A “Panic-Stricken” Stampede

Finding blog post topics is a challenge. I was leafing through an 1888 copy of The New York Sportsman when a headline caught my eye. It documented an embarrassing (and dangerous) episode that occurred in Chicago on Monday, July 16 of that year. The article was reprinted from a Chicago Tribune report, politely entitled “A Panic-Stricken Race-Crowd.” The original article was far less flattering, terming the event a “Ludicrous Panic at the West Side Driving Park.”

Garfield Race Track, 1890. From Chicagology.

I was born in Chicago, and grew up knowing almost nothing of the city’s horseracing history. The Chicago Driving Park was founded in 1863 and operated continuously under many different owners into the early 20th Century. The track eventually became known as Garfield Race Track, on a portion of today’s Garfield Park in the western part of Chicago.

The track was a trotting track, a hugely popular form of racing for urban communities in the 19th Century. Thousands of attendees would attend (and gamble) on the races, with the massive crowds often packed shoulder-to-shoulder. It created a situation that could easily devolve. Our Tribune reporter paints a scene that’s both humorous and exasperated:

“All sorts of cries were raised. Some one yelled ‘Dynamite!’ Another cried, ‘Mad Dog!’ Another, ‘The stand’s falling!’ Another, ‘A runaway horse!’ Another, ‘Anarchists!'”

The reporter tells that his notepad and paper were knocked from his hands in the stampede as racegoers crowded to climb the fences and escape the threat of doom. Never forgetting his role, our reporter immediately began interviewing people in the bedlam:

“Every one was asking what the trouble was and no one knew. ‘I had to run,’ explained one, ‘or I would have been knocked down and trampled on. I didn’t know what I was running for, but when I got going I made great time.'”

Racegoers, policemen, and even the bookmakers joined the estimated 12,000 stampeders. The bookmakers kept their priorities in the confusion:

“When the scare came they grabbed their cash-boxes and departed, and the way the clerks got out over the sides of their inclosures would have made a cat envious. Four of them even forgot to take their money drawers with them. But everything was found intact when they returned.”

Chicago Trotting Park (West Side Driving Park), Picturesque Chicago, by Chicago Engraving Company, 1882 From Chicagology.

But what was the mysterious cause of the stampede? The answer was nothing nearly as fearsome as an anarchist’s bomb:

“[A]s a matter of fact, not one man in a hundred knew what the trouble was until it was all over. The trouble was that the flooring under the gambling shed cracked. That made the noise and started the stampede.Some one heard it, and raised the cry that the stand was falling. In such a crowd it required little to make a scare. The stand was in no more danger of falling than it has been for years.”

Racegoers were lucky that there were no fatalities from the mad dash for the exits. The main result was a sheepish crowd returning to the track and a snarky report in local and national papers the following day.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail


Leave a Comment

  1. Great story on yet another forgotten track.
    Folks here in Charleston S.C. are equally oblivious of the once great Washington Racecourse located at Hampton Park. This track operated for over 100 years and was the center of Thoroughbred racing in the southeast.
    Thanks John!


  2. Excellent find. Hilarious in fact, and somehow poignant for our time. I think the quote that got me the most was;
    “I didn’t know what I was running for, but when I got going I made great time.’”


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