On May 25, 1891, the Woodland Park racetrack in Woodland (soon to be renamed Lacey), four miles east of Olympia, holds its first horse races. The track, sometimes referred to as a driving park, is the vision of Isaac Chase "Ike" Ellis (1832-1910), a former Olympia mayor, pioneering logger, property owner, and lover of horses. The land for the park was purchased in 1890 and the following spring quickly transformed into a fully functional racetrack with stables, a clubhouse, and barns. The first four-day racing session attracts substantial media attention but only light attendance. Ellis's vision of a popular racetrack will never be realized, and he will sell the property in 1900. Subsequent owners will also fail to achieve racing success, but the track will remain until 1976 when the land is developed as a housing subdivision.
Why Not Horse Racing?
In 1889, Ike Ellis, a former mayor of Olympia and pioneer in the timber industry, decided the quickly growing area just east of Olympia in northeastern Thurston County needed a racetrack. Known at the time as Woodland, the area would soon come be called Lacey, after the post office established there in 1891 was given that name. Horse racing was huge during the nineteenth century. Ellis wanted to be in the racetrack business and may well have thought why not bring horse racing to Woodland? He envisioned attracting and people of the community and beyond to enjoy the pleasures of horseracing in a scenic park-like setting. In addition, the park could host public events and families and friends enjoying picnics as part of an outing. Residents of nearby communities between Tacoma and Olympia could come and spend the day or vacation at the Woodland driving park.
In the summer of 1890, Ellis found the property he wanted for $40,000 near the Olympia-Steilacoom Road, then the primary route between Tacoma and Olympia. The road provided easy access to the property on its northern side. The land, then thick with trees, vines, and brush, was located right in the middle of the 320-acre donation land claim granted in 1852 to Isaac (1800-1869) and Catherine (1805-1904) Wood, for whom the area was initially named. At the time the surrounding area had only a few scattered houses, one school, and a single store, owned and operated by George Warren Carpenter (1841-1916).
However, that was about to change dramatically. The Tacoma, Olympia, and Gray's Harbor Railroad, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railway, was laying tracks through the Woodland community to connect Tacoma and Olympia. The tracks paralleled the Olympia-Steilacoom road. In 1891, the Northern Pacific built the Woodland Train Depot and the Lacey post office was established by the community (the depot name would eventually change to Lacey). All of a sudden, the Woodland area faced lots of attention.
In the spring of 1891, the Woodland Park property was cleared, the racetrack laid out, and a fence built to enclose the park. Horse stables, a grandstand, and a clubhouse (later converted into a hotel) were completed. The April 10 edition of The Olympian newspaper lavished praise on the driving park:
"And what a track it is! 'Perfect' is the word that describes it better than any other. The stretches are 1690 feet in length, straight as a die, the turns a half oval, one 1000 feet in length and the other 900. The stretches are level, the turns two and one-half feet higher on the outer than on the inner side ... The best judges say of such things say it is undoubtedly the best track in the entire Northwest, outside of San Francisco ... Grand stand, judges' stand, starting bell, and necessary adjuncts, are located at convenient points" ("A Visit to Woodland").
Shortly before it opened, the driving park became the property of the Washington State Fair and Speeding Association, a company incorporated on April 14, 1891, by Ellis and others with capital stock of $75,000 to support the racetrack activities, and to to hold fairs, meetings, and other activities on the property. Members of the association in addition to Ellis were Andrew Chambers, A. A. Phillips, N. H. Owings, E. W. Andrews, Phil Skillman, and William Billings.
Fourth Street, the direct road from Olympia to the Woodland driving park, had been widened to eighty feet and graded for the opening. The railroad also provided easy access to the park, with the Woodland Train Depot located nearby, making it convenient for horse owners to ship their horses and supplies. Within 10 minutes of leaving the train, horses could be galloping around the track. East of the depot was a large warehouse for visiting horsemen. A side rail line was laid out to organize the flow of rail traffic for special train runs from the city on racing days.
The two-story clubhouse faced north toward the train depot, less than 500 feet away and, a reporter wrote, "from the balcony on the upper floor may be had a fine view of the depot, store, dwellings, passing trains, beautiful trees, etc." ("A Visit to Woodland"). There were 12 club rooms or apartments on the second floor, while the first floor featured a dining room, kitchen, and several parlors. Both floors were heated by radiators connected to a steam heater in the basement.
On either side of the clubhouse were stables 500 feet long. The stables were divided into compartments that were able to accommodate the attendants. They were far enough from the clubhouse to reduce odor and close enough for accessibility.
The grandstand had a seating capacity of 1,500, with a view of the entire track. Two large tanks of water were supplied by hydraulic pressure from a nearby steam, backed up by an engine to pump from a lake on the property if needed.
And They're Off!
The press was filled with anticipation leading up to the opening of the Woodland driving park opening. Four days of racing were planned, beginning on Monday, May 25, and continuing through Thursday, May 28, with a purse of $5,100.
On the Friday before racing began, the Washington Standard asserted:
"The interest shown by horsemen all over this state and Oregon indicate that it will be the sporting event of the season and attract thousands of visitors from abroad. This will at once establish a reputation for the new course, for it is in all respects such as will elicit the admiration of all visitors" ("Success of the Spring Races …").
Nearly 1,000 race enthusiasts from all over the Pacific Northwest, and even California, arrived by train or in carriages for the opening on May 25. They paid 50 cents each for entrance into the stands, which they did not come close to filling. Even though many businesses in Olympia and surrounding areas were closed to allow employees to attend the race, attendance was light.
Van Buren de Lashmutt (1842-1921), mayor of Portland and a well-known horse breeder and racer, led fellow horsemen into the park. Serving as marshal was James Churchill, "a gentleman of ripe experience in horse racing and politics [who] wears a handsome sash, and thereby has become a favorite of the ladies" ("Woodland's Winners"). Bottles of champagne were opened and betting soared.
The drivers and riders were a mix of owners, hire riders, and volunteers. The track was heavy and considered by the judges to be at least six seconds slow. The much-anticipated contests began with a two-horse race. Sleepy Tom, owned by Frank Bellis, defeated the well-known Mollie Cooper, owned by John Stone, "in three straight heats … Mollie Cooper broke several times in each heat, while the winner kept his feet evenly" ("Woodland's Winners").
In the 2:50-class second race, Joseph Dougan's Odometer won the first heat, while John Gaugin's Belle Watts took the second, third, and fourth heats to win the race. The driver of Joe W., the third horse in the race, protested the result on the ground that Belle Watts had previously recorded better times than 2:50, but the purse was eventually awarded.
In the 2:26-class third race, de Lashmutt's Blondie beat three competitors in the trotting race -- Joe Kinney, owned by James Dougan; Bishop Hero from Stony Oakes farm; and Maud C., owned by Harry Stone. Before the first heat, Maud C. was the favorite to win, but she finished fourth in the heat and Blondie became the new favorite. According to The Olympian, "One delighted lady became so excited over the success of Mayor DeLashmutt's Blondie that she waved an imaginary cap in air and twice shouted 'Hurrah for Portland!'" ("Woodland's Winners").
Regal, owned by Jessie Bros., won the five-eighths-mile dash against two competitors, Spokane Stables' Carrie M., who finished second, and James Irwin & Company's Joe Wynne.
On the morning after the opening day, The Olympian reported:
"The day was a perfect one, the track was in excellent condition, the races more than met expectation, but the audience was light ... To be sure, some of the best people of the city were in attendance, but quality did not compensate the association for lack of dollars at the gate" ("Woodland's Winners").
The opening race session continued through May 28. Attendance remained light, and indeed the racetrack would never prosper. By 1900, Ellis had sold the track and clubhouse to Henry Schupp (1868-1936). The clubhouse was developed into the Woodland (later Lacey) Hotel, and racing resumed for a short time, but again did not attract many patrons. The property changed hands several more times, and achieved occasional brief success as a racetrack and a fairground, but gradually deteriorated. The hotel was torn down and removed in September 1939, and in subsequent years the grounds were used to board and train horses. The racetrack was torn down in 1976 and a housing subdivision was built on the former site of Ike Ellis's Woodland driving park.