Central Park – A Winter Oasis of Sleighing and Skating in 1863
New York City received its first significant snowfall this winter on January 7, 2016 with about 6 inches of snow covering Manhattan. That day and the next, Central Park had children sleighing down its various hills. Ice skating was available for all at Wollman Rink.
Would anyone today recognize Central Park 154 years ago with similar activity?
Reproduced here for the first time since it appeared in the January 30, 1864 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, is this fantastic woodcut Illustration of Central Park. Unfortunately there is no artist attribution.
At first glance you would think this rural scene is not even in New York City, but the telltale signs are evident that this is indeed Central Park.
In the distant background, buildings can be seen. In the foreground is a proverbial one horse open sleigh. Other sleighs race past one another as their riders are covered in warm blankets and animal skins. One sleigh is named, the “Snow Bird.”
If you look carefully on the right you can see a familiar Central Park balustrade that onlookers are leaning against and taking in all the action. Skaters glide across the frozen lake which begs the question: if you did not own ice skates, where could you get them from?
There was a structure called the “skating tent” in the southern portion of Central Park that rented out skates. In the background of Leslie’s illustration is what looks to be a building where patrons could rent their skates and retreat to for warmth. The skating tent building (left) bears only a slight resemblance to our illustrated building, so it may not be the skating tent. Either way, the building in the illustration and the skating tent (demolished 1940) are no longer there.
As far as when this illustration was drawn, it may be around February 5 ,1863.
Up to the date of Frank Leslie’s publication of January 30, 1864 there were no major snowfalls in New York City that winter.
The February 6, 1863 edition of the New York Times noted that the skating season had been delayed up until the day before. A cold wave and snow had recently hit New York. At last the ball went up signifying it was safe to skate. (A brightly colored ball would be hoisted atop a pole to indicate the ice was ready.) What would bring an artist to Central Park? Possibly 50,000 people descending upon the parks to enjoy some winter fun.
The Times describes the scene:
Early in the morning the crowd began to collect. Members of the New-York Club, with their trim dress, their agile movements, their genuflections and swift perambulations—their rapid turning and whirl-wind twisting — Hair jumping, somersetting, and general jollity. Next came the “citizens generally,” as they say will follow after the processions, with here and there a lady sandwiched between two guardian males. Soon more ladies, more mates, and some boys, appear, until about noon the crowd quite fills the pond, and the cry is still they come. Ne we York likes a jam. We have a crush at the opera, a full house at the theatre, people standing up miring the sermon, why not s crowd on the skating pond ? New-York travels in crowds—the more the merrier—until there gets to be to many that even the wind finds difficulty in penetrating the mass.
Smooth as a billiard bill, hard as a flint, and clean as a parlor, the Fifth-avenue Skating Pond was in the best order yesterday. The ice was at least six incites thick, and cleaned with promptness and cleverity by a gang of laborers kept quite smartly at work—indeed, so smartly, that It was evident they were working for individuals and not for the Corporation. Mr. Oatman, the omnipresent and indefatigable Superintendent,was on hand, and saw that everything was in tip-top order. Not a shovelful of show, a stump of a cigar, or a wisp of a broom, was permitted to disfigure the smooth surface of the pond. But, It is in the concomitants that the Fifth-avenue Pond excels. The delightful music of the afternoon and evening, the spacious refreshment saloons, with their huge stoves and convenient windows, where the spectators may toast themselves and view the active sports of those on the pond, ate unsurpassed. There were many ladies present, graceful skaters and attractive in costume and in personnel, and during the afternoon, when the crowd was most numerous, the scene was of unusual attractiveness, for hundreds were wilting to pay for these extra comforts which this pond affords, as well they may. There were many excellent skaters present, whose performances attracted admiring crowds. The pond will be in quite as good, if not better order, today. so that after all the the disappointments and heart-burnings which the mild winter has occasioned the ticket holders, the Fifth-avenue Pond may be considered a great success.
It all sounds great, doesn’t it? You will probably never see a horse drawn sleigh in Central Park but surprisingly this sort of skating fun will also never be seen again. New York City has a law forbidding ice skating on lakes and ponds in city parks.