MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at

How Harlem River Speedway Became Harlem River Drive

Before it was called the Harlem River Drive, the parkway running north and south along the west bank of the Harlem River was called the Harlem River Speedway. Construction began in 1894, and the speedway opened in July of 1898.

Jay Hambridge. Summer on the Speedway. Museum of the City of New York. 34.100.33

It stretched from 155th Street in Washington Heights to Dyckman Street in Inwood. At first, use of the speedway was restricted to equestrians and carriage drivers. This pleased the wealthy, who worried that sharing the road with other vehicles would ruin their good time. In advance of the speedway’s opening, a New York Times headline from May 15, 1898 announced: “No Danger that Bicyclists Will Mar the Horsemen’s Sport on the Speedway. THEY ARE EXCLUDED BY LAW.”

Robert L. Bracklow. Harlem River Speedway. Museum of the City of New York. 93.91.249

The speedway became a tourist destination where people could watch horse and boat races, visit Highbridge and Fort George Amusement Parks, and enjoy the scenery along the Harlem River.

Robert L. Bracklow. Washington Bridge and Speedway. Museum of the City of New York. 93.91.444

Robert L. Bracklow. Boat Races on Harlem River under Washington Bridge. Museum of the City of New York. 93.91.115

Some New Yorkers were unhappy that tax dollars were used to build an exclusionary road. As Charles C. Sargent, Jr., noted in his article “A Horseman’s Paradise” in the November 1898 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “For the men – a few hundred at most – who own fast horses and want to ‘try them out,’ the sapient rulers of New York have spent in making the Speedway money that would have built thirty school houses, and would have provided twice over for the twenty five thousand children turned away last September from the overcrowded primary schools of the metropolis.”

It was not until 1919 that the Harlem River Speedway was opened to motorists. Three years later, it was paved.

New York Edison Company. View of the Harlem River Speedway and Harlem River from beneath Highbridge. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.2150

In 1940 Robert Moses envisioned a highway that would connect all of Manhattan’s driveways. The Harlem River Drive would incorporate sections of the old Harlem River Speedway, linking the Henry Hudson Parkway, the George Washington Bridge, and the East River Drive.  In addition, traffic from the Triborough Bridge and bridges connected to the Major Deegan Expressway would flow into the Harlem River Drive. This ambitious project was completed in 1964 at a cost of $38 million.

George Roos. Harlem River Drive and the Macombs Dam Bridge. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.8558

About Lauren Robinson

Associate Director of Collections Access

17 comments on “How Harlem River Speedway Became Harlem River Drive

  1. Kathy Benson
    February 28, 2012

    Interesting! I would like to see more of these fine images by Robert L. Bracklow.

  2. Ry Duffy
    May 3, 2012

    Where can I purchase this painting? Harlem Speedway

    • Lacy Schutz
      May 4, 2012

      Ry, we offer high quality archival reproductions of thousands of objects in our collections. You can be in touch with our rights department for more information: Just be sure to reference the ID number of the painting: 34.100.33.

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  4. Eileen Langan
    September 18, 2012

    What happened to the horses? I remember a riding ring at Speedway. Anyone have photos of it?

  5. 4myunclebill
    February 24, 2013

    Very fascinating! I came across this while doing research on C.K.G. Billings, who owned a lavish stable near the Harlem Speedway in the early 1900s. Those were the days, I suppose!

  6. Peggy Gavan
    February 24, 2013

    Great story! I’m doing a story about Billings’ Horseback Dinner for my blog, which is about unusual animal tales of Old New York. I’m going to link to this article about the Speedway, which I mention in my post — I’ll Tweet when the post is published.

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  10. Melanie Edwards
    July 8, 2013

    THis is a great tid bit. Does anyone have some info of the Carman/Combes mansion that was also facing the Speedway? According to Reginald Pelham-Bolton the house was used by the Parks dept for a while.

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  15. Mary Yannaco
    October 24, 2017

    My mom grew up on the speedway. Her address was 499 West 175th street. Her dad worked for the NYC Parks Dept as a chauffeur. They lived their with other families that also worked for them.

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