Something to toss out when someone brings up Olympic bobsledding over the next few weeks (because that will happen, obviously): bobsled racing started in Albany.
So says historian and bobsled expert Christopher Lindsay, who's scheduled to give a talk at the Fort Orange Club February 8 about the first bobsled races. Lindsay, a former deputy executive director of the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation, says bobsleds were first used in the lumber business to haul trees. Eventually someone figured out they could be used to transport people -- and quickly -- down hills.
The image above is from an 1886 article in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. It depicts a bobsled running down the Madison Avenue hill in Albany. Explained Lindsay to us this week: "Imagine a large block of wood and steel going down Madison Avenue with no control. There was a whole undercurrent of broken arms and broken legs." Lindsay said the sleds were eventually outlawed by the city after an alderman's sled accidentally struck and killed a child.
For a long time Switzerland was thought to be the birthplace of bobsled racing. And as it happens, even today the history section of the Wikipedia article about bobsledding includes much about St. Moritz, Switzerland and nothing about Albany, New York. But back in the 1990s then-city historian Virginia Bowers and Christopher Lindsay turned up newspaper clippings indicating that bobsledding in Albany pre-dated the sport in Switzerland -- and that a man from Albany, Steven Whitney, had helped establish the sport in the European country. [Gazette 1997]
A few years back Carl Johnson over at My Non-Urban Life pulled together a collection of accounts from bobsledding's heyday in Albany during the latter part of the 19th century. Among those accounts, a New York Times article from 1889 about Albany's 'Bob' Carnival:
In Albany the bob sled has probably reached its greatest development. Built on a series of hills the city is naturally adapted for coasting, but before last Winter the sport was not openly permitted by the authorities. When the Common Council last Winter the granted the use at night of half a dozen streets "bobbing" became a tremendous craze.
The article includes descriptions of the sleds and the festivities surrounding them. It sounds like people had a lot of fun.
Christopher Lindsay's talk at the Fort Orange Club February 8, a Saturday, is at 2 pm. Admission is $10. The event is sponsored by the Friends of the New York State Library.
Thank you to the New York State Library for digging up the image.
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