In 1856, an elderly Providence cotton merchant named Josiah Chapin (1788-1881) purchased a large expanse of farmland on the city's west side from R.M.and C.B. Snow. The property was located not far southeast of the village of Olneyville, not far west of the Cranston Street Armory and the Dexter Training Ground, and about a mile and a half east of downtown Providence. It was bounded by Messer Street on the east, Willow Street on the north, xxx Street on the west, and xxx Street on the south. Chapin does not appear to have lived there, but the land looked like a good investment, as the surrounding property was just becoming urbanized.
Chapin lived to a ripe old age, but apparently lost the ability to handle his own affairs. Four trustees were appointed to handle Chapin's legal business by 1873, when he was eighty-five years old. The trustees were a weighty bunch. James Y. Smith (1809-1876) had been governor of the state during the Civil War. Edward Aborn Greene (b.1823) was a partner in a major textile firm and had married Smith's niece. Not much is known of Arba B. Dike (1805-1881). The fourth trustee was Chapin's son William C. Chapin (1842-1900), owner of the Riverside Mill in Olneyville. The elder Chapin lived for eight more years, but was essentially out of the picture.
The trustees had Chapin's Messer Street property platted out into subdivisions in 1875, in hopes of selling off small portions as house lots. The land's official name then became "The West Training Ground Plat." A few of the lots situated directly on Messer Street were sold off quickly. On one of these lots, Stephen Tourtellot built a house in 1877 that still stands today at 107 Messer, with an historic plaque from the Providence Preservation Society. However, the large portion of the plat remained undeveloped, and apparently the trustees decided that the Messer Street neighborhood was not quite ready for this sort of development, so they sought to lease the remaining fifteen acres out, reserving a few of the choice lots fronting on Messer Street for later sale.
In January of 1878, the Providence Base Ball Association formed, and began scouting around the city for a good location for a modern ball park. Several locations were considered, including the "Callender Lot" owned by a Mr. Barstow; a lot on America Street; the "Reynolds Lot" on Prairie Avenue; the old amateur Adelaide Street baseball grounds; and even the creepy abandoned West Burial Ground. None of these were found suitable for the purpose, but the team directors visited the old Josiah Chapin farm on February 26 and decided that it fit all of the requirements. It was close to level, was raised up a few feet from the surrounding roads, was easily accessible by street car. The grounds were also "away from the contamination of rum shops and the attendant loafers." The price was right, and a lease was signed.
The Union Railroad Company's street cars already ran along High Street (now Westminster), which passed just three blocks north of the park. The company put in a spur that ran directly to the grounds on game days, bringing patrons from downtown to the gates in just fifteen minutes. Other cars ran down Cranston Street and Broadway, both also within easy walking distance. The construction was done quickly. The railroad company, knowing that the park would bring in extra money for them, paid the bill to have the grounds graded. The grandstand was constructed, and in mid-March the order was placed for a state-of-the-art official league turnstile that cost $45.00. There were fifteen acres in the West Training Ground Plat, but the team only leased and fenced in six of those acres. This left nine empty acres past center and right fields, which were occasionally used for traveling circuses.
The new park opened to the public on May 1 1878. The following account from the Providence Morning Star captures the excitement and provides the most detailed description we have of the park:
The large grandstand held twelve hundred people, among them hundreds of ladies. The long semi-circular tiers of seats were black with men and boys, and hundreds were standing, unable to get seats. The commodious space for carriages was completely filled, and one or two May Day riding parties also graced that part of the grounds... Two registering turnstiles gates admit the patrons to the grounds, and as each ticket holder passes through the gate he steps on a raised platform, and by a mechanical arrangement is registered, and only one person can pass through the gate at a time. Near the gate are two ticket offices, and a large entrance through which the crowd can pass at the end of the game. At the southeast corner there is a large gate to admit carriages to the park. The ground, which contains nearly six acres of land, is enclosed by a fence twelve feet high. The diamond is as level as constant rolling by heavy stone and iron rollers can make it. Inside of the base lines is turfed, except a space nine feet in width, reaching from the pitcher's position to the home plate. Twenty-two feet are sodded outside of the diamond. Paths leading to and from the bases have been rolled hard, and the out-field is sown with grass seed. The grand stand which will seat nearly 1200 people, is 151 x 40 feet, and in the rear is raised 34 feet. The stand is reached by steps at both ends. It will be covered by canvass, requiring nearly 7,000 feet. Seats are arranged in a circle at the eastern and western sides of the field. A platform 60 x 8 feet has been erected for the reporters, scorers and invited guests, seating nearly 60 persons. Under the grand stand for the visiting and local clubs are rooms 20 feet square and fitted up with wardrobes, dressing rooms 20 feet square, a wash room supplied with Pawtucket water, closet, etc. The Western Union Telegraph Company have a room 8 x 10 feet. There is a stockholders' room 20 feet square, and a refreshment saloon 40 x 20 to be managed by caterer Ardoene. A fence with gateways has been erected in front of the club rooms, thereby preventing the crowd from having any talk with the players. The grounds are without doubt as fine as any in the country, and Harry Wright said yesterday: "They are beautiful."
If you add up the areas of the various rooms described under the grandstand, there is still plenty more room under there. It would be just enough to accomodate the following space described by Harry Wright in 1882: "When the weather will not permit of outdoor practice, there is a large room 100 feet in length or more under the grandstand for that purpose." We know other details about the park as well. The grand stand seats had arms made of nickel-plated gas pipe. Stockholders were allowed to sit for free in the stands. Cushions were "rented at five cents apiece to mitigate the roughness of a pine board seat."
The left field fence at Messer Park was apparently quite close to home plate. One reporter complained that "a hit made in Providence near that foul line post is not a long hit; in fact that same hit in the right field seldom gives more than one base." Despite the allegedly short fence, Messer Park was not a friendly home run park. Only eight home runs were hit there in League games all year long, compared to about two hundred at Chicago's tiny park. Those eight included four over the left field fence, an inside-the-park home run by Paul Hines, and one smash by Jerry Denny that landed in the carriage driveway in right-center field, which was called "the longest ever made upon the grounds." Just beyond the short left field lay a building (possibly the Stephen Tourtellot house) where fans could sit on the roof and watch the game for the discounted rate of 25 cents, probably to the chagrin of the team management. One particularly powerful home run by Jerry Denny "sailed away like a hawk, rising and rising until long after it passed the left field fence, and until it was far above the housetops, finally dropping in a garden near the street." Unless the ball went more than 500 feet, it probably only cleared one housetop: the Tourtellot house, where the fans were sitting on the roof.
Those players who chose not to live in the City Hotel for the season tended to rent apartments near the park. When Harry Wright managed the Grays in 1882 and 1883, he rented at 16 Messer Street, just north of the park. When Jerry Denny brought his family from California in 1884, they rented at 1 Sycamore Place, just a block east of the park.
Before the 1884 season, a few minor improvements on the park were made. The reporters' area of the grand stand was supplied with comfortable cushions by former team president Flint, which all of the reporters noted with gratitude. A score slate was also placed in left field to show the Boston scores by inning as they came in over the telegraph. Finally, "some elaborate pictures have been obtained by Director Allen, measuring 7 x 13 feet, giving a life-size illustration of the diamond and a game in progress, which will be displayed on prominent boards on schedule days."
The park housed the minor league Providence Grays of the Eastern League in 1886, but the park was too large for the pitiful attendance that the team drew, and by early June the park was once again empty. Rumors began circulating about the sale of the park in September of 1886. On February 16, 1887, trustee Greene finally sold off the property that Messer Park sat on, in a deed to the Franklin Institute for Savings. The exact demolition date of the park is unknown, but must have been at some point during the next few months. By the end of the year, the subdivided plots were selling off at a rapid clip, and houses started to spring up where the old ball park used to stand.
copyright Rick Stattler 2002
Home runs at Messer Park, 1884:
1.Gilbert W. Chapin, The Chapin Book... (Hartford: Chapin Family Association, 1924); Biographical Cyclopedia of Rhode Island xxxx, 222; Providence Title Guarantee Company Records, Manuscripts Division, R.I.H.S.
2.Representative Men and Families of Rhode Island; Providence city directories; Providence Title Guarantee Company Records, Manuscripts Division, R.I.H.S.
3.Providence Preservation Society research books; Providence Title Guarantee Company Records, Manuscripts Division, R.I.H.S.
4.Providence Morning Star, January 15, January 17, February 22, March 1, 1878 .
5.Providence Morning Star, March 1, 5, 22, 1878; Boston Sunday Courier, June 15, 1884.
6.Providence Morning Star, May 2, 1878.
7.Letter from Harry Wright to "Chad" [Henry Chadwick], March 18, 1882; Providence Morning Star, March 1, 1878; Providence Journal, January 28, 1882; Boston Morning Journal, August 15, 1884.
8.Fall River Daily Evening News, October 9, 1884; Providence Evening Telegram, June 20, 1884; Providence Morning Star, September 6, 1884.
9.Letter from Harry Wright to John Montgomery Ward, February 21, 1882; Old Stone Bank Records, Signature Book volume 12, August 16, 1884, in the Manuscript Division of the Rhode Island Historical Society Library.
10.Providence Journal, February 25, April 29, 1884.
11.Providence Journal, June 4, September 19, 1886; Providence Title Guarantee Company Records, Manuscripts Division, R.I.H.S.
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