Photo finish

Photo finish

Newly acquired treasure trove of photos depicting Narragansett Park Racetrack is highlight of Valley Talks

WOONSOCKET – An “invaluable” collection of photo negatives newly acquired by the Rhode Island Historical Society, depicting the life and times of Pawtucket’s famous Narragansett Park Racetrack, will be the hot topic at the kickoff of this year’s Valley Talks series, set to come to the Museum of Work & Culture, 42 South Main St. in Woonsocket, this Sunday, Jan. 13, at 1:30 p.m.

“It’s a huge Rhode Island story,” says Richard Ring, deputy executive director for collections and interpretation at the Rhode Island Historical Society, speaking of the state’s acquisition from a local photographer. Those photos will now need to be processed in a long and painstaking – but very exciting – process, he said.

Ring will give attendees at Sunday’s Valley Talks event a small taste of what researchers eventually expect to find among the photos.

“I’m going to present a little buffet of possible angles,” he said of the old thoroughbred racing track. “It’s politics, it’s money, it’s sports, it’s class. You know, there’s a ton of stuff.”

Valley Talks is a series of biweekly historical lectures.

The Jan. 13 event will feature Ring presenting on this major acquisition the Rhode Island Historical Society has made as it celebrates its “Rah-Rah Rhody” sports programming theme for 2019. The program, “Gansett: A brief history of Narragansett Racetrack through its photo archive,” will feature the complete, extant archive of thousands of negatives of photographs taken at the track, which opened in 1934 and officially closed in 1978.

This collection, says Ring, includes at least 10,000 negatives, and many as 30,000, some of them dating back to the 1930s. Officials are keeping the name of the photographer who donated them quiet. Ring said it was a man who wanted an entity to take this rich history into its care.

The cost just for scanning the images will run between $50,000 and $100,000, said Ring, and there will be additional costs for archival housing and identifying subjects of photos and cataloging the work. Some dates, horse names and jockey names are included. There are candid shots, images from the jockey room, pictures from the hospital, and fine photo finishes, all part of a deep history. This thoroughbred racing track was where Seabiscuit set records and was the first park to install a photo finish camera and a starting gate.

“We don’t even know what we’ve got yet, I have to get my head around what we have,” said Ring. “It’s invaluable.”

He said as he learns more and more about the politics of the track and life of the jockeys, he’ll give more talks to promote the archive, with the plan to make it available digitally over the next year. The Pawtucket Preservation Society has reached out about giving a similar talk in that city, he said.

Some of the photos in the collection have already been in the public view. A calendar was produced a while back, but there were no identifications even for that, said Ring, as the photos were chosen simply for how cool they looked.

It’s difficult to say how long a project such as this will take, said Ring. Typically, though, when there’s this level of excitement around a certain project, the work gets done more quickly and the grants for doing the work are easier to come by. The Narragansett Park archive will be central to the state agency’s spring fundraising party, which will have a “Day at the Races” theme.

“Gansett,” as it was more popularly known, attracted crowds of 40,000 or more, including many celebrities. By 1937, it was the most profitable track in the country, and it became a gathering place for the glitterati of the late 1930s and ’40s: Milton Berle, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney and Alfred Vanderbilt were regulars, as were star athletes such as Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Its creation also sparked the so-called “race track war,” a long Rhode Island story of money, politics and conflict.

Seating for the program is limited to 75 and is first-come, first-served.

Ring has held positions at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, the Providence Public Library and the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Other Valley Talks will include:

• Jan. 27: Former National Park Ranger Chuck Arning will explore the pull factors that led to the immigration of the Irish to the Blackstone River Valley.

• Feb. 10: Baseball enthusiast and vintage ballist Jon Henson will survey the rise of the beloved game in the 19th century.

• Feb. 24: Mount Saint Charles Hockey Coach David Belisle will discuss the history of the school’s illustrious program.

• March 10: Writer and historical re-enactor Paul Bourget will explain why the battles fought in 1864 were pivotal to the outcome of the American Civil War.

For more information, visit .

At the Jan. 13 Valley Talks event at the Museum of Work and Culture, Richard Ring will present “Gansett: A brief history of Narragansett Racetrack through its photo archive.” The archives feature the complete, extant archive of thousands of negatives of photographs, like the photo shown above, taken at the track, which opened in 1934 and officially closed in 1978.