 11th and Madison and the enterprise paid for itself inside of three months. Flushed with optimism, investors established the Citizens Skating Rink at 4th and Washington before the winter was out.
Roller skating races and rink polo matches, in addition to the recreational skates, were well-patronized. But the skating craze, which lasted two or three years in most cities, didn’t even grip Wilmington for one season. Skating was all but dead in Delaware by the spring of 1885. The town could support one rink but not two. The flashy Citizens Skating Rink was razed in 1888.