Historical Markers
Camptown Races Historical Marker
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Camptown Races

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
Junction US 6 and PA 409, 4.2 miles N of Wyalusing

Dedication Date:
May 12, 1949

Behind the Marker

De Camptown ladies sing dis song – Doo-dah! doo-dah!
De Camptown racetrack five miles long – Oh! doo-dah day!
I come down dah wid my hat caved in – Doo-dah! doo-dah!
I go back home wid a pocket full of tin - marker Oh! doo-dah day!

                                        Stephen Foster, from "Camptown Races," 1850.

Drayman, horse and wagons, racing on the streets of Philadelphia.
Drayman racing on the streets of Philadelphia, by August Kollner, 1847.
Whether the Camptown racetrack was indeed five miles long, or whether it even existed, markerStephen Foster certainly captured the spirit of horseracing in the mid-1800s when he penned the lyrics to his enduring standard. The horses run, and the humans bet on them, and there is an exhilaration that comes with both. If the equation seems simple, it is one that became quite complex in Pennsylvania.

By the time the state legislature banned the sport outright in 1820, racing in the Commonwealth already had a rich history reaching back to the early colonists who viewed these four-legged contests as a practical test of their horses' power and fitness. Early Quakers morally opposed the wagering that tended to run along with challenge races, but they offered no objections to racing itself. The first Great Law of 1682 specifically banned card playing and "riotous sports," but racing went unmentioned, which isn't really surprising given that even William Penn liked to run the horses he had imported from England down Philadelphia's Sassafras Street. So many followed his tracks that a century later the thoroughfare's name was officially changed to Race Street.

A man races his beautiful, black horse, who is harnessed to a cart.
Sherman Black Hawk, winner of the harness race at the U. S. Agricultural Fair...
In the 1700s and early 1800s, racing was a spectacle open to all. In cities and towns, horsemen gathered to compete for sizeable purses in organized stakes races. In Pittsburgh, an annual three-day meeting had its own carnival atmosphere, "filled," according to one contemporary account, "with booths as at a fair." Of course, there were still plenty of the less formal, ad hoc competitions, the kind apt to take place whenever and wherever two owners–each proud of his horse and certain of its superiority–crossed paths. The winner of such races would pad both his pocket and his ego, capturing all-important bragging rights until next time. As one canny Philadelphian observed, "Gentlemen having fine animals were wont to try their speed on public streets."

These races, though entertaining, were also problematic if you happened to be walking in front of a couple of thundering steeds. In 1817, for safety's sake, the state legislature forbid racing on Philadelphia's public roads. To discourage gambling, the same law also banned racing in front of groups of fifteen or more. Three years later, the legislature banned the sport throughout the state. While the earlier law was easy to evade by moving races away from town, this one had teeth. If caught, lawbreakers risked losing their horses.

Still, as long as there were horses to race, men found ways to race them, and the simplest way around the law was to race trotting horses, for which the law made exception. Unlike thoroughbreds, bred for speed alone, trotting horses, known as standardbreds, were workhorses first. If thoroughbred racing saddled an aura of aristocratic elitism, trotting was a more utilitarian and democratic enterprise, reflective of daily life. "Every tradesman, artisan, businessman, or mechanic whose affairs require the services of a horse," wrote one observer, "keeps a fast and hardy trotter." Racing, went the rationale, could only improve these sleek road horses.

Did it? Perhaps. There is no question, though, that it attracted crowds eager for the sport. With the opening of Hunting Park in the mid-1820s, Philadelphians had the first track in the nation dedicated to "driving," the proper term for controlling a horse from a cart behind it. To comply with the law, the races were officially classed as exhibitions; no entry fees were paid, no prize money offered, and gambling was strictly forbidden. Other communities around the state quickly followed the lead, staging exhibitions of their own. Trotting races soon became the drawing cards to agricultural fairs, stage to demonstrate the latest farm techniques and equipment. Fans came out in such numbers to witness these exhibitions–more than 50,000 alone to one in West Philadelphia in 1856–that the Philadelphia Public Ledger warned, "There is danger that agricultural fairs may be ruined by transforming them in to race courses."

A man stands next to his horse.
Delvin Miller preparing Meadow Maid to compete at the Little Brown Jug race...
Somehow, both the fairs and the Commonwealth survived. In 1879, the legislature finally conceded the obvious - racing was too popular to outlaw- and modified the old 1820 law to allow racing for prize money at fairs and driving parks. Within a decade, both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were attracting the best trotters in the country to their driving parks. When the markerYork Inter-State Fair opened new fairgrounds in 1889, it included a modern half-mile track and grandstand. In the early 1900s, the Hanover Shoe Farm, just east of Gettysburg, which began by raising trotters for the fair circuit, had become, as it remains, the largest breeder of standardbreds in the world. By the mid-1900s, Delvin Miller, from Washington, in the western part of the state, had become one of harness racing's most dominant figures. A peerless driver, breeder, trainer, and goodwill ambassador, Miller won 2,442 races over six continents in a career that spanned eight decades. A tireless promoter for improvements to the sport, he also was instrumental in the early use of mobile starting gates and drivers using hard hats for protection.

Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, could not officially get to the post. Of course, they were still being raced informally, or bred in Pennsylvania and raced elsewhere. And nothing was about to change that, particularly after officials in the late 1800s uncovered corrupt practices at tracks in New York and New Jersey.

One man holds the rein of a horse, while another man stands beside the horse.
Owner Samuel Riddle with Man o" War, circa 1920.
Yet, the sport survived even that. Founded and funded by its upper-class members, clubs like the Radnor Hunt Club outside of Philadelphia and the Rolling Rock Club near Ligonier, added steeplechase races to their horse shows and fox hunts, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, thoroughbred flat racing, as well. Textile magnate Samuel Riddle, a member of the Philadelphia area Rose Tree Hunt, owned two of the greatest thoroughbred champions of the twentieth century, Man o' War and War Admiral, one of the few horses to sweep the three-year-old Triple Crown, made up of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.

Riddle's name carried weight beyond racing circles, as did wealthy Philadelphians George and Joseph Widener, who also owned a racing stable. They all lobbied for legalization in Pennsylvania while racing their horses elsewhere. A new wave of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, for whom gambling was not as taboo as it was for conservative Protestants, also sought reform. All pushed for change, as did a mostly urban faction of the legislature, though they were constantly rebuffed through the 1920s by their more rural counterparts. Meanwhile, racing fans crossed state lines to watch and wager in Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware, which were only too happy for the added stream of revenue.

Jockeys on their horses round a corner of a race track, dirt flies in the air, and a crowd of spectators watch.
Jockeys on their horses round a corner of a race track, dirt flies in the air,...
Finally, on December 22, 1959, Governor markerDavid L. Lawrence signed into law the bill, passed in the state house by a single vote, which legalized Thoroughbred racing in the Commonwealth. In 2006, in an attempt to stop the drift of patrons and tax revenue away from the sport, slot machines were installed at tracks like Philadelphia Park. Nothing, however, piques interest in the sport the way a great horse does. In 2004, Pennsylvania finally had one in Smarty Jones. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner fell just a length short of winning the Triple Crown, but he captured the hearts and imaginations of the hardened railbirds and average Joes, as did two other wonderful Pennsylvania-connected horses: 2005 Preakness and Belmont champion Afleet Alex, and 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

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