Our History


Casting light on local historical errors

Steve Cottrell


You would think that history is history and facts are facts, but sometimes neither are what they appear to be. That was especially true decades ago when there was no internet for fact-checking and little corroboration of what had actually happened before “facts” were published.

For example, there were reports in local newspapers in July 1911 claiming California Governor Hiram Johnson spoke at memorial services for Ellen Clark Sargent –– a Nevada City pioneer who founded the Nevada County Women’s Suffrage Club in 1869 and later served six years as treasurer of the national suffrage organization headed by Susan B. Anthony.

A few years ago, however, when I wanted to learn more about Ellen’s memorial services, I read San Francisco newspapers and discovered that although Gov. Johnson had been invited to speak at the Union Square services, he sent his regrets. 

So much for the long-accepted story of how the governor of California spoke at Ellen Sargent’s memorial service. 

Which brings me to an 1887 Nevada County event inaccurately written about for decades by several people –– including me –– involving horse racing at Glenbrook Park, (located in an area now sarcastically referred to as Burger Basin). The oft-repeated story claims that during the 1887 Nevada County Fair, horse races –– for the first time ever –– were held after sundown on a track illuminated by electric lights.

In fact, a history book I looked at for background information before writing this month’s column goes so far as to say it was the first sporting event of any kind held at night with the aid of electric lights. Ever. 

Unfortunately for all of us who have wrongly written about those 1887 races, it wasn’t the first time a horse race had been held under the lights. Nor was it the first sporting event in the United States illuminated by electric lights. Not even close.

For me, an important resource for connecting dots and turning a rough draft of history into a provable account of facts is an online subscription service called newspapers.com. It’s a digital repository of old newspapers from around the country and currently has nearly 440 million pages available for viewing. 

As I prepared to write about the 1887 races at Glenbrook Park for this issue of the Advocate, I decided to conduct some preliminary Google searches, followed by a look at relevant 19th century newspapers. If I was going to write about the event as local history, I wanted to be on solid footing. Turned out, however, that my footing was anything but solid.

As for the first horse races run under electric lights, that distinction apparently goes to New Orleans, where, in April 1881, elevated lights on a central tower were used to illuminate the track at the local fairgrounds. The experiment proved unsatisfactory, but some races were conducted before track officials cancelled the balance of their proposed night schedule.

Then, in 1882, with an improved lighting system in place, night racing resumed.

As for the first sporting event ever conducted under electric lights, a baseball game at Nantasket Beach, Massachusetts, seems to have that honor. The September 3, 1880 Boston Herald reported, “A novel exhibition of powerful electric lights was made last evening, sufficiently brilliant to allow two base-ball nines to play.”

The final score was a nine-inning 16-16 tie played beneath 36 arc lights of approximately 2,500-candle power each. The Herald reported, “on account of the uncertain light, the batting was weak and the pitchers were poorly supported.” But the paper correctly predicted that entire cities would soon be illuminated by elevated electric lights.

There’s plenty to brag about when we examine Nevada County history but having been the location of the first horse races ever held under lights –– much less the first outdoor sporting event of any kind to have the benefit of electric illumination –– is not one of them. 

Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com. 

Many accounts of Nevada County history claim the first horse races ever run under electric lights occurred at Glenbrook Park, but that’s not accurate.

Photo courtesy of Searls Historical Library

About the photo: 

Newspaper reports notwithstanding, California Governor Hiram Johnson did not speak at Ellen Sargent’s 1911 memorial services.