“The day will come when the Eclipse Course will be the first in the United States.” – New Orleans Picayune, 18 March 1837
New Orleans race fans in 1837 benefitted from the recently established New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad, which transported thousands to the Eclipse Course five miles above the city. Originally launched in the fall of 1835, the train – the first to implement “canned steam” that was pumped in at the terminal – lumbered along the route up St. Charles Avenue to the village of Carrollton at four miles per hour.
This was a pleasurable ride, reported the New Orleans Bee; the track passed through “the limits of an ancient forest of oaks, particularly interesting as being one of the very few of its kind remaining in the South;” from the observatory, riders could enjoy breathtaking views of the Mighty Mississippi, “although we were surprised of the red appearance of the water,” commented the Bee.
Prior to the inaugural spring races at the Eclipse, railroad proprietor Colonel G. Merrick and partners had labored to improve the track “at least a hundred per cent,” wrote the New Orleans Picayune; “No doubt that the public will be much better conveyed than formerly, and that the track will soon be so smooth, and the passage so easy, that those people having two ideas in their heads may risk to and fro without the danger of jostling them.”
The railroad delivered its passengers just steps from the Eclipse Course, and a mere 100 yards away stood the Carrollton Hotel. Captain Oliver had enlisted the expertise of Mr. F. Bernard of Washington City, D.C., to manage the hotel, which provided accommodations for visiting turfmen, Jockey Club members and spectators alike “in a style that must please the most fastidious,” the track proprietor promised in his advertisement.
It was an enjoyable train ride – if one could find a seat, that is! Although the races did not commence until 1 o’clock p.m., fans were forewarned to start early for the track; railroad cars left every half hour, beginning at 10 o’clock a.m.
The Picayune’s “Gentleman in Black” recounted his adventures of train travel on Eclipse’s opening day, March 17, 1837:
“How are you, Mr. Editor, you look sleepy to-night; I hope you didn’t indulge yourself too much at the races.”
“Oh no; steady as a clock, for –.”
“A wonder, eh? Well, there are a number I could mention a little worse for the wear. What time did you go up to Carrollton?”
“I was going up pretty much all the forenoon. I started from here at half past 11, but could not get a chance on the cars till nearly 1 o’clock, and then was packed away on the top. What time did you start, pray?”
“In the same train with you, but I did not notice that you were along.”
“No, I should think not. It was as much as a person could do to look out for himself. Did you ever see such scrambling for seats?”
“Never. I should think there were at least 1,200 persons in the train of cars, with myself, and luckily there was no accident. Every thing went off well.
Among the other incidents on the road, I was much pleased with a little dog who convoyed the long train of cars to the race course. The little fellow was hard scratching to keep up when the train was at its utmost speed, but up he did, and besides gave all the horses, cows, hogs and such like on the trail, a warning of our approach.”
“I saw the dog you mention, but never once imagined that he made it his business to herald the approach of the locomotive.”
“Certainly he does, and a very considerate dog is he for so doing. The little fellow was fearful, no doubt, that some of his fellow brutes feeding in the vicinity of the rail road, might not be apprised of the coming cars, and took it upon himself to inform them of it.”
“How do you think the races went off?”
“Very well – the whole affair was rather brilliant than otherwise. Some of our most influential men with their families were on the ground. Bright eyes were glancing from the stands devoted to the ladies – the heat and exercise of the day mounted the rich blood in their cheeks which glowed with health and beauty.
Some improvements might be made by Col. Oliver in the arrangement of the stands, which have evidently been got up in great haste, and several other alterations we might mention which would enhance the general effect. Nothing in this world is so exciting as a horse race – and no pains or expense should be spared by the proprietor to give every one an opportunity – to clear all obstructions from the circle which can in any way obstruct the sight.
The day will come when the Eclipse Course will be the first in the United States. The Alabamians, the Mississippians – our immediate neighbors – are inordinately fond of the course, and, combined with the people of our own state will go hand in hand in procuring more and better horses than any other place under the sun.”