Roger P. Plaskett
Harwinton Town Historian

Photo courtesy of The Torrington Historical Society

On July 4, 1899, a racetrack opened within our boundaries in Harwinton that was second to none in the area. When it opened it was called “Murphy Park” and had a huge grandstand that could seat 3,000 people, a horse stable capable of holding 40 horses and even some amusements such as a merry-go-round.

So why haven’t we heard much about it? Where was it located? Why did it close?

The questions are many. Once the researching of this short-lived facility began, the story of the man who built it became as interesting as the park itself.

James McLeod Murphy, most often referred to, as “Captain Murphy” was a combination of electrical engineer, inventive genius and artist. Unfortunately the artistic part was more towards being a con artist then doing anything picturesque, but he certainly was creative.

In the late 1800s, Murphy appeared in Torrington boasting of nearly unlimited wealth and a long list of schemes that were guaranteed to make rich men out of anyone willing to invest just a few hundred dollars worth of faith in his plans. He sold himself to the local people by stating that “he came from good old Knickerbocker stock and that his ancestors included a former mayor of New York City and, on his mother’s side, an ancestral link to the Queen of Sheba. This self-presentation allowed him access to the most prominent men in the area. He claimed to be the “Father of the New York Life Saving Service” a title that he seemed to value nearly as much as “Father of the Country”. Supporting his claim he always carried around a New York newspaper clipping, that he shared with anyone who would listen. The Torrington Newspaper, “Evening Register”, reported that the clipping read:

“At a public exhibition at Old French’s Hotel, April 14, 1883, some 15,000 people witnessed Captain Murphy climb a seven story structure carrying a scaling ladder weighing thirty-two pounds, a life belt, five pounds, and life line, three pounds, climbing from sill to sill, transferring the ladder from story to story, making the assent in two and a half minutes, and the descent in one and a half minutes. In his ten years of service he beat the world’s record in life saving and made a record never since equaled.”

To validate the authenticity of this account, Captain Murphy stated, “I wrote it myself and my word is as good as my bond.”

The Captain was highly enthusiastic about his “Safety Third Rail System”. This was an invention that would revolutionize the Trolley car systems by eliminating the need for the overhead electrical wires. Many inventors had attempted to devise a system but could not solve the problem of having a “hot rail” in the middle of the street. Murphy’s system incorporated a middle rail that was only charged as the car passed directly over it. He sold the City of New York on the idea of installing a two-mile long trial line at Manhattan Beach. The company that controlled the invention had $1,000,000 in reported capital. This was divided into 10,000 shares of common and preferred stock at $100 a share and the company became incorporated in New York. Murphy wined and dined a number of local businessmen and even paid for their travel to New York to witness the Manhattan line.

Back in Torrington, Murphy would promote the fact that his factory for producing this new system would be built in Torrington. There was a report of an establishment of the Torrington - Hartford Tramway Co., which a good number of local people invested in by purchasing stock from its executive secretary whose name was Mr. J. McLeod Murphy.

As a way of thanking the city for investing in his endeavors, “Torrington’s hero” built Murphy Park for their enjoyment. It was a magnificent park where Torrington’s dog pound and sewage disposal plant are now located. The track was a half-mile oval with a massive 200-foot long clubhouse and immense stables. It sprung up about as fast as the beautiful fountain, located at the entrance of the park, would spray water into the concrete pool surrounding it. Murphy claimed to own a merry-go-round that was currently at Coney Island and promised to bring it to his park. A merry-go-round was installed near the entrance gate so maybe he really did own one. It is reported that there was a baseball diamond located in the center of the track’s infield, along with tennis courts and refreshment booths. Billiard rooms, a bowling alley complex and other amusements were planned. Murphy also claimed to own a “Shoot-the-chutes” ride, also located at Coney Island. He promised that it would also be brought here. Shooting galleries, maybe a scenic railway, all were in the plans for this attraction designed to bring many patrons into the local area. There were also plans for a large hotel, to be built just across the street (Bogue Road) on a Harwinton farm. The foundation was actually built, with three massive wine cellars but it never rose beyond that. Until the early 1970's, the staircase leading up the hillside could still be seen. The stairs were later moved into the woods. The farmhouse burned to the ground in 1987and the stairs were reused when the new house was erected on the site in 2003.

The Club-House
Photo courtesy of The Torrington Historical Society