The Empire City Skating Rink

On December 12, 1868, the Empire City Skating Rink - the first covered ice rink in New York City - officially opened its doors, catering to the upper echelon of New York society wishing to escape the elements... and the 'riffraff' who deluded the city's most popular skating ponds. The rink - heralded as "a magnificent structure" by "The New York Times" - was a three hundred and fifty foot long by one hundred and seventy foot wide wooden building with a seventy foot high arched ceiling, brick flooring over which eight inches of ice was laid and a front resembling a Chinese pagoda. The Hervey Brothers and John C. Babcock, the men who had a hand in its construction and early management, thought of every convenience and detail. There were raised platforms for spectators, a gallery for a military band and a lavish refreshment room where suppers were occasionally held for the rink's upper crust patrons. Hundreds of gas lanterns illuminated the natural ice at night, allowing patrons to enjoy skating in the evening... a novelty that would have been near impossible outdoors on ponds because of the risk of collisions and the perils of falling through the ice. W.W. Wallace and Harry Taxter acted as the rink's proprietors and managers.

Top: Trade card courtesy Richard D. Sheaff. Used with permission. Bottom: Photo courtesy Major & Knapp Engraving, Manufacturing & Lithographic Co. / Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.1544. Used with permission.

Though members of the New York Skating Club still skated outdoors on Mitchell's Pond on Fifty Eighth Street near Fifth Avenue at the time the Empire Skating Rink opened, many defected and joined the hastily developed and short-lived Empire City Skating Club. One of the club's founders was James B. Story, who went on to win the Championships Of America in 1879 in Manhattan, judge various 'fancy' skating competitions and to act as one of the seven founders of the National Amateur Skating Association in 1886.

Engraving of James B. Story. Photo courtesy New York Public Library.

Beginning in 1869, the Empire City Skating Rink hosted an endless series of lavish ice carnivals and masquerades, among them the Fancy Dress and Civic Skating Carnival and the Grand Masquerade Carnival. Seaver of Union Square supplied the female skaters with their dresses and games of curling and lacrosse on ice were enjoyed. In 1870, the Brooklyn, New York and Empire City Skating Clubs worked in cooperation to "furnish champion skaters" for two hour matinee and evening exhibitions. The stars who performed included Eugene Beauharnais Cook, John Kelly - known as 'Smiling John E. Miller - and John Martin, who according to George Henry Browne "used to rise from an outside edge forward to a pirouette, making one complete revolution and then suddenly dropping his heel, shoot off deftly on the outside edge of the pirouetting foot."

Engravings of skating sessions at the Empire Rink show throngs of skaters - both men and women - circling the perimeter of the ice as better 'fancy' skaters performed figures in the middle of the rink. Christmas was even celebrated on the ice at the Empire Rink. Frank Swift (William H. Bishop) wrote of one such festive gathering in the "New York Clipper" of January 7, 1871 thusly: "The Empire Rink had a fine sheet of ice provided for Christmas, and consequently there was a steady stream of visitors from the overcrowded ponds of the Park to the Rink, where the sport could be engaged in with comfort. At night, when the Park skating ceased, the Rink was resorted to by many, and, with illuminations and music, an animated scene was presented."

Engraving by George Vallée

In the summer months and in fact, prior to the rink's official opening, the rink played host to a wide variety of special events. The New York Athletic Club held its first semi-annual Games there in 1868 and spectators flocked to the rink to enjoy various amusements, including concerts with full military bands, French velocipedes and distance walkers. A man named Edward Payson Weston, billed as 'The Great American Walker', entertained crowds in 1870 by endeavouring to walk "one hundred miles inside twenty-two consecutive hours, for a purse of fifteen hundred dollars."

In October 1869, the Empire Rink played host to the American Institute National Exhibition, which "The Nation" described as "the most comprehensive and important ever seen on this continent, consisting of machinery in motion, magnificent display of novel and ingenius inventions by American hands and brains, implements of husbandry, products of the soil, the workshop of the soil, fabrics of every description manufactured from cotton, flax and silk. Thousands of other attractive novelties." They even served soda water. Imagine!

Engraving of the Empire Roller Skating Rink

That same year, the American Institute leased the Empire City Skating Rink. Two years later, they purchased the venue. By 1875, the Empire Skating Rink Co. - the original owner - was listed on the Bureau Of Arrears list of defaulters. Conventions, dog shows and fairs drew patrons to the space until May 1877, when the rink briefly reopened as the Empire Roller Skating Rink. On January 7, 1878, the Empire Rink briefly reopened for ice skating and on February 4 and 5 of that year, the rink played host to the Amateur Championship of America in speed skating. Through the 1880's, the venue fell into disrepair and in 1893, it was demolished and replaced by a Flemish Revival exhibition hall.

By 1896, when the Ice Palace Skating Rink,at Lexington Avenue and One Hundred and Seventh Street and the St. Nicholas Rink on West Sixty Sixth Street near Columbus Ave opened, the Empire Rink was all but forgotten.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":