Mr. Local History took a ride down Washington Avenue in Bernardsville & Basking Ridge as we uncovered a story that we wanted to check out. Now if you know Washington Avenue and Washington Street, it’s really known as being a cut through for locals to avoid traffic at the center of Basking Ridge. As you drive the street, you see the cemetery and the Basking Ridge Fire Department, past Depot Place and a 287 crossing. Heading towards Bernardsville you continue past the cemetery at St. Bernards. No one would have ever thought that the road was once a harness racing speedway but it’s true. Harness racing between Bernardsville and Basking Ridge was a big deal in 1907 and if you lived along what was then Bernards Road, the street became known as the Speedway, a sixty foot wide dirt racing destination. We take you back to 1907 when a road was the areas horse racing drag strip.
The Bernards Road Horse Association
The Bernards Road Horse Association (B.R.H.A) as it was called was responsible for the sanctioning and coordination of harness racing along what today is know as Washington Avenue and Washington Street. The course ran from Prospect Street in Bernardsville to Depot Place in Basking Ridge turning right down Somerset Boulevard to Oak Stump Road. Some publications noted that the organization was also called the Somerset Country Road Horse Association (S.C.R.H.A.). Whatever you called it, the simple fact was that people wanted to race and this organization was going to bring it to them.
To raise funds for the horse racing event, the Bernards Road Horse Association ran what was stated as a “high class vaudeville” in the Bernardsville auditorium (Bernards Inn) on July 30, 1907. Under the direction of Dr. F.C. Sutphen, Frank Ballentine (Bernards Inn owner) and J. B. Dunster, the two were put in charge of constructing the course that passes the St. Bernards cemetery.
The construction cost for the speedway cost was estimated between $500 -$600. Typical dirt roads back in the day were around 30 feet wide so this course was truly going to be grand as the road width was doubled to 60 feet to accommodate harness racing.
With Bernardsville and Basking Ridge still part of Bernards Township, the event needed the endorsement of the Bernards Township Committee which authorized the use of the road to be converted to a “speedway” for the event. The designated track was 60 feet wide and autos were banned on the course. While the course was planned to be completed for July 4 celebrations, the actual running of their signature event took place the Saturday after Labor Day weekend on September 6, 1907. Think about that for a minute.
Prospect Street served as the starting point for the staging area. The spot was perfect as it was far enough from Main Street (Route 202) so not to cause a fuss, and there were stables along Prospect to stage the horses and equipment. As you travel down the speedway course you notice there’s first a dip, then an elevation for about a quarter mile past St. Bernards Church on the left. At the bend, the road flattens out for the final stretch. With the course set, all that was needed was the final sanctioning and approvals, contestants, and of course, funding.
To provide a little perspective, we took a ride down what is now Washington Avenue and Washington Street which sit on top of what was the course. What’s interesting to note is that if you travel the road at 25mph it took us one minute and 20 seconds from start to finish. Remember that when you see the times for the individual heats below.
Originally scheduled for the 4th of July, a preview event took place on the Saturday before Labor Day weekend, but this event didn’t take place until after the Labor Day weekend. On race day, two events and seven heats ran the course. Contestants gathered at the staging area on Prospect Street. Spectators gathered along the entire route to take in the the first day of the weekend. It was time for racing.
J. H. Seabring of Morristown served as the ‘Professional starter” for the event. Trotters would compete for bragging rights and prizes. It was state law that prizes be awarded as prize money was illegal in New Jersey. Jersey had been notorious for “rotten racing” run by the “gambling element”, hence the justification for the law.
Seven heats were run on the course with the Class A being the top race for the day. Average winning time on the course took about 1 minute 18 seconds to complete. Remember, we drove the course and it took us almost two minutes! The event lasted until dark.
Class A – Prize: Horse Cart
- Class A Winner – J.W. owned by F. Ballentine with a time of 1 minute 18 seconds
- Class A 2nd – Yellow Kid – H.A. Jaeger
- Class A 3rd – Emory – R. Price
B- Trot – Prize- Horse Clothing Suit
- First – Yorktown Bell – Owner J. Lauerson
- Second – Shiloh Boy – Mr. De Grew
- Third – Edward C. – Owner H.W. Armstrong
What Happened to the Speedway?
Our research found a few other events in 1907 on “the Boulevard speedway” as harness racing promoters added running road races throughout September. While horse racing events did continue in Morristown and Plainfield, the Bernardsville racing events shifted over to the Schley estate in Far Hills. As people began racing on common roadways, trouble soon reared its head. Accidents involving charging horses began to mount up, and as a result, communities across the land created driving or trotting parks.
Competition moved off roadways onto established perimeter tracks in Far Hills, Morristown and Plainfield, where large crowds gathered to see who would be the first to cross the finish line.The annual farmers race, first starting in Peapack later became the Far Hills Race Meeting, an event that in 2021 celebrated it’s 100th edition of the event. But before this event, there was the “Race on the Speedway” in Bernards Township.
On the Basking Ridge side Washington Street bears to the right and turns into Washington Avenue. A 4.3-acre owned tract on Washington Avenue was chosen as a new firehouse site in 1976 and was later obtained fro the township in exchange for the existing firehouse and a 2.3-acre, company-owned tract at North Finley Avenue and Allen Street. The new Basking Ridge No.1 firehouse opened in May 1985.