Harlem Lane was an old road in the area that served as a popular racecourse for horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century. Harlem Lane is the predecessor of Saint Nicholas Avenue, which extends from Central Park and meanders up through northern Manhattan. At 168th Street the Harlem Lane racecourse met with another horse carriage track that traversed along the Harlem River up to the High Bridge at 174th Street. This offshoot of Harlem Lane became known as the Harlem River Speedway and as it evolved into a highway, the Harlem River Drive.
As with many of Manhattan’s early roads, Harlem Lane began as a Native American trail. European settlers began to utilize the trail in 1676 to access the Spuyten Duyvil Ferry, which had been constructed in 1669. The route was officially laid out as a road on June 16, 1707. A racetrack was constructed at the end of the lane around 1782. Throughout its history the road was known as King’s Way, Great Post Road, Albany Post Road, Queens Road, and Kingsbridge Road, before being given its present name, Saint Nicholas Avenue, in 1901. Saint Nicholas, a 4th century saint from Asia who throughout the ages has grown to be associated with Santa Claus, was the patron saint of New Amsterdam, New York’s Dutch Colonial name.
The racing of carriages pulled by one or two horses, known as “trotting,” was a popular sport for New York’s elite in the latter half of the 19th century. Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877) was among the numerous lawyers, bankers, and politicians who participated in the afternoon races at Harlem Lane. Wealthy sportsmen often paid exorbitant prices for a fast team; one was the publisher Robert Bonner, who paid $30,000 for a single horse. The sportsmen displayed their fine teams on the ride through Central Park towards the starting line at the north edge of the park. When the race commenced, spectators cheered from windows and doorways of inns lining the southern half of Harlem Lane. The carriages passed through this small developed area and into open meadows, where the race grew faster and more aggressive. Many of the races were well publicized throughout Wall Street, where betting and bragging were common.
This offshoot of Harlem Lane was named the Harlem Speedway and opened for carriage traffic on July 5, 1898. The Speedway, as it came to be known, ran along the Harlem River from Macomb’s Dam at 155th Street up to Dyckman Street. The road was used predominantly as a racecourse until it was turned into a parkway in 1915. The new Harlem River Parkway experienced low traffic volume until it merged with the northern end of the East River Drive, now known as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, in 1937. With the roads linked it became easy for automobiles to travel from eastern Manhattan and connect to the Triborough Bridge and the Cross Bronx Expressway (Interstate 95). The playground is bound on the eastern side by the southbound portion of the Drive, which was built on a viaduct to assure both lanes an unobstructed view of the river.
This property was acquired in three parcels. The original half-acre plot of land was acquired by the City on November 1, 1893, by condemnation, and given to Parks a month later. The second parcel, acquired by deed of gift by Parks in 1947, added another acre of land around where the comfort station now sits. The third parcel, which now contains the basketball courts, was acquired at the same time as parcel two, but was proposed to be part of West 153rd Street before being reassigned to Parks.