The Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) has recently acquired the most significant, extant archive of nearly 30,000 negatives of photographs taken at (and by) the Narragansett Race Track (NRT) for over 40 years (1934-1978). Richard Ring, the Deputy Executive Director for Collections and Interpretation at RIHS, recently gave a talk in January 2019 about the acquisition, highlighting some of exciting trackside images (which you can see here). The negatives are not currently accessible to scholars, as they will need to be digitized, cataloged, and properly stored for long-term preservation. However, there are plans in the works to make them available in the near future.
A Brief History of the Narragansett Race Track (Richard Ring)
In April, 1934 the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law permitting horse racing with pari-mutuel betting. This was a system in which all bets of a particular type are placed together in a pool; state taxes and the “house take” are deducted, and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets. Walter E. O’Hara, a self-made Irish-born mill owner from Fall River, MA, began construction of the track in June and opened it in August—it took seven weeks and $1.2 million to build—sparking a Rhode Island story of sports, money, and politics. By 1937 the NRT was the most profitable racetrack in the country.
“Gansett,” as it was more popularly known, attracted crowds of 40,000 or more, including world-famous millionaires and celebrities. It became a gathering place for the glitterati of the late 1930s and 40s; millionaires like Alfred Vanderbilt; movie stars like Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante and Milton Berle were regulars, as well as star athletes like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and singers like Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway all came to see and be seen, to play the horses, and to engage in the sport of kings.
An excellent article on the track and the political controversy surrounding it appears in “The Great American Racetrack War: What happened to the most profitable horse track in the country?” by Richard Farley in Town & Country (June 9, 2017).