Ewingville is not exactly a destination these days. While the Dunkin’ Donuts and 7-Eleven are popular businesses, and the three gas stations do well, downtown Ewingville is more of a stopping point to get gas or coffee en route to a destination, rather than the destination itself.
But it was not always this way. Over a century ago, Ewingville was quite the destination, for locals and folks from greater Trenton and beyond. The attraction? The Ewingville Driving Park, incorporated in 1875 by the Ewingville Driving Park Association. The “old race track” was a half-mile dirt oval built around 1880 and used for horse racing—the specific type of racing that we call harness racing. It was active until roughly the start of WW I.
Ewing and its surroundings were still very rural, and among the local farming activities, raising and breeding horses was fairly common. In the latter half of the 19th century, especially in rural communities, racing those horses was a popular source of entertainment—and a lucrative business for those who owned the track.
According to its state charter, the intent of the Ewingville Association was to improve the condition of horses and other stock; to provide grounds and stables for races, fairs and exhibitions; to welcome visitors; and to provide profits for the shareholders. While betting was illegal, people still paid to come to the track to be entertained by the sport.
There are few if any people still alive who recall this driving park well enough to describe it. However, it is well described in one of the definitive books on life in Ewing, Robert Reeder Green’s The Land Along the Shabakunks, which unfortunately is now out of print. That book is the source for much of the material in this month’s column.
The Ewingville Driving Park was located between Pennington Road and Clement Avenue, just north of what is now The College of New Jersey campus, and extending to Ewingville Road, where the Citgo Station is now. The park was surrounded by a six-foot tall wooden fence, made of vertical boards with an inch or two between each one (think, The Little Rascals).
At the far north end, backing up along Ewingville Road, were the horse stables and a few barns for hay storage. The stable doors opened toward the track and an area for exercising the horses.
The main entrance gate to the track was a big double-wooden gate towards the north end of the facility, not far from present-day Stuart Avenue, which accommodated people arriving in horse-drawn wagons.
Later, a trolley ran along Pennington Road from Trenton to Pennington, and people arrived at the track by electric trolley. Once in the gate, it was not far to the ticket office and on to the grandstand to watch the races. The judge’s stand was located near the grandstand.
There would be several races each day at the track, evidently organized by class, according to the estimated time the horses or trotters could run the mile, pulling the old fashioned sulkies (carts for the drivers) with high wheels.
Several area farms raised champion trotters, and the Ewingville Park was one place their speed could be tested. There were also other driving parks in the area, including The Trenton Driving Park located just a few miles down Pennington Road near the intersection with Parkway Avenue.
The front page of the afternoon edition of the Trenton Times for June 3, 1886 states that “The stages running from the city hall to Ewingville Driving Park were well filled yesterday with horsemen and others, and the racing is said to have been very interesting.” It also informs readers that “The Ewingville races are postponed, on account of this morning’s rain, to tomorrow at 1 p.m.” This was just below the announcement of President Grover Cleveland’s marriage the previous day. The Ewingville Driving Park was evidently newsworthy!
Local races like those at Ewingville peaked at the turn of the 20th century. By the late teens, the track was largely unused, and racing automobiles became the rage. In 1921, Clement V. Hill purchased the track and neighboring land to build two lakes and the Hillwood Inn nearby, thus opening another chapter of Destination: Ewingville.
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