Washington Park 1950's
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Washington Park afire

February marks the 40th anniversary of the largest fire in Homewood history. The fire destroyed the grandstand of Washington Park Racetrack, located on the west side of Halsted Street south of 175th Street.

Older residents probably remember the track and that fateful day. Saturday, Feb. 5, 1977, was a quiet day for the Homewood Fire Department. On-duty firefighters handled no calls during the bitter cold day.

The men spent the evening relaxing, and by 10:30 p.m., some were turning in, hoping to get a full night’s sleep. The lull would soon end. At 10:54 p.m., the fire phone rang with a call reporting a fire at Washington Park Racetrack. The track had been open for a winter season of racing, and the races for that night had just concluded. 

Over the years, Homewood firefighters were used to responding to car, dumpster and barn fires at the track, so a call for help was not that unusual. As the first engine rolled out the fire station’s door, however, firefighters knew immediately this would not be a routine call. The magnitude of the blaze was readily apparent as they saw the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church on Gottschalk Street silhouetted by the glow of flames destroying the grandstand on the other side of town.

The first arriving firefighters faced a monumental task. The track’s grandstand was more than 900 feet long, 150 feet wide and several stories tall. It was constructed of steel framing with wood and other combustible material composing its floors and walls. The building had been painted numerous times since its opening in 1926, further adding to its flammable makeup.
 
Water supply to hydrants on the grounds was inadequate, although the track’s owners had begun efforts to improve water supply and other fire safety concerns in a multi-year project started just the year before.

These conditions, combined with a north wind, helped to hasten the fire’s spread down the length of the grandstand and clubhouse building.
 
Joseph Klauk, Homewood’s fire chief at the time, arrived at the fire just after the first pumper reached the scene and ahead of the department’s aerial platform “snorkel” truck. He described the scene to a newspaper reporter after the fire.

“I could see fire traveling from north to south inside the building,” he said. “I ordered the snorkel to go about halfway down, to connect to a hydrant there, in hopes we could get ahead of the fire and stop it, but by the time they hooked up and put the snorkel into operation, the fire had swept past their location. That’s how fast the fire was travelling.”

Sadly, Klauk realized the fate of the building was sealed. 
 
Though 150 firefighters and apparatus responded to the scene from nine departments, little could be done to save the grandstand building. In about three hours, what had been a “grand old lady” of horse racing lay in a smoldering heap of ashes and twisted metal. No part of the grandstand building escaped destruction. 
 
Fortunately, the north winds kept the fire from spreading to any adjacent structures, and the fire affected none of the barns and the 1,000 horses in them.
 
While the bitter cold and the 8-plus inches of snow on the ground hampered firefighting efforts, the snow cover did help extinguish the large embers that drifted across the night sky and landed on many Homewood rooftops up to a mile south and west of the racetrack property. 

As morning dawned, Homewood residents began gathering at the track’s gates to view the destruction and reminisce about times they had at Washington Park. This sadness was in contrast to the excitement and happiness many Homewood residents felt when the racetrack opened 50 years earlier.
 
The track is memorialized with a state historical marker located near Halsted Street and Maple Road and in the name of the nearby shopping district, Washington Park Plaza. 
 
A Brief History of Washington Park Racetrack in Homewood
In the spring of 1924, the Washington Park Corporation and the Illinois Jockey Club began construction of the Washington Park Race Track on the west side of Halsted Street. 

For many years, the race   track in Homewood was   the site of important, high-  profile races. 

Situated on 206 acres south of 175th Street, Washington Park boasted a massive steel and concrete grandstand, a clubhouse, judges’ stand and paddock area. Thirty stables capable of accommodating more than 1,000 horses were also built. 
 
Every effort was made to transform the former prairie land into a “floral gem.” Special grass seed was sown on the infield and ornamental shrubbery and flowering plants were placed throughout the facility.
 
To complete the park-like setting, 15- to 20-year-old elm trees were transplanted from Wisconsin to grace the boulevard entrances to the track grounds. 

It was one of the finest horse racing facilities at the time. 

During the early years, Washington Park played host to the revival of The American Derby, dubbed the “greatest racing classic in the Western Hemisphere.” 

On Aug. 31, 1955, record crowds saw the most famous match in U.S. thoroughbred history between Swaps and Nashua at Washington Park. 
 
Swaps had beaten Nashua in the Kentucky Derby, but Nashua won the Belmont and the Preakness Stakes that year. Since both horses held partial claim to the Triple Crown, a match race was held.

Swaps was the favorite, but Nashua, jockeyed by Eddie Arcaro, won by 6 ½ lengths. The race was broadcast live to an estimated 50 million viewers by CBS Television.
 
The track had a succession of owners over the years, but was in its heyday during 1935-1969, the years Ben Lindheimer and later his daughter, Marge Lindheimer Everett, ran the facility.
 
All-time high attendance reached 57,036 for Labor Day races in 1946, but by the late 1950s and early 1960s daily attendance dropped to under 15,000 fans.

In 1962, harness racing meets were inaugurated at the track, ending the era of thoroughbred racing there. For the remainder of its existence, Washington Park would play host to the sulkies and trotters on its racing dates. 

By the mid-1970s, attendance had dropped even further, and soft rock concerts with performers like Tony Orlando and Dawn, Linda Ronstadt and Jefferson Starship were held during the summer off-season to help boost revenue. 

By this time, Madison Square Garden Corporation and its parent, Gulf & Western Industries Inc., owned the track and embarked on an extensive program to refurbish the facilities. 

The end came suddenly on that bitterly cold night in 1977.

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