Sunday, February 10, 2013

Boston Boys and their Winter Games - 1850s

For your winter enjoyment

A favorite book of mine is Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played, by James D'Wolf Lovvett. Published in 1906, it looked back on childhood (or rather boyhood) during the pre-Civil War years of the 1850s. The boys featured were Beacon Hill boys, although the adventures of West and South End boys enter the story. It's the story of Yankee boys, when there seemed little need yet to discriminate among Boston's ethnic mix. There are 'colored' people present, residents of the back of Beacon Hill, and perhaps the West End, and 'Hibernians' and Italian vendors gain a mention, but to the author, Boston boys are the sons of Yankee Beacon Hill.

 "Just over a low ridge of ground, which is now Arlington street, was the "Back Bay," a sheet of water that extended from the Mill Dam to Boston Neck, and many a time we boys struck straight across upon the ice from the corner of Arlington and Beacon streets, to where Chickering's piano factory now stands." 

I pulled out this single sentence about ice skating on the ice of the Back Bay to feature. The 1852 map above shows the degree to which the South End had already been filled. It also shows the Back Bay before it was filled, with two railroad line criss-crossing it on timber trestles. Note that the Back Bay was not entirely open water - there were apparently low islands of grass. Assuming this map to be correct, I suspect the boys setting off from the corner of Arlington and Beacon streets would have been forced to skate around the large island between there and the later site of Chickering's piano factory. In fact, Chickering's is shown here near the end of a sliver of water, and probably beyond where the boys skated.

Note also that there is no mention in the quote above of skating under the railroad trestles, which would have been required of anyone skating between those two sites. The blue line shows the most likely route followed by the skaters, from the edge of the Public Garden, under the Boston & Providence trestle, and then turning right and running between that trestle and the shore of the South End, under the Boston & Albany trestle, and on as far as open ice allowed. The author comments that to go the other way, towards Gravelly Point and the dam, one would approach fast running water as the tide shifted, which kept the ice thin or entirely open, and thus was a great danger.

And now, from skating to coasting:

Of course, the winter sport par excellence was coasting, and those Boston boys whose boyhood was at the zenith in the fifties include coasting, as it was then practiced, among the lost arts. If any of the youngsters of to-day are inclined to laugh at this statement, let any one of them, athlete though he may be, take a running start of from three to ten yards at full speed with the sled following at the end of its cord, and when sufficient impetus has been acquired, throw it ahead, letting the line fall along the seat, at the same time launching his body, curved bow-wise, forward through the air, alighting breast first, with no apparent effort, jar, or retardment of speed as softly as a falling snowflake, upon the flying sled as it shoots underneath. This would be called pretty, acrobatic feat to-day, but was too common then to attract special notice. That's the difference.

All coasting in those days was racing, pure and simple. Prominent sleds were as well known among the boys as race horses and yachts are today, and on any given Saturday afternoon hundreds of spectators might be seen hedging in the "Long Coast," which ran from the corner of Park and Beason streets to teh West Street entrance and as much farther along Tremont Mall as one's impetus would carry him. A squad of coasters would be bunched together at the top of the coast, holding their sleds like dogs in leash, waiting for some "crack" to lead off. As he straightened himself and started on his run with the cry of "Lullah!" to clear the way, it was the signal for all to follow, and one after another would string out from the bunch after him, in rapid succession, each keen to pass as many of those ahead as possible,the lesser lights being careful not to start until the "heavyweights" had sped on their way.

The walk back uphill was made interesting by discussing the merits, faults, lines, etc., of the noted sleds, and if, as often happened, invidious comparisons were made between a "South End" and a "West End" sled, a lively and not altogether unwelcome scrap, then and there, was usually the logical outcome.

Sleds (the first-class ones) were made with much care and skill, and cost proportionately. Natural black walnut was a favorite material, finished either with a fine dead polish or a bright surface, varnished with as much care as a coach; the name, it it bore one, was usually a fine specimen of lettering in gold or bright colors. The model was carefully planned, and the lines were graceful and a delight to teh eye of a connoisseur. Black enameled leather, bordered by gold or silver headed tacks, made a popular seat, and the "irons," as they were called, were made of the best "silver steel," whatever that meant. They were kept burnished like glass, with constant care and fine emery and oil, and a streak of ashes or a bare spot was avoided as a yacht steers clear of rocks.

The amount of "spring" given to the irons was also a matter of moment, and a nice gradation of the same was thought to have influence on the speed; it certainly added greatly to one's bodily comfort.

"Let's see your irons" was a common request, and the owner thus honored would jerk his sled up on its hind legs, so to speak, wipe ff the steel with mitten or handkerchief, and show off the bright surface with much pride.

The most popular coasts were the "Long Coast' already mentioned, the Joy Street coast, Beacon Street Mall, and the "Big" or "Flagstaff" Hill, the flagstaff standing on the spot now graced by the Soldiers' Monument. The hill was much higher than it is now, the ground around it having been raised in recent years. Many of the boys will recall the evenings spent on Mount Vernon and Chestnut streets and Branch avenue, - the latter known as "Kitchen" street.

Fancy a laughing, shouting crowd, in these days of police surveillance, coasting down public streets until eleven o'clock at night! But the Civil War came and changed many things, coasting among the rest. Most of the laughing, careless crowd enlisted at the first note of the country's call, and their boyhood came to a sudden end as the sound of drum and fife stirred all hearts to sterner things. Some came back, but many, alas, stayed behind with the great silent army, and it is for us who are left to keep their memories green until we too are enlisted in the same ranks.

It will, I am sure, be of some interest to may who remember those days, to see once more the old familiar names of a few of the crack sleds of Boston at that period, and to have recalled to their minds who the owners of them were.

Wivern - Bob Clark
Raven  - Arthur Clark
Brenda - Dan Sargent
Charlotte - Alfred Greenough
Comet - Frank Wells
Southern Cross - Frank Lawrence
Eagle - Jim Lovett
Arrow - John Muliken
Wild Pigeon - Ned Kendall
Tom Heyer - Jack Carroll
Titania - Nate Appleton
Multum in Parvo - Frank Peabody
Cave Adsum - Ned Amory
Dancing Feather - Charlie Greenough
Flying Childers - Frank Wildes
Juniata - Horace Bumstead
Trustee - Charlie Chamberlin
Santiago - Dick Robbins
Whiz - Will Freeman
Flirt - Horace Freeman
Scud - Eben Dale
Flying Cloud - Billy Fay
Cygnet - Jim Chadwick
Alma - Fred Crowninshield
Tuscaloosa - Horatio Curtis
Viking - Edgar Curtis
Moby Dick - Henry Alline

Of course there were many sleds equally fine which bore no name; prominent among this latter class should be mentioned the one owned by Tom Edmands and also one which was made and owned by Charlie Lovvett, both of them beautiful in grace, workmanship, and finish. There was one sled, named the "Edith," which always appealed to me as being more nearly perfect than any that I can remember. I cannot recall the owner's name, but I fear that whenever I saw this sled the tenth commandment was handled pretty roughly. 

I can well imagine the boys and the pride they took in their sleds. The names sound like sailing ships - so romantic. I found a single reference to Tom Heyer as America's first boxing champion, although it will take some off-line digging to verify and elaborate on the fact. The reference to the 'great silent army' put a lump in my throat, and made the entire passage worth reading on its own.

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