Brooklyn Historical Society

From the Archives: Skating through History

January 20, 2016

After an unseasonably warm finale to 2015, winter has finally come to Prospect Park. However, the warmer weather didn’t stopped countless Brooklynites from enjoying the classic cold weather pastime of ice skating. At the LeFrak Center at Lakeside’s state-of-the-art rinks, skaters can glide on the ice all season long, regardless of Mother Nature’s plans.

This wasn’t always the case. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, eager skaters were forced to wait for a complete freeze of the Lake before taking to the ice. Because of fluctuations in temperature, Prospect Park visitors were notified of the Lake’s ability to accommodate skaters through creative means: a red flag hung at Grand Army Plaza, as well as signs on the fronts of the trolleys that used to traverse Flatbush Avenue and Prospect Park West.

An article from the Brooklyn Eagle on December 18, 1882, describes the scene on the first day of skating that year: “Boys who were on their way to school suddenly began to feel sad and wondered if their father’s [sic] physicians would not order fresh air and exercise instead of the usual intellectual cramming.”

In those years, the first day of four-inch-thick ice was cause for celebration borough-wide, and led to peak crowds of as many as 20,000 skaters. With so many folks flocking to the ice, and with periodic warm spells midwinter, the scene at the Lake was understandably chaotic and unpredictable. Collisions between skaters and slips through thin patches of ice were not uncommon; all the while, “keepers,” uniformed in blue, tried often fruitlessly to instill a sense of order on the ice amidst the commotion.

Fortunately for Brooklyn skaters, crashing through the ice or being trampled by a renegade toboggan are concerns of the past. In 1960, under the guidance of controversial master planner Robert Moses, work began on the Park’s first skating rink, Wollman Rink, on the site of today’s LeFrak Center. Gone were the days of watching trolleys to figure out the afternoon’s plans. Park-goers could skate at any time during the season on the Park’s first skating rink.

And of course, things only got better in 2013 with the opening of the LeFrak Center, the Prospect Park Alliance’s contribution to Brooklyn skating. Its two modern rinks provide even more space to glide and an improved experience for skaters. If you haven’t paid the LeFrak Center a visit yet this year, be sure to stop by and check out the variety of ice-based programming this season – no need to look for a red flag in Grand Army Plaza!