After several years of warm winters, ice skating may finally return to the City of Newburgh’s Downing Park pond, the Polly, as early as next week. Stephen Sinnott, a volunteer with the Downing Park Planning Committee and the driving force behind the future Shelter House Café, spoke at the city’s council meeting January 8 to propose the return of open skating at Downing Park.
Downing Park officially opened in 1897, and the history of ice skating on the Polly goes back just as far. Newburgh was a major hub during the origin of speed skating in the late 1800s. Joseph F. Donoghue, the first “declared” world speed skating champion in 1891, hailed from Newburgh. In fact, the Eastern championship speed skating races were held on the Polly in Downing Park in January of 1900.
The stone building adjacent to the Polly, known to longtime residents as the Shelter House, was added in 1934 to be used by local skaters in the winter to warm up, change into skates, and even enjoy cups of hot chocolate. However, annual ice skating on the Polly declined sometime after the late 1960s, and by the 70s and 80s the Shelter House became neglected and abandoned.
However, since the Downing Park Planning Committee’s founding in 1989, they have raised funds enabling them to rehabilitate the structure, using it more recently as the park’s visitor center and to host community meetings and occasional art exhibits. The most current project for the space is Sinnott’s vision to transform the Shelter House into a café, opening as early as spring of 2018. In the meantime, with adequate weather, Sinnott hopes to use the space as a shelter for ice skaters once again, and even offer free coffee and hot chocolate. With this winter’s early and prolonged cold-snap, the pond has frozen more than 6 inches deep, thick enough for skating. Sinnott and friends have worked to get the pond ready, and are seeking the city’s approval for the return of open skating on the Polly.
“That’s what I’m presenting to the city being that I have a license agreement to occupy the [Shelter House] space, I’m going to be here,” said Sinnott. “[The city is] in favor of it. Everybody I spoke to…they all want to see it happen.” Sinnott and the Downing Park Planning Committee are suggesting an open skate schedule, where residents can skate at their own risk during daylight hours and according to park rules and guidelines. The park would potentially have a flag system to indicate to the public whether the ice is safe to skate on.
Ideally, people could come and bring their skates as early as this winter, pending the approval of Newburgh’s city manager Michael Ciaravino. Sinnott hopes it could even become an annual event again.
“Anybody who grew up in Newburgh remembers the ice skating at Downing Park. It was the crown jewel of the city,” explained Sinnott. “I guess that’s my motivation. One of its biggest things that it was known for was its ice skating. So, I’m adamant about trying to make a go of it.”
By Lauren Berg