Seventy eight years ago this weekend, Rhode Island’s Narragansett Park was the scene of one of the most curious episodes in American racing history when a political feud between the track’s owner and the governor of the state escalated into what became known as ‘The Rhode Island Race Track War.’
October 17, 1937. The roar of the small convoy of trucks rolling down Newport Avenue shattered the usual Sunday morning stillness of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The convoy turned off Newport and down a side street, coming to a stop at the gates of Narragansett Park race track. A small regiment of National Guardsmen wearing steel trench helmets and carrying rifles with fixed bayonets clambered out of the trucks and positioned themselves at the gates.
A couple of hours later, a few more trucks arrived, these carrying equipment: riot sticks, tear gas, and machine guns. The guns were arranged in a circle to cover the entire perimeter of the track. The guardsmen and the guns were placed there by order of the Governor of Rhode Island to prevent the track from opening for its fall meet.
In the words of one Boston newspaper, a clash of political alliances in America’s smallest state had turned ‘seriocomic.' A complicated tangle of political infighting, name-calling and ziz-zag litigations culminated in what became known as ‘The Rhode Island Race Track War’.
The men at the centre of it all
The protagonists – or maybe it should be antagonists – in this unlikely scenario were two men who came from totally different backgrounds but ultimately had strikingly similar goals.
Robert Emmet Quinn, 43, was born in a small Rhode Island mill town creatively spelled Phenix. He graduated from Brown University and Harvard Law School and served in the Intelligence Service in Europe during World War I. Married and the father of four children, the politically ambitious Quinn first became a senator in his home state, then moved up to the role of Lieutenant Governor, finally becoming Governor of Rhode Island in 1936.
Walter Edmund O’Hara, 40, grew up in Middleboro, Massachusetts, with no more than a 10th grade education. He went to work at age 17 in textile mills and newspapers in southeastern Massachusetts, and it didn’t take him long to wind up owning both. He financed and built the $1.2 million Narragansett Park while still in his 30s, almost entirely on his own.
Rhode Island was the second New England state (after New Hampshire) to legalize pari-mutuel wagering, in a special referendum passed overwhelmingly but by only 20 percent of the state’s eligible voters in the spring of 1934. Construction of a race track in Pawtucket on the site of an old airport not far from the Massachusetts border was begun in June of that year, and on August 1, less than seven weeks after groundbreaking, Narragansett opened to 37,281 patrons, who wagered $351,482.
When a simmering feud came to the boil
It was commonplace for attendances to surpass 40,000 in the 1930s and all the best stables in America shipped their horses to run at 'Gansett.' Special trains from Boston – an hour’s ride north – and nearby Providence deposited racegoers at the track’s front door.
Not content to stay put in one arena for long, O’Hara began his own newspaper, the Pawtucket Star, in April of 1936. O’Hara’s paper backed Thomas McCoy over Robert Quinn for the Democratic nomination for governor that autumn. When Quinn won the nomination, O’Hara and his paper backed him, but O’Hara remained loyal to McCoy, who became mayor of Pawtucket. Quinn won the election, a rarity for what had for years been a largely Republican state.
The following spring O’Hara acquired the Providence News-Tribune, merged it with his own paper to form the Providence Star-Tribune, and immediately set out to challenge the venerable Republican bastion the Providence Journal.
Democrats had only recently gained power in Rhode Island government, but factionalism already was beginning to strain party ties, especially where the Quinn and McCoy camps were concerned. The simmering feud came to a full-blown boil during Narragansett’s summer 1937 meet.
Halfway through the meet, Providence Journal sportswriter John Aborn was barred from the track’s press box, prompting Francis J. Kiernan, chief of the Rhode Island Division of Horse Racing, to issue a ruling preventing any member of the press from being banned from any Rhode Island track. The Racing Division issued another ruling around the same time, that placing judges should not put up the numbers of horses involved in photo finishes until the finish had been confirmed. Unfortunately, no one told this to O’Hara.
Heated row with the state steward
Following the fifth race on September 3, an enraged O’Hara, seeing no numbers on the board, went up to the stewards’ stand and confronted state steward James Doorley. A heated argument followed, in full view of spectators.
At 8 p.m. that night O’Hara went before the Racing Division to answer charges he had threatened and intimidated the steward. The diminutive O’Hara replied, “To charge that I did threaten and intimidate the 200-pound, six-footer James Doorley is ridiculous.”
The Division found him guilty and called for his removal as the track’s President and Managing Director. Superior Court judge Charles Walsh was roused from his bed by O’Hara’s lawyers later that night to issue a restraining order overturning the Racing Division’s ouster order.
The next day the Division ordered an audit of the track’s books. Quinn, who did not reveal the reason for the audit, said: “I am convinced that we cannot have clean racing under the management of Mr. O’Hara.” The governor sent 40 plainclothes state police to the track and mobilized the National Guard to make sure O’Hara did not perform any of his managerial duties.
Fight went back and forth in the courts for months
O’Hara was at the track but didn’t show himself, choosing instead to remain in the penthouse apartment he had built for himself atop the track’s clubhouse. The Guard was dismissed later that afternoon, but for Quinn the fight with O’Hara had just begun, a fight that would go back and forth in the state’s courtrooms for months.
State auditors were refused entry on September 5, a Sunday, with Quinn vowing to give them “all the force they need in carrying out the Racing Division’s orders, even to calling out the state police and militia.”
While Quinn had the state police and National Guard at his disposal, O’Hara, thanks to McCoy, enjoyed the services of the Pawtucket police, sixty of whom greeted the auditors and accompanying state troopers on Monday the 6th. Only after presenting a court order were they allowed to get at the books after the races were over. O’Hara’s restraining order, meanwhile, was overturned, with Quinn and Kiernan calling even louder for his removal, saying at the same time they had nothing personal against him.
Quinn and Kiernan clung to the conviction that O’Hara was out, while O’Hara maintained he was still in. Said Quinn: “We cannot have clean racing in Rhode Island as long as O’Hara is in charge.” In the September 8 Providence Journal, Quinn is quoted as saying: “If I find he (O’Hara) has libelled me I might sue him, but I haven’t read all his statements and as a matter of fact most of it strikes me as just funny.”
Jibe over mental hospital
Quinn wasn’t exactly reduced to fits of helpless mirth the next morning when he saw an extra edition of O’Hara’s Star-Tribune printed shortly before midnight. The headline, in large, bold type, read: GOV. QUINN WILL LAND IN BUTLER’S O’HARA SAYS. Butler’s was a Providence mental hospital. The curious thing about the headline was, when the paper was folded in half to be placed on newsstands, it read: GOV. QUINN IN BUTLER’S.
The hospital got at least 25 telephone calls inquiring about the executive’s mental well-being, and O’Hara got himself arrested.
The charge was criminal libel against the governor, and the headline wasn’t the end of it. In the story underneath the headline O’Hara answered all the charges put forth against him by the Racing Division, which included failure to comply with the Division’s order to oust him, interfering with state auditors and a claim that he said he could buy Racing Division chief Kiernan “for a dollar and a half” (O’Hara later added the price was too high).
In the article, O’Hara is quoted as saying: “Governor Robert E. (Call out the Militia) Quinn will eventually land in Butler Hospital – why not now?” To a charge that the track had misappropriated money from uncashed pari-mutuel tickets, O’Hara responded: “Gov. Quinn is a God damned liar…” Owing to the propriety of the era, most papers chose to print “ --- ------ liar.”
Escorted away by state police
O’Hara was arrested in his penthouse shortly after 8.30 p.m. Plainclothes state police bearing O’Hara’s arrest warrant were met outside the penthouse elevator by 25 Pawtucket police carrying revolvers. There were no incidents, and O’Hara surrendered peacefully. With him were his lawyers, Laurence and Edward Hogan, his second wife, Cle, and Mayor McCoy. O’Hara joked with newsmen and photographers and looked cocky as he was escorted out without handcuffs. He was arraigned twice, first in Quinn’s hometown of West Warwick. McCoy furnished the $5,000 bail, pulling five one-thousand dollar bills out of his pocket.
The second arraignment was in Providence for libel against New York advertising man William Beehan in the same edition of the paper. McCoy again put up the $5,000 bail. The Beehan suit was later settled; Quinn’s wouldn’t be so easy for O’Hara to rid himself of.
Rumors were rampant that the track’s license would be pulled within a matter of days and the second running of the Narragansett Special was in jeopardy. The race went off as scheduled on September 11 before a crowd of 28,000, who saw E. K. Bryson’s Calumet Dick splash through the mud to a one length victory, leaving favourite Seabiscuit back in third. New Deal, a 21-1 shot running for Cle O’Hara’s Araho Stable (O’Hara spelled backwards), was last.
Track license suspended after packed hearing
The day before, the Supreme Court had overturned the Racing Division’s order to remove O’Hara, and a few days later the Division held a hearing to show cause why the track’s license should not be revoked. The hearing lasted three days, attracted lots of press and huge crowds, and resulted in the Division suspending the track’s license effective 7 p.m. on September 18, the last day of the summer meet, and, finding him guilty of most of its charges, ordering O’Hara’s removal by September 30.
After the last race on the 18th, the track’s announcer proclaimed: “At 6.39 and a half Narragansett Park now closes its meet, thus obeying to the letter the rule of Governor Robert ‘Call out the Militia’ Quinn.” Some cheered. O’Hara made an appearance on his penthouse balcony, waving and throwing kisses to the crowd. The eighth and last race of the day was won by a horse called Notice Me.
The court again overturned the Division’s ruling three days before the track was supposed to open for its autumn meet, but Quinn, with his unusually broad gubernatorial powers, had his mind dead set against it. The court, ignoring the charges against O’Hara, ruled that the Racing Division had committed ‘prejudicial error’, allowing chief Kiernan to initiate charges and then sit in judgment of the case. Quinn deemed it ‘a technicality’.
O’Hara branded ‘an evil influence’
A hundred workers were getting the track ready for opening even as Quinn declared in the papers that he would not allow it to open and calling O’Hara “a dangerous, vicious, evil influence in this state”. Quinn claimed the track had violated a Racing Division rule requiring them to provide a list of officers 10 days before the start of the meet. The Division’s suspension made that impossible.
Back then, the New England tracks ran in a circuit, holding mostly month-long meetings from the spring until the autumn. On Saturday, October 16, a plane trailing a banner flew over Rockingham Park just before the second race. The banner read: ‘Narragansett Open Monday’. The New Hampshire track had applied for and received an extension of its meet through November 6, in the event that Narragansett did not run, then later extended that through November 13 to include November 11, Armistice Day, then traditionally one of the biggest racing days in New England. The October 16 Boston Globe carried Monday’s entries for both Rock and Gansett. The favorite in Gansett’s first race was Strange Times.
Area around the track placed under martial law
That night the proverbial other shoe dropped. Alleging that known “'thugs', gangsters and racketeers” had been seen at the track during the summer meet, Quinn issued a proclamation declaring an area for three square miles surrounding the track to be in a state of insurrection, placing it under martial law. The next morning, the day before the meet was to begin, he finally made good on his threat to ‘Call out the Militia’.
The first detachment of 30 Guardsmen arrived at the track at 8.30 a.m., followed an hour later by several more, until the total reached 250, who were placed in units of three at various intersections in the area. At about 10 a.m. a fleet of trucks pulled up carrying machine guns and other equipment.
The Guardsmen’s rifles weren’t loaded, although they were supplied with ammunition. The selling or consumption of alcoholic beverages was forbidden within the area under martial law, which included parts of the surrounding neighborhood.
Track employees and stable hands were issued with military passes. Mayor McCoy was turned back by fixed bayonets when he tried to enter. O’Hara, who had been away in New York, was allowed to enter and promptly went up to his penthouse where he entertained the media and played march music over the track’s loudspeakers. One photographer asked O’Hara: “Why don’t you look serious?” “I can’t,” O’Hara replied, “This is all a joke.”
By noon the only activity centered on two phone booths occupied constantly by members of the press phoning in updates to their papers. They were issued military passes later in the day, except for one Star-Tribune reporter, who was escorted off the grounds.
Governor Quinn booed by the crowd
A total of 46 horses were stabled in the 1,200-stall barn area. Hundreds of cars drove by to take a look at the curious spectacle of armed guards poised in combat readiness in front of a race track.
At 1.15 p.m. a bugle blew the Call to the Post for the first race to four stable hands playing cards.
About 30 track employees gathered on the state house steps that afternoon, some carrying signs that said, ‘O’Hara gave us jobs, Quinn took them away.’ The crowd booed as Quinn came down the steps, to which the governor responded, “Let them have their fun.”
A crowd of only 6,000 turned out at Rockingham, betting $209,237 on the first day of its extended meet.
O’Hara had 8,000 programs printed for that day, even though none of the totalizator equipment had been moved from Rockingham. In what proved to be a shrewd tactical move, he would continue to take entries for every day of the meet, assuring that the troops would remain at the track, at considerable expense to the state.
A dozen horses worked out on the morning of the 19th. By then only 33 horses were reportedly still on the grounds; most were defecting to Rockingham. Ten field tents were pitched in the track’s parking lot.
The number of Guardsmen occupying the track was reduced from 300 down to 65 on the 19th and two days later the area of martial law was cut to 300 yards surrounding the track, freeing several homes and a few small stores – and bars – from military rule.
‘Acts of a dictator’ attack gets O’Hara arrested again
On the evening of the 20th, Quinn went on a local radio station to give his side of the dispute. He alleged O’Hara had paid politicians a total of $72,000 in an attempt to gain control of the state. “O’Hara wasn’t satisfied to run the race track,” Quinn asserted, “he wanted, and still wants to, run Rhode Island.”
A week later O’Hara rebutted Quinn’s remarks in his own radio address, and got himself arrested again, this time after saying Quinn’s actions were “the acts of a dictator.” The West Warwick Republican Club had called Quinn virtually the same thing at the beginning of the occupation. They weren’t arrested.
O’Hara made it a point to mention in his speech that the governor hated him. He was arrested as he left his suite in Providence’s Hotel Biltmore. He was detained there all night, and was in court the next morning to answer Quinn’s libel charges.
Quinn and O’Hara traded half million dollar libel suits, with Quinn refusing to recognize O’Hara’s due to what he termed his ‘gubernatorial immunity’ to arrest.
By the 26th, only 14 horses were left at Gansett. The track clocker reported to work every day, with no workouts or races to time.
Religious groups backed Governor’s bid to end to racing
The Providence Journal ran several front-page editorials condemning the track, calling it ‘a sinister influence’ on Rhode Island politics, and religious groups rallied around Quinn to put an end to racing in the state.
The martial law order was lifted on November 12th one day after the meet was to have ended. The cost of the month-long siege was placed at somewhere around $100,000. That same day a Federal Grand Jury indicted O’Hara and four others for violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. The jury revealed over $100,000 had been paid from the track’s account to Democratic interests during the 1936 elections.
The U.S. District Court later overturned the indictments. Quinn eventually dropped his suit against O’Hara when O’Hara publicly apologized for his remarks.
O’Hara was removed as President and Managing Director at the next stockholders meeting the following spring. He and Quinn ran for governor in the autumn of 1938 but both were defeated by a Republican, William Vanderbilt, oldest son of A.G. Vanderbilt.
Quinn went on to become a judge and died in 1966. O’Hara’s Star-Tribune was absorbed by the Providence Journal. O’Hara went back to Massachusetts, divorced and married for a third time and among other ventures sold parking meters. He died in an automobile accident in Massachusetts in February of 1941.
Racing at Narragansett gradually diminished in quality and attendances dropped until finally the track closed for good on September 4, 1978. An industrial park occupies the site. Only a part of the ground floor of the grandstand remains. The troops have long since gone home.