Hot Springs’ First Horse Track Mysteriously Destroyed by Fire

by Mike Brooks

photos courtesy of the Garland County Historical Society

On Saturday March 30, 1917, a young impressionable 8-year-old boy left his home at the corner of Mote and Lowery Streets – just across the street from “tin can hill”- the city‘s first landfill sight – and in a hurried pace made his way to the corner of Lowery Street and the Hot Springs/Malvern road in time to see the much anticipated and highly advertised parade of carriages and barouche’s, dotted occasionally with one of Henry Ford’s Model T’s, headed east down the road for the first day of the city’s second spring horse race season. This would be the last such parade and it would prove to be the last day for Essex Park as well. [Editors Note: That boy grew up to be the authors’ paternal grandfather, Ernest Raymond  Brooks.]

 Hot Springs’ first race track was not located on Central Avenue where the Charles Cella family has owned and operated Oaklawn Jockey Club since its first season in   1904.

Rather it was located on present day Malvern Avenue just across Gulpha Creek (where the current Martin Luther King Expressway crosses Highway 270), and  was  known as Essex Park. The first official horse race season and meet was held in 1902 at the Essex Valley facility.

In 1902 a gambling and investment conglomerate led by “Umbrella Bill” McGuigan, (so nicknamed because he constantly carried an umbrella) established the sporting facility, including the luxurious club house located at the west end of the front stretch. The track operated for two seasons, then, along with the competing Oaklawn Jockey Club track, was idle for the next 12 years.

McGuigan managed to put together some investors who built a large paddock and barn area big enough to stable close to 100 of the country’s biggest names in the sport. In addition, a large, luxurious three story club house was built and designed to entertain the horse racing public and the local socialites, in the most elegant, lavish and upscale style available at the time. Many local social events, state wide conventions, and the like were held in the club during the off season. Reportedly harness races, airplane shows and rides, and even motorcycle races were slated and attended by large crowds and avid fans.

A 1903 list of Arkansas State Legislators included McGuigan, a one term representative from the Garland County district. His main interest, it seemed, was  to repeal the Racing Reform Bill of 1895, a legislated ban on horse racing, gambling, and pool halls. It just so happened that McGuigan owned a large tract of land at the convergence of Gulpha Creek and the

Ouachita River east of Hot Springs. Just big enough in fact, for a proposed one mile oval race track. He also owned a large house east of there in the Sulphur Springs community and adjacent to the Rock Island Railroad. During that one term, he was able to get the Whitthome Bill passed repealing the ban on horse racing. McGuigan’s dream of establishing a horse track was materializing, and he had immediate success with Essex Park shortly thereafter.

A group of local businessmen headed by Dan Stuart and Charles Dugan, builders of the highly successful Southern Club – illegal gambling houses in downtown Hot Springs

– saw the success the new track had in the short season and approached the Western Jockey Club, comprised of St. Louis natives Charles and Louis Cella and two others, with a business proposal. It just so happened that the pair owned a 140 acre tract south of town which would be ideal for the construction and development of a new racing facility in direct competition to Essex Park. A half million dollars later, Oaklawn race track was born, and Essex Park it seemed, was going to be fighting for its future.

By 1916 there were two established racing facilities and the season was split between them. The Oaklawn Jockey Club ran a three week season beginning March 1, with the competition then slated to move to Essex Park, a much more favorable date opening on March 30. Was it possible that Essex Park was being taken seriously? It seemed as if Essex Park was on the road to success.

According to the Hot Springs New Era, the city’s competition newspaper to the Sentinel Record, described the opening day as such: “Six thousand enthusiastic people greeted the re-inauguration of the racing at Essex Park yesterday afternoon, a re-opening that was attended by the most auspicious circumstance from every conceivable view point.” The day was an ideal Arkansas spring day, sunny and warm, but not uncomfortable. The new Essex Park shown in a real blaze of glory and nature’s coloring. The train service over the Rock Island was ideal. The splendid auto highway, safeguarded by a trio of motorcycle police, was the avenue of a constant stream of loaded automobiles and other vehicles.

Thepaperfurtherreported,“Thetownspeople will spend an early spring outing at one of the most beautiful plants in the south. Already there have been any number of luncheons and dinner parties who have engaged tables in the club for the afternoon and evening and the social side of racing at Essex will be one of the particular features of the meeting there. Yesterday several hundred club cards were distributed, these being passed out on the recommendation of members of the Business Men’s League. “With a card requirement, the club will be protected against the presence of any except those whom add to the social feature of the racing game.”

Essex Park was on the fast track to horse racing fame, but the next day dawned with tragedy in its plans. By the time the afternoon edition of the New Era came off the presses, the headlines told of the devastating fire that destroyed the grandstands earlier in the day.

The paper reported … “The fire originated in some rubbish which had been carelessly left in the corner of the second floor. Just how this rubbish caught fire is a mystery. Gus Belding, who was the first to discover the fire, saw smoke issuing from the grand stand windows. He rushed up stairs and stated he found two or three sacks of  straw-like