While the land issues were being hashed out another group of Alexandrians were finalizing their plans to bring horse racing to the city. Or at least close to the city. In February 1888 the state granted a charter to the Alexandia Gentlemen’s Driving Club and in March they took out a lease on the Markham land, presumably Mary and Sarah agreeing to at least get some money from their dispute. They immediately constructed stables and a small grandstand backing onto what is now Mt Ida Avenue, along with a half-mile oval track.
The club struggled and in the spring of 1889 the state legislature granted a second charter to the Gentlemen’s Driving Club and in mid-June WB Daingerfield, a significant landowner just north of the City and prominent figure, was re-appointed president. Nine others comprised the directors, including JM Hill, local entertainment impressario, owner of Hill’s Opera House on King Street, and very determined backer of horse racing. He would prove to be the dominent force behind racing and betting in the county for the next 15 years.
This 1890 map shows the location of the original race track, between Mt Ida Ave and the W&OD rail line (now the linear Mt Jefferson Park). Modern street names have been added.
An early pair of races, in July 1889, was reported by the Gazette as being “only fairly attended, but all present enjoyed the sport”. The club staggered along, with mostly small purses and only a few local horses showing up. They tried adding further attractions to the race days and rented out the facility for other uses, but to no avail. In early December 1890 they announced they would auction off their assets, to wit, “the grand stand, buildings, fences, stables and race track of the company, and the unexpired term of its leases of the land upon which its property is situated”.
Failing to find a suitable buyer the club proposed to erect on the land “an immense and magnificent pavillion” for various entertainments. Of particular note was that the second charter gave the club exclusive police powers on their venue, with sworn local and state police officers having no powers there. The club proposed to start with a bull fight, normally illegal, to test the charter, and then host John L Sullivan in a much-anticipated fight against the Black Peter Jackson.
This plan, however, collapsed before it even began and the old racetrack buildings were left to deteriorate.
Joseph and Mary Markham had been born, and married, in England before moving to Virginia around 1849. They had a daughter Sarah in 1853 and by 1870 they were running a dairy farm a little north of Alexandria. When Joseph died in 1885 he left behind his farm, described as “unsurpassed in fertility and … improved by three dwelling houses, stables, etc.” and a poorly-crafted will. The farm was actually two plots of land, divided by the Alexandria-Washington Turnpike, now US 1. One plot contained 14 acres in what is now Potomac Yard. The other contained 12.5 acres in what is now Del Ray to the north of Mt Ida Avenue and mostly west of the W&OD rail line (now the linear park).
Ambiguities in the will led to disputes between Mary and Sarah that were eventually handed over to the County Circuit Court to decide. The court followed the time-honored tradition in such cases and in August 1887 decreed that the land be sold at auction, with the proceeds to be split between the two women. Normally a fairly quick remedy, in this case continued haggling led to the auction being delayed to July 1888, and then again to July 1889. Finally, in November 1889, the Special Commissioner conveyed the land to Samuel Merrill of Washington, DC for $4,000.
1888: The First Race Track