Henry A. Montgomery

...and the Historic Montgomery Park


At the turn of the century Memphis was home to a race track named Montgomery Park.  It was located on the outskirts of town, and had a small grandstand.  The races here regularly attracted spectators from all walks of life and from all the surrounding states.  You would find the upper-crust from "Victorian Village” standing shoulder to shoulder with the country folks from Arkansas.  The man behind this lively track was Memphian Henry A. Montgomery.  He had formed the Memphis Jockey Club and by the 1850s the club purchased a tract of land that would become the Fairgrounds, and built their track.  During the late 1800’s there was good attendance at the races and lively betting with regular articles featured in the New York Times reporting the goings-on.  The "Tennessee Derby" was run there in 1884-1886 and again from 1890-1906.  And it actually rivaled the Kentucky Derby for gambling and excitement.  This is the story of Henry A. Montgomery and his race track.


Click on Small photos to enlarge them



Henry Arthur Montgomery was born in Fermanagh County, Ireland in 1829.  At fifteen he began an apprenticeship with Thomas Karnahan & Sons, a timber, state and iron dealership.  He immigrated to Canada in the Spring of 1848 and moved later that year to Brown County, Ohio.  By the time he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1851, he had married Maria Jane Dugan, a native of Ohio.  The young family moved to Tennessee shortly after the birth of their daughter Julia, the first of Henry and Maria's six children.

Fermanagh County, Ireland  
Julia Montgomery, born in 1851, married Decatur Doyle.  Annie Dugan Montgomery died as a child.  Lulu Montgomery, born in 1856, married Dr. Robert Jones, Jr.  Jennie Montgomery married Dr. Kennedy Jones.  Elizabeth "Bessie" Montgomery married Robert Thaddeus Cooper.  The Montgomery's only son, Stonewall R. Montgomery was born in 1863.

Maria Jane Dugan










The Montgomery's lived a short time in Somerville, TN, before settling in Memphis, where Henry began working in the telegraph business.  His early efforts involved direct control of all phases of the introduction of telegraphic communications into the Memphis area, but by the late 1850s, he was dealing primarily with the construction of telegraph lines.  He built the first telegraph line from Memphis to Little Rock, and during the Civil War he extended it to Clarksville.  In addition, he built a line from Madison to Helena, Arkansas. 



Through Montgomery's efforts, Memphis became a junction for Morse communication.  Unfortunately, the pressure of the larger companies and the Federal occupation of Memphis during the Civil War forced Montgomery out of the telegraph business.   He sold his interests to the Southwestern Telegraph Company, which later merged with other regional companies to form Western Union.


Samuel Morse Morse Code Telegraph insulators 1855 Directory Vintage Western Union Historical Marker


The telegraph was similar to many other inventions of the time.  It replaced an existing technology, dramatically reduced costs, was monopolized by a single firm, and was ultimately displaced by a newer technology.   The basic science of the telegraph is to send an electric current through a wire.   It was invented by Samuel Morse and with it came the Morse Code which allowed for breaking the electrical current in a particular pattern which denoted letters or phrases.  It's still used today.  Morse patented the telegraph in 1838.  Royal House and Alexander Bell introduced rival patents in 1846 and 1849, and the rivalry began.  By 1866 Western Union absorbed its last competitors and achieved market dominance.  And then the real threat came from Alexander Graham Bell's 1876 invention of the telephone or "talking telegraph". 


Vintage Telephone



Montgomery Place

The Henry A. Montgomery home "Montgomery Place" was built in the 1860's and was located at Poplar and Bellevue.  The beautiful home was the site of many grand and lavish parties, including an 1882 reception for Oscar Wilde.  The home was razed in 1938  when William R. Moore needed space to build his school.   Many sources state that the home was demolished when the next door Tech High School was built across the street, but recent research verifies that it was the William R. Moore School.   Early Memphis Directories list the location of the home as "Poplar NE corner of Mhoon Av (The name Mhoon Av was changed to Bellevue around 1900). The first, and at the time, the only telephone in Memphis was installed in Henry A. Montgomery's home.  When the first telephone call was made in Memphis, it was from the railway office of Col Michael Burke to the home of Henry A. Montgomery  on Poplar Avenue. 


Oscar Wilde Wm R. Moore School 1883Directory 1887 Directory 1904 Directory

Vintage "RING"




After leaving the telegraph business, Montgomery explored other ventures, including lumber, dry goods and cotton speculation.  His many achievements in business brought prosperity and social recognition to him and his family.  By the mid 1860s, the Montgomery's had become a part of the social elite of Memphis and had earned a reputation for being hospitable and concerned about community affairs.  After his wife Maria's death in 1870, Montgomery continued to be active in the civic and business affairs of Memphis.  He was elected Fire and Police Commissioner in 1884.   When it came to "cotton speculation", he hit it big time, becoming founder and President of the Merchants' Cotton Press and Storage Company.  The Cotton Press was a major invention which eliminated the need for all the gigantic storage sheds.  This invention could compress cotton bales to 1/3 their original size.  And a daily compress output was six thousand bales.  (In 1887, prominent Memphian Napoleon Hill succeeded founder Henry Montgomery, as head of the Merchants' Cotton Press and Storage Company).

Cotton Press Cotton Press Cotton Press Storage Buildings 1885 Directory Ca. 1886 Napoleon Hill


The Memphis Jockey Club ...

Henry A. Montgomery formed The Memphis Jockey Club in 1836 and the meetings were originally held at a location on Mississippi Boulevard.  By the early 1850's the Jockey Club had purchased land and established a race track,  and named its principal race of the year the Tennessee Derby.   Montgomery served as president of the Memphis Jockey Club and was also the principal promoter and financial investor in the race track.    It was inevitable that the race track would be named "Montgomery Park".

The Club House


1888 Badge 1892 Badge 1892 Badge 1891 ticket 1891 Lady's Ticket

1897 Lapel Pin

Vintage Pomade

Vintage Hair Dressing

Vintage Powder

1901 Pin




Montgomery Park Race Track ...

Montgomery Park Race Track was an American thoroughbred racetrack in Memphis - with gambling. 

In 1851 land was purchased out of the 5000 acre Deaderick Plantation and developed as a horse-racing track by the Memphis Jockey Club. The track was reorganized in 1882 and named Montgomery Park . During the late 1800’s there was good attendance and lively betting at the Memphis track, with regular articles in the New York Times reporting the goings-on. The Tennessee Derby was run there in 1884-1886 and again from 1890-1906, and rivaled the Kentucky Derby for gambling and excitement.  The track consisted of a one mile dirt oval 65 feet wide at all points.

1903 Grandstand  

Vintage Crowd

1892 Montgomery Park

1916 Montgomery Park

Vintage Race


The Tennessee Derby was an
American Thoroughbred horse race that was run annually from 1884 to 1886 and then 1890–1906 at the Montgomery Park Race Track located on what became the Memphis Fairgrounds.  It rivaled the Kentucky Derby at the time for prestige and purse money.  Kentucky Derby winners Joe Cotton and Agile had won at the Tennessee Derby.  On race days the crowds in the park might total 25,000 people, including important "visitors" from New York or Washington D. C..


1904 C. Vanderbilt

1896 Article

1889 Article

1889 Article

1901 Article

1901 Article

1902 Article



The principal races were the Gaston Stakes, restricted to 2 year olds, for a prize of $500, and the Peabody Stakes which was for 3 year olds, also with $500 in added prize money.  A supporting race was the Open Gayoso Stakes, while there was also variety offered in the Handicap Steeplechase.  The track was very popular and very successful.

1900s Montgomery Park 1903 Montgomery Park 1903 Club House 1903 Stables

But the Tennessee legislature outlawed gambling in 1906 and the track ran its last race and closed Montgomery Park.  Following the closure, the track land and facilities were first leased and then purchased by the city of Memphis and eventually incorporated into the Tri-State Fairgrounds and later into the Mid-South Fairgrounds

1905 Race


1905 Race




Track records for Montgomery Park at various distances.








1/2 mile

Dele Strome





41/2 furlongs





 :55 1/4

5/8 mile

Horace E.




1:01 1/4

51/2 furlongs

Nannie Hodge


107 1/2


1:08 1/4

3/4 mile






7/8 mile

The Rush




1:27 3/4

71/2 furlongs

Elsie L.




1:34 1/2

1 mile

Rapid Water




1:40 1/2

1 m. & 70 yds.





1:45 3/4

11/16 miles

Ram's Horn




1:47 1/2

11/8 miles

The Lady
James Reddick




1:54 1/4

13/16 miles

Jack Young




2:02 1/2

11/4 miles

Joe Lesser




2:08 3/4

13/8 miles

Royal Choice





11/2 miles





2:38 1/2


Short Course
(abt. 11/
4 mi.)






Long Course
(abt. 2 mi.)







Montgomery's death ...

It was while serving in his role as business and community leader that Henry A. Montgomery died very dramatically on October 20, 1887.  Immediately after welcoming delegates of the Waterways Convention to Memphis and to the Montgomery Park races, he fell dead on the speakers' platform.  For days, the Memphis newspapers ran articles about him and his grand funeral.  One year later they also published a special "Anniversary issue " of his death.  He was a well-respected leader in the community.  His monument at Elmwood Cemetery depicts him in his final pose, standing with his hand extended, as if giving a speech.


Grave Statue

Grave         1887 Tribute 1887 Tribute 1887 Tribute 1887 Tribute 1888 Anniversary


After his death, Montgomery's children continued the tradition of involvement in civic affairs and served in local organizations such as the Nineteenth Century Club, the Tennessee Club, and the Memphis Jockey Club.  They donated Montgomery's papers  to the Memphis Library.  The papers, spanning the years 1853 to 1942, contain materials which reflect the social history and personal relationships of the Montgomery family.  Also included are business papers relating to Henry's experience in the telegraph business and documents which list Memphis businesses and costs of living in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Montgomery Registry


The collection includes papers about Henry's granddaughter, Montgomery Cooper and her attempts to establish herself as a rare book dealer.  In addition, the papers include materials related to Henry's daughter Jennie Montgomery Jones.  The majority of these items are legal documents concerning property, business papers from the cotton business and bills and receipts from the 1870s and 1880s for living expenses related to the family's mansion, Montgomery Place.





Thoroughbred Racing in Tennessee ...

Although Kentucky is world famous for Thoroughbred racing today, at one time Tennessee was considered to be the home of the best racehorses in America. In the late 1700’s a number of Thoroughbred stallions were advertised in the newspapers in what is now east Tennessee. During the 1800’s Tennessee was acknowledged as the center of horse racing and breeding.


 In 1800, a stallion named Grey Medley was at the farm of Rachel Jackson’s brother, William Donelson.  Andrew Jackson, himself, was a leading breeder and racer in top races of the country. In 1804 he and Rachel attended the first official horse race in Gallatin as owners.  In 1805 he purchased an interest in Clover Bottom, an important racetrack of the time. He bred and owned some of the best horses of the day.  Jackson’s dealings at the racetrack are said to have partially led to his 1806 duel with Charles Dickinson.   By 1816 Jackson had sold most of his horses as he was heavily involved in politics. He went on to become President in 1929, but still kept a hand in racing, taking some horses to race in Washington D.C.

Andrew & Rachel Jackson


By  1839 Tennessee had at least  10 race tracks and 20 Jockey Clubs throughout the state, mostly in the middle and western sections.  In 1843 Nashville, a race named the Peyton Stakes was run. The purse was $35,000 and was the richest race run in the world up to that time, awarding a prize richer than England’s Epsom Derby. William G. Harding developed Belle Meade into a famous stud farm.  Bonnie Scotland, Enquirer, and Iroquois were some of the well-known sires at Belle Meade. Other top stud farms producing champions in middle Tennessee were Kennesaw and Fairview.


Belle Meade


The Tennessee Legislature passed an anti-betting law in 1906. The ban on pari-mutuel  betting effectively shut down the racehorse industry in Tennessee.  In 1912, the city of Memphis bought  Montgomery  Park from the Jockey Club and eventually the property was turned into what became the Memphis Fairgrounds. While there are still a few thoroughbred farms in the state, the incentive to breed  racing thoroughbreds was largely gone from the state, and Kentucky began to grow and thrive as the leader in the racehorse industry.


No Betting !




Montgomery Park after Thoroughbred Racing ...

Although the track was forced to close down thoroughbred racing in 1906 when betting in the state was made illegal, harness racing continued and became a popular feature of state fairs.  It didn't rely on wagering and survived well into the twentieth century.   And the Memphis Jockey Club Clubhouse was not demolished until 1950.  The city of Memphis purchased Montgomery Park in 1912 and this began the use of the track for Harness Racing, Rodeos, Circuses, Drag Racing, Air Shows and Wild West shows, especially during the Tri State Fair, and later the Mid-South Fair.  The track actually had a long run, but the grandstand burned in 1945 and today there's no trace of the track.

George Adams Rodeo


Vintage Harness Racing 1887 Harness Racing 1887 Harness Racing 1911 Tri-State Fair Harness

1936 Art McCrady Rodeo

1938 Swifts Jewel Cowboys

1938 Swifts Jewel Cowboys

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show


1909 Tri State Fair 1908 Tri State Fair 1909 Tri State 1903 Wild West 1930 Mid South Fair

In 1911, a "Restricted Subdivision for Colored People" opened south of Montgomery Park.  The "restriction" in this case means no shops or stores can be built in the subdivision.  The area is in the northwest corner of what became known as the Orange Mound neighborhood - which was part of the purchase of the old Deaderick Plantation.  There's currently no other information available on this and it's not known if there's a direct connection to the Montgomery Park Race Track or the Memphis Jockey Club.



This was the first community in the south to allow African-Americans to be able to own their own homes, and single families could also own their own property in Orange Mound.







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