During the Civil War, Brooklyn held a spectacular ice skating carnival

Ice skating had always been a winter pastime in New York, when the many ponds that once existed in Manhattan routinely froze over. But when the lake at the new Central Park opened to skaters in 1858, the ice skating craze of the 19th century city officially began.

“Carnival of the Washington Skating Club, Brooklyn”

Central Park may have been the top spot for gliding across ice and showing off your skating attire—and maybe finding romance, too. Ice skating was perhaps the only activity men and women could partake in together without breaking social customs or having a chaperone in tow.

But Brooklyn wasn’t about to let Manhattan have all the fun. On a Sunday afternoon in February 1862, the recently formed Washington Skating Club held a magnificent skating carnival at Brooklyn’s Washington Pond, on Fifth Avenue and Third Street in today’s Park Slope.

“Skating Carnival in Brooklyn, February 10, 1862,” Harper’s Weekly

Brooklyn in 1862 was a separate city, of course—a newly formed booming metropolis of about 266,000 (compared to Manhattan’s 805,000) that threw its support behind the Union and sent many soldiers to Civil War battlefields.

But the war didn’t preclude spending a afternoon and evening frolicking on the ice in princess, wizard, and other costumes, with a 25-piece band playing nearby and fireworks lighting up the winter sky.

Six thousand Brooklyn residents attended the skating carnival, which began at 3 p.m. “Reflector lamps” on poles helped illuminate the ice, and moonlight gave the carnival an ethereal glow.

“The bright sky, the exhilarating atmosphere, and the excellent condition of the ice proved temptations too strong for even discontent to resist, and by sundown the up-cars were thronged with eager crowds of both sexes and nearly all ages, from the toddling ‘3 year old’ to venerable age,” wrote the Brooklyn Evening Star.

The only thing spoiling the carnival? Pickpockets. Police arrested four men who were “mixed up among the skaters, endeavoring to ply their vocation,” stated the Brooklyn Times Union on February 12.

Washington Park wasn’t just the site of a skating carnival. Here, the short-lived sport of ice baseball was played in the winter (above, in the 1880s)…while fans shivered.

[Top illustration: MCNY MNY122495; Second illustration: Sonofthesouth.net; third illustration: Fine Arts America]

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16 Responses to “During the Civil War, Brooklyn held a spectacular ice skating carnival”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Skating, yes, but I’ll pass on the ice baseball. Thanks for another cool insight into the margins of New York!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It sounds like a lot of fun, right? If any body of water ever freezes over in New York City again, I think we should have a carnival there.

  2. boxwoodbooks Says:

    I believe that there was skating on frozen ponds on Staten Island, a legacy from the Dutch settlers as well as in Brooklyn?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’d imagine so! The Dutch brought ice skating to New Amsterdam, where they found many ponds to glide across.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Ah, the pickpockets—they accompanied any large crowd in the 19th century!

  4. Greg Says:

    The baseball skating was at Capitoline Pond, not Washington Park.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Capitoline Pond had baseball on ice, but perhaps they had it at Washington Park as well? That’s on the caption of the 1880s illustration in this post.

    • boxwoodbooks Says:

      The Survivor, Staten Island
      Lithograph, 1929, Robinson / Pirog 40, edition 40. 10 x 13 3/4 in. Signed and dated in pencil. This is a fine impression with full margins. The condition is also fine. The edition was printed by George Miller in New York and three impressions are cited in museum collections. This compelling image provides a glimpse of the dramatic changes to the American urban landscape during the first half of the twentieth century.

  5. John Says:

    Speaking of Dutch influence, I couldn’t help noticing the Dutch building across the pond in the first illustration. I think it is the Vehte-Cortelyou or Old Stone house on 5th ave & 3rd. If it is, then around ninety years earlier, these frolicking skaters would’ve been Washington’s troops escaping the British over what was then, Brouwers Millpond.

  6. John Moore Says:

    Speaking of Dutch influence, I noticed the Dutch farm building on the far side of the pond in the first illustration. I couldn’t enlarge the details but I think this is the Vehte-Cortelyou or Old Stone House on 5th Ave & 3rd. If it is, then one could imagine the same view 90 years prior where instead of these frolicking skaters you would have a similar sized crowd or more of Washington’s troops escaping the British over what was then called Brouwers Millpond.

  7. Bob Says:

    From February 4, 1861: Brooklyn Atlantics win a baseball game on ice – Society for American Baseball Research

    ” […] Baseball on ice came to New York on February 4, 1861, not in Central Park, but on the so-called Litchfield Pond, aka Washington Pond (for Brooklyn’s famed Washington Skating Club). The 10 acres were located along Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn.

    “The Brooklyn Atlantics would compete on skates against Brooklyn’s Charter Oak. The Atlantics were the dominant team of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) throughout the 1850s and 1860s. The Atlantics, officially organized in 1855, ‘have always and at all times had a nine from whom any rival club might almost despair of winning any lasting laurels,’ wrote Charles A. Peverelly in The Book of American Pastimes (1866). They had won another championship in 1860. The Charter Oak club from South Brooklyn was a lesser-known club organized in 1857. Harold Seymour called them ‘the leaders in sartorial splendor,’ based on a description of their uniform in Porter’s Spirit of the Times: ‘a white cap with blue peak, pink shirt with white facings, stars, & c, black belt, upon which is inscribed ‘Charter Oak’ in full, and white pants with pink stripes.’ No such detailed description was given for this game. The Atlantics wore red jackets with blue facings while the Charter Oak were dressed in plaid.

    “The prize for the winner was a silver ball, the size of an ordinary baseball, donated by a Mr. Litchfield, president of the Fifth Avenue Railroad Company, for whom the pond was nicknamed at the time. […]”

  8. Bob Says:

    From Peter Morris’ book “A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball,” the rule allowing batter-runners to overrun first base came out of 1860s ice baseball.

    ” […] Allowing runners to overrun bases was a hot topic for a number of years. Some observers contended that runners should be allowed to overrun any base while others argued for the status quo. Finally, before the 1871 season, a compromise was reached and runners were allowed to overrun first base only.

    “According to Jimmy Wood, the impetus for the rule change came from a surprising source. Baseball on ice was popular in the 1860s, but players on the base paths ‘found it impossible to stop at bases after skating out a hit. Many of them were injured by skating into bases, their skates tripping them and sending them to the icy surface. To prevent further accidents the captains decided to permit players to overskate the bags without penalty of being touched out if they turned to the right on their way back to base. When summer baseball was resumed it was decided that the rule made for skater-players should be extended to the regular diamond’ (James Wood, as told to Frank G. Menke, ‘Baseball in By-Gone Days,’ part 2, syndicated column, Marion [Ohio] Star, August 15, 1916). Although this explanation sounds farfetched, Wood was a star player of the era and was not known for fanciful tales, so his account must at least be considered.

    “The decision to let runners overrun first but not the other bases was one of those compromises that seem to have satisfied neither side. Supporters of allowing overrunning at all the bases were particularly outspoken, with Henry Chadwick declaring with his customary assurance: ‘This rule is confined to the first base, but it should have been applied to all, and no doubt the Amateur Convention will will amend it to that effect’ (New York Clipper, March 4, 1871). But that never happened. Such a rule change was proposed before the 1875 season and rejected (St. Louis Democrat, February 28, 1875). […]”

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