When we think of the sport of speed skating, something we surely all do, we rarely think of New York. We think of nordic countries, like the Netherlands, the land of Hans Christian Anderson and his silver skates. Or perhaps, inspired by their recent stash of medals at the olympic games, we might think of Japan, China, and South Korea. Heck, even if we consider speed skating in America, the only name that really comes to mind is Apollo Ono, who calls Seattle his home. Very few would consider Newburgh, NY, population 28,834.
But back in the 1800s when we could still count on the Hudson River reliably freezing over each winter, the city of Newburgh, just south and across the river from Poughkeepsie, was a speed skating powerhouse. Inspired by dropping temperatures and the thin layer of frost on our windows, we decided to take a trip upriver and investigate the so-called “Cradle of American Speed Skating”.
As early as 1815, Newburgh skaters were known for their speed. At first, amateur skaters from the town just competed against each other. But by the early 1900s, the National Amateur Skating Association, founded in 1886, hosted its national championships in the city. These competitions drew spectators from all over the Hudson valley, with crowds of 5,000 or more. In 1981 a local city chronicle wrote: ““It has been said that the history of skating — that is, speed skating — in this country, if ever written, must be written at Newburgh, which is now, and, our oldest residents say, always was, ‘the headquarters for fast skaters.’”
Perhaps the most famous of Newburgh’s speed skaters was Timothy Donoghue, nicknamed the “Newburgh Cyclone”. Donoghue was noted for his speed (he supposedly won enough races to decorate an entire wall with his prizes) as well as his endurance. One morning in the winter of 1872, he skated 30 miles up the river to Poughkeepsie and back. Later that afternoon he took off again, this time skating all the way to Albany – an over 5 hour journey. And skating ran in the family: Timothy’s son, Joseph F. Donoghue, won the World Championship in speed skating competition in Vienna, Amsterdam, England, Norway, Holland, and Germany, and becoming the first American athlete to win a world title in the sport.
The days of Newburgh’s prominence in the speed skating world have faded. The rise of speed skating as an international sport has taken focus away from the small New York city, but most importantly, there is simply no ice to skate on. Due to increased boat activity and a higher level of saline, the water of the Hudson no longer freezes over with the same reliable frequency. But take a look at these photos, cast your mind back, and imagine a time when you could strap on your skates and glide all the way from Poughkeepsie to Albany.