CHICAGO — Imagine tens of thousands of fans watching speed skating on a frozen Humboldt Park lagoon.
One hundred years ago, that vision was a reality.
It's been a century since the first Silver Skates competition took place in January 1917 on the frozen lagoon. Upward of 30,000 spectators attended the event, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
In its glory days during the 1920s and 1930s, Silver Skates attracted more than 60,000 fans to watch what Encyclopedia of Chicago called the "pre-eminent speed skating event in the United States."
From 1917-1974, the contest was sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Since 1975, the Chicago Park District has been in charge. Several preliminary competitions are taking place this year, including races in Mount Greenwood, Rowan Park, Midway Plaisance, Warren Park and McKinley Park. The finals are set for Jan. 21 at the McFetridge Sports Center, 3843 N. California Ave.
"For 100 years, the Silver Skates Competition has been an important fixture in Chicago’s winter recreational sport scene,"Chicago Park District General Superintendent and CEO Michael Kelly said. "Since 1975, when the Chicago Park District took over management of this competition, measures have been taken to keep this fun, exciting winter sport alive and thriving with the installation of refrigerated outdoor ice rinks in the '90s."
It may seem hard to believe now, but in 1923, the city had more than 600 outdoor ice rinks. There are only 13 places to ice skate indoors or outdoors in Chicago now.
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, speed skating became a dominant force in Chicago sports in the 1890s, mainly due to the Norwegians immigrants living in Humboldt Park who formed the Northwest Skating Club. Speed skating was an official grade school and high school sport in the 1920s, and the city was home to a trio of major skate manufacturers: F. W. Planert & Sons, Nestor Johnson Mfg. Co. and Alfred Johnson Skate Company.
The city also produced champion speed skaters, including Bobby McLean — national champion from 1911–1914 — and Olympians Diane Holum, Ann Henning, Leah Poulos and Andy Gabel.
Figure skating also became a major sports player in 1921 with the creation of the Figure Skating Club of Chicago Downtown. The old Chicago Stadium hosted several figure skating shows in the late 1930s.
As the city's demographics changed and residents moved to the suburbs, ice rinks and skating clubs went with them. Current speed skating competitions are sponsored by skating clubs in suburban Northbrook and Glen Ellyn, according to Encyclopedia of Chicago.
All of this year's Silver Skates events, which are available for competitors ages 6 and older, are free.
"The tradition continues at neighborhood outdoor ice rinks offering a chance for all ages to show their speed on the ice," Kelly said.
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