Some 137 years ago, when the garrison town of Halifax was still the fourth-largest city in the country, a group of sportsmen mounted ponies to play polo in the wide-open turf just west of Quinpool Road.
It was Canada’s first polo game, and it took place between Chebucto and Quinpool roads, Oxford Street, and Chebucto Lane in July 1878, according to the Nova Scotia Museum scholarly journal, The Occasional.
In 1881, the area officially became the Halifax Polo and Riding Grounds. For the next 15 years, it was a lively recreation scene, where people won and lost small fortunes, and the who’s who of Halifax rubbed shoulders.
Some races were for citizens, others solely for gentlemen or ponies bred in the Maritimes. One race was exclusive to army and navy officers stationed here, members of the Halifax Club, the Boston Country Club, the Montreal Hunt Club, and the Montreal Country Club.
The finish line was near the four-way stop on Harvard and Allen streets, where today suburban commuters often race through on their way downtown. A bell signaled jockeys to mount up. Races sometimes started with a drumbeat, but usually a flag drop and “Go!”
The horses raced counterclockwise with the winner being “the first past the post” or “the first under the wire,” a reference to the wire that ran from the grandstand opposite the winning post. Winners and the runners-up would walk away with cash prizes of up to $125.
Admittance to the races was 25 cents, 50 cents if you brought your horse. Soldiers and sailors got in cheap for just 10 cents while the wealthier spectators paid 50 cents for the grandstand and so-called VIP area.
While the men laid bets, the ladies wrote each other IOUs for pairs of gloves or boxes of candy. The strict rules of racing were applied and all jockeys wore proper attire. No booze was allowed: a rule introduced in response to racetrack riots that erupted in earlier days at races on the Halifax Common.
In 1887, the club owners made a few upgrades, replacing the turf track with dirt, and building a second grandstand enclosure and stalls for visiting horses. The club continued until 1896 when a larger track was built where the Halifax Forum is today. Two years later, the land was sold off as building lots.
Enter Trotting Park
Halifax historian Dan Conlin lives on Duncan Street, where racehorses once rounded the bend and galloped towards cheering crowds.
He’s tracked the history of the area he’s called home for 19 years, and discovered its early name, Trotting Park, on the deeds of the neighbourhood’s first homes.
From the beginning, Conlin says Trotting Park was economically diverse. There were rental flats, middle-class families, a pianist who played music for the silent movies showing in town, and small businesses run out of people’s homes, including a slaughterhouse, plumbers, a grocery store, a Chinese laundry, and a dairy that operated until the 1970s where the Chebucto Village Luxury Townhouses are today.
Johnson’s Dairy began around 1914 as just a house and a barn. Conlin says the owners acquired the properties next door and it operated independently as Maple Leaf Dairy until Farmers bought it in the 1950s.
Today, the little known neighbourhood of Trotting Park continues to be diverse, with people of all income brackets and stages of life calling the area home.
The lower end of Duncan, Lawrence and Allen streets below Chebucto Lane were once farmland that belonged to Charles Cogswell, an English medical doctor from a wealthy banking family and a former Halifax mayor. In 1870, Cogswell subdivided his farmland and moved back to England where a woman named Isabella Duncan cared for him.
Colin says she’s the best candidate for the origin of the street name.
“I’ve looked and I’ve looked for anybody important or related to the family with the name Duncan and the most important person I can see is Isabella Duncan,” he says. “When [Cogswell] writes up his will, she and her daughter get most of his money. He obviously loomed large in her life, so I think he could’ve named the street after her,” says Conlin.
Lawrence Street was named after Charles Lawrence, a general and former governor of Nova Scotia. While governor, Lawrence took part in the capture of Louisburg as a brigadier general, and also in the expulsion of the Acadians as an infantry major at Cobequid. He was commander when Lunenburg was settled and played a similar role at Chignecto.