Monday, February 06, 2012

Van Cortlandt Park

This from David B Smith:

"Some time ago I bought on Ebay a small watercolour which displayed a curling match in progress (above). From the players’ dress it appeared to be from the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century: one prominent curler in the foreground was wearing spats. Behind a tree on the bank of the pond were some figures and some sort of horse-drawn vehicle.

When it arrived I took it from its frame. The painting was mounted on card and on the card in pencil were some words. I deciphered 'Curling' and 'van Cortlandt Lake' but what I took to be the artist’s signature I could not make out. The name of the lake, however, was enough to let me know that I was looking at curling of the American variety. The lake is situated in what is the largest public park in the city of New York, van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.

I knew of the Lake for I had some time ago come across an engraving in an issue of Harper’s Weekly which displayed, according to the caption 'CURLING MATCH ON VAN CORTLANDT LAKE – SCOTLAND AGAINST AMERICA – DRAWN BY C. J. TAYLOR – (SEE PAGE 91)'. I discovered that the year was 1884.

It was not until recently when a group of undated photographs of curling on the Lake appeared for sale online that I began to wonder about the Scoto-American match. None of the large public or learned libraries in the UK appeared to hold a stock of Harper’s Weekly, which I might consult, but I was reasonably sure that that wonderful institution, New York Public Library, would have it.

And so I applied by email to that library, and was immediately put onto the commercial branch. At very little cost I was able to cause the staff at New York to find 'PAGE 91' and send it to me. I must compliment NYPL on its speed and efficiency. The whole transaction took less than a week.

The article began with a general observation that “the Scottish game of curling has been but recently transplanted to this country, whose vigorous winters afford it a hospitable reception” and a reference to the tradition that King James IV had encouraged the sport by giving a silver curling stone to be annually contested for in the Carse of Gowrie in Perthshire."

It went on: “The excellent example set by King James has been followed in this country by a gentleman of Scotch origin, who has presented a handsome silver challenge trophy , called after the donor 'the Patterson Medal' to be played for by picked curlers of Scottish birth on the one hand, and of American birth (though often of Scottish origin) on the other.”

The match in 1884 was on van Cortlandt Lake, and consisted of eight rinks a side. The Americans were beaten by a score of 157 to 135. “Considering the comparative youth of the native players, and in view of the fact that years add experience more than sufficient to counterbalance any decrease of power by reason of advancing age , the American curlers acquitted themselves with much credit. Were the result at each rink taken separately, the match would have been even, as each side prevailed at four of the eight rinks; the method of scoring is, however, is to add the totals of each side at all the rinks, which puts quite another complexion on the result in this case.”

Another stretch of water in the great metropolis which was from time to time devoted to the roaring game was the lake in Central Park. As John Kerr in his Curling in Canada and the United States notes: (at p.631) "New York’s Commissioners of Public Parks have always acted very generously with the curlers, encouraging their game in every way, granting them the exclusive use of Conservatory Lake during the winter months, with a house on the bank to hold their outfit, and reserving a cosy corner on Van Cortlandt Lake, near the old historic mill of Revolutionary days, for the curlers to play their matches.”

When the first Scots team went to the New World under the captaincy of the Rev. John Kerr in the winter of 1902-3 it had been hoped that a match could be had on van Cortlandt Lake, “where the New York curlers are accustomed in an ordinary frost to enjoy their game, but owing to the very severe frost which prevailed during the time of our stay in the city, this hope was entirely blasted as play on the lake was out of the question…” (Kerr, p. 667)

When the Scots curlers ended their tour of 1922-23 in New York, “There was no official game of curling arranged for while in New York, but several of the Team took part in a scratch game with local curlers at Van Cortlandt Park on a frozen pond.” (The Scottish Curlers in Canada and U.S.A. 1922-23, by Major M.H.Marshall, p.299.)"

Top: The watercolour of curling on van Cortlandt Lake.
Middle: The print from Harper’s Weekly.
Above: Photograph (undated), of curling on the Lake.

Images are from the author's archive.

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