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Morris Park Racecourse tunnel exposed

Tom Vasti is very knowledgeable about the history of Morris Park, even the minutiae.It was no surprise therefore that when he noticed a large street opening on Bronxdale Avenue on March 4 that he stopped to examine it.There is an area behind Con Edison’s Building #21 where it is quite evident that an opening was closed off with a wall just behind the building just north of the Bronxdale Avenue entrance to the Con Edison Yard.A check of old maps shows that the walled off area led to a tunnel which served as the grand entrance to the Morris Park Race Course used by some of the most prized race horses of the day owned by such luminaries as August Belmont, John A. Morris, the Vanderbilts, et al.

A New Haven Railroad spur deposited the race horses and fans next to this tunnel.They entered on the west side of Bear Swamp Road, now Bronxdale Avenue, which led to the 20,000-seat grandstand and the clubhouse on the east side. The race course opened officially on August 20, 1889 and the last race there was held in 1904 after which the races moved to Belmont Park.The old racetrack took on a variety of uses including bicycle and auto racing along with pioneer aviation activities.The 307-acre track was finally auctioned off in 1913 after having changed hands a couple of times during which time the City of New York began laying out a street grid.

The street opening of early March unearthed the tunnel which was opened over a century ago and personally approved by John A. Morris.Vasti knew what he was looking at and immediately called Nick DiBrino, the author of “The History of the Morris Park Racecourse” and the recognized authority on the subject.DiBrino responded at once and began taking pictures and interviewing the owners of the construction company doing the excavation.The open trench was 14’ deep and held a considerable amount of dirt and debris.He also noted that the tunnel was lined with huge brown sandstone blocks.A couple of blocks had been removed and weighted approximately three tons each.These were placed on the side of the road and Nick dutifully photographed them.

The contractors were very responsive and kept DiBrino up to date on any new discoveries.When they found a buried stairway on March 18 at the east side of the street, they called Nick asking him to come over and examine it in the morning.They had exposed six steps of a 20’ wide stairway while Nick watched.The sandstone blocks were approximately 5’ x 4’ and weighed about three tons each.The roadway of Bronxdale Avenue had been reconstructed circa 1912-13 at which time the tunnel was filled.The only disturbance to the tunnel was in 1928 when holes were bored through it for various conduits to the Borden’s milk plant on the east side of the avenue.A school is now under construction at the old Borden’s site.

For years the question of whether or not the old tunnel was backfilled has finally been answered.Another old historical poser has been answered dispelling all rumors thanks to the vigilance and diligence of Tom Vasti and Nick DiBrino along with that of a very helpful and cooperative contractor.

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