Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
Copyright. All rights reserved.

A History of Ice Skating in Norfolk, Virginia

Ice skating has been around in Norfolk for centuries. People like today would assemble at the local ponds and tributaries and enjoyed this sport. And it all started in the Netherlands when the small rivers and tributaries would freeze over and many folks, young and old, would assemble for the fun in the sport.

On February 8, 1836, the Norfolk & Portsmouth Hearld reported recorded-breaking temperatures with the temperature plummeting to 10 degrees above zero. The Norfolk & Portsmouth Hearld reported, “A severe “spell of cold weather with winds like a sharp razor from the North.” Even the older resident, senior’s citizens stated, “We have not seen severe weather like this in over 40-50 years.” During the week the intercourse of trade with Richmond and Baltimore by steam boats came to a halt. All trade stopped and was suspended due to the rivers being blocked with ice. This was the great freeze of 1836 here in our area.

However, an elderly man of Norfolk, well known and highly respected, wrote a letter to the editor of the Norfolk Virginian on February 1, 1877, reminsening about the winter of 1836. Unfortunatley he did not revealed his name to the newspaper.

He described the merriment of ice skating, the young and old, along the banks of the Norfolk and Portsmouth ponds. In both towns all citizens assembled for fun. He describes the maidens with their short dresses and very low slippers of different colors. The boys dressed and sported blue swallow-tail coats with big brass buttons. And all boys and men wore shinny stovepipes hats with a nice neat brim. As he said, “In those times one could buy old Pascal best Havana Trabuco’s, three for a Flip and Pomar’s sherry was no novelty. John J’s the best “old rye Whiskey” that flowed freely at twenty cents per gallon.” As our unknown citizen said, “O, those were the old days!”

This old resident of Norfolk stated how he and his two friends decided to skate over to Portsmouth Naval Hospital, which was a very hazardous trip. They all skated from Dr. Selden’s dwelling house on Freemason Street, and made a straight shot to the Naval Hospital. To their surprise, they saw a large British man-of-war (wooden ship) stuck in the ice between Norfolk and Portsmouth. The ship’s name was, Pantalooa, and she was tightly clasped in the ice. These young fellows decided to board at the bow and when they reached the deck they were confronted by the British sentries which were so surprised and amazed to see these young men. They walked around on this ship and boasted, “We have captured a British Man-of-War. Some of the sentries said nothing, seeing the youngsters with their skates on the forecastle deck. No one said a word.

When crossing the Elizabeth River the ice was firm, but crossing it the second time they quickly noticed the ice was thin and they could see the large rolling waves under the ice. To their horror, they knew they had to be fast and they fearlessly skated at a very high speed. They skated in a rapid motion. These young men did not look back as they crossed the river. If they had stopped, they all could have fallen into the freezing water. These men did not speak, but they only heard the sounds of their skates and the cracking ice beneath them. Once in Norfolk on the bank of Freemason Street, they hurried to French’s Hotel, and, with a few warm drinks, they thanked their Creator for delivering them to safety. They were miraculously saved from the depths of the Elizabeth River.

In the Norfolk Journal, February 1, 1867, appeared a detailed account about the residents of Norfolk ice skating. It was only two years after the Civil War. Young and old turned out on Wilson’s pond. It’s a beautiful article describing the local half-mile pond with thick smooth ice on Doctor Wilson’s land, now downtown Norfolk, not too far from our Federal Building on Granby Street. As the writer stated, “It was a joyous scene, and one of the most fascinating events that we all will ever witness. “ No ballroom, opera or theatre could present a tenth of its attractions, and no pencil of an artist could paint the picture as it appeared in all its gleeful, gladness and reality – nor could the imagination of the post find language or con phraseology to portray the pleasing variety and the thousand beauties of this giddy and intoxicating scene.”

That day on the ice was a handsome young man, a bold and dashing skater, who was rushing down among the crowd in the center like an avalanche tearing up the ice with his shag skates. He even was able to carve out his name in the ice. Thomas Allan, a Norfolk native, was speeding like a whirlwind. At the request of a number of friends and spectators, Thomas Allan decided to dash and jump over 11 persons lying on the cold ice. Allan dashed off several hundred yards and came rushing down upon them like a strong locomotive and made a tremendous jump, landing at least 5 feet from the individuals. He was like lightning on skates and he received a huge applause. He was proclaimed the best skater on the ice.

Also on that pond that night was Captain Edward Lakin, (1835-1869) the gallant chief of the United Fire Company, a native of New York, but a true southerner who fought for the cause. He was out with his beautiful wife, Fanny Lakin (1839-1895). and their many friends enjoying the pretty scene.

As the sun began to set, large fires were built along the banks of Wilson’s pond where ladies and others could warm their freezing feet, for the day was bitter cold.

As all began to depart by 8 PM, they followed Captain Larkin’s beautiful gray horse remembering the good times on the ice at Wilson’s pond and the beautiful and invigorating sport called ice skating.

My family also enjoyed this sport of ice skating, although I never recall the severe winters that the older generations experienced. But I do remember my great Aunt Martha Purcell Hitchings (1888-1985) asking my father if he remembered the ice skating hole where the Monticello Hotel stands. Today, the Federal Building now stands there, a very modern structure. Dad replied, “No, Aunt Sis, that was before my time.” She went on to explain that her Papa would take her to skate on this pond. They had so much fun and his nick-name for her on ice was Pudding.

On December 11, 1905, Norfolk opened up its own Ice Palace on the corner of Main and Chapel Streets. Although there was inclement weather, the Ice Palace opening was a tremendous success. Several hundred people crowed the place on the first night. The Palace provided a smoking room for men and a power room for women. The opening night was described as glass-like with many graceful skaters especially women. According to the Virginian-Pilot article, dated, December 1905, the owners were hoping that this ice rink might be able to bring famous hockey teams from the North. This old Ice Palace was in operation up to the late 1930s, but then went out of business. However, the old building was still standing in December 1938.

As a child, I remember hearing stories about an Ice Rink on 21st street near Dumar’s which was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950’s. Mr. Howard, my neighbor across the street was quite a skater and often was seen skating in his 70s. Unfortunatley, this Ice Rink went out of business probably because of all the mild winters Norfolk and our surrounding areas were having. But looking back on Ice Skating throughout the years here in Norfolk, many young and old had many fond memories and good times skating on ice.

* * * * * *

Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com