Leslies jan 30 1886 930.jpg

When The Albany Bob was a tremendous craze

Leslies bobsledding albany jan 30 1886

From an 1886 article in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. (larger version)

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.


Someone bring this back.

So, the Albany Bob is not a haircut?

Talk about deja vu all over again . . . I saw this pop up in my Twitter feed, and thought, "Waitaminnit, didn't AOA already cover the bobsledding craze?" No, apparently that was me. More and more, when I'm googling for answers to some local history question, I'm getting pointed to my own page and something I didn't remember I wrote.

You know, we could wait years for a conceptual historical site to be rediscovered in the middle of an industrial district that no one would want to visit.
We could get some snow and start an annual bobsledding event on Madison Avenue, the home of bobsledding, pretty much immediately.

Why is the man in the photo using a fan?

I'm sure State Street would have been a great hill to race down! I walked that hill many times in heavy snow...

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