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Sunday, June 21, 1964

Early Vallejo Race Tracks

Ernest D. Wichels

The Solano County Fair is here and the horses are running! This is a young Fair but many Solano and Napa residents may have the impression that racing is “new” to these counties. Have you ever heard of Vallejo’s Hollywood Track, or Vallejo’s Cyclodrome, or Napa’s Race Track?

As a matter of fact, the oldest horse race stable and paddock in Northern California is being torn down this very day, on Broadway just south of the Sears Point Highway Junction. In this barn were born some of the finest thoroughbreds that ever raced in California. This barn housed the horses that raced on the Hollywood track during the 1880’s, and even later. A farmer named Holly ran this ranch and built the track.

The large 2-story ranch house at 1957 Broadway was built 95 years ago. For the past 55 or so years, the Alonzo S. Knights, pioneer Vallejo family, have lived there. We talked to Mrs. A. L. (Anna) Knight a few days ago and her alert mind recounted the interesting and carefree days of a half-century ago. From this lady with her remarkable memory, and her daughter, Mrs. F. C. (Betty Anne) Padilla, we learned a great deal of Solano County’s first race track where running races were held.

The one-mile Hollywood oval ran from the Sears Point Road in the vicinity of the Solano Iron Works, south to the Tall Trees Trailer Court. May we suggest that, on your way out to the modern racing plant at the Fair Grounds this week, you go by way of Broadway and witness the last vestige of 1880 racing being demolished.


When running races ceased at the Holly Ranch in Vallejo, the thoroughbreds and quarter-horses went to Napa for annual meets. The mile-long Napa oval was located just north of the present high school, immediately west of Jefferson Street and the railway tracks and just south of Pueblo Avenue. Our readers who are familiar with the erstwhile Vance’s Restaurant will recognize the site as being located due west of it. The Napa track ceased about the turn of the century, and shortly thereafter the Vallejo-to-Calistoga electric railroad ran through the center of it.

Now we come back to Vallejo and the track which was located in what is called “Leachman Park Subdivision.” Central Avenue runs approximately through the middle of what was once a racing circle, while Ryder and Farrell streets intersect the former site. Trotting and pacing races were held here. Here the circus tents went up annually. Bicycle races were also held, and it was a center for many athletic events.


We have just read in the Vallejo Chronicle of the Memorial Day races held in the Cyclodrome on May 30, 1895. J. R. Whitaker was named as “racing secretary”—his daughters Marie Whitaker and Carolene Falck live at Capitol and Napa Streets. There were two driving races, open only to Napa and Solano horses, based on the best three out of five trials, and “under the rules of the National Trotting Association.” The purse was $100 for each race, divided among the top four winners.
During the 1890s gala city fairs were held. Let’s take 1900 as an example.

The fair covered six days, July 16-21. The racing secretary was W. T. Kelley (later Vallejo’s prominent realtor) and the president was J. J. Luchsinger (one-time State Senator). The exhibits were housed downtown at Georgia and Sutter streets, in the old Armory building. Here were displayed the entries in cooking, sewing, and embroidery, china painting, leather burning, drawings and potted plants. The Vallejo Chronicle of July 15, 1900, announced that a new record was set with “$10,000 to be awarded in premiums and purses.” President Wiggins and his fellow directors, and Manager Max Schonfeld of the current Solano County Fair, are perhaps likewise amazed at this “record” figure.


Between 1890 and 1905 (long before Model Ts and Hondas) the craze locally was in bicycle transportation. They were called “wheels.” Vallejo had several bicycle clubs, as did Napa and Benicia. The leading Vallejo club was called the Ariels. Long distance pedalling was the fashion—for example, the Chronicle of July 6, 1900, tells of Sam Copper (later a top design engineer in Mare Island) “wheeling to Half Moon Bay and back before the 4th of July holiday” via Marin County and ferry to San Francisco. Today the traffic people won’t even permit the “wheels” on a freeway.

What will undoubtedly amaze some of the younger generation, however, is that members of the local clubs built a bicycle path between Vallejo and Napa—bridges and all, and most of it covered with cinders to permit mudless travel in rainy weather. The Napa Eagle Cycling Club cooperated with the Vallejo Ariels in this 14-mile hand-engineered bicycle track. Some of the grading of this track was recognizable until a few years ago, over the Greenwood Hill (the old Napa highway, just west of the airport). The “roadmaster” of the Napa Eagles, for years, was Tony Smith, now living at 1011 Nebraska St. He is still “wheeling” and urging that Secretary Udall build bicycle tracks in the Parks for America’s 50 million “cycling for health” addicts.