An Amusement Park, A Cemetery, and Strawberry Fields: The History of Marist’s Athletic Facilities

Marist’s athletic history runs deeper than many may imagine. When the Marist Brothers arrived in the 1850s, athletics was always on the agenda. 

“It was a very important part of their daily education,” says Dr. John Ansley, Director of the Archives and Special Collections at Marist. “To make sure they were able to get exercise for their health but to also blow off some steam.”

Our campus has changed dramatically since the first buildings were placed and depths of history lay underneath the fields and complexes sprinkled throughout campus. Each one has its own story to tell.

McCann Arena

Before we talk about the new and improved McCann Center at the South end of campus that opened in 2020, we have to talk about the past of that spot. 

It was a cemetery, and the college didn’t exhume the bodies that lay underneath it.

In 1909, Marist Brother Charles Camille, who was the assistant master of novices, passed away from meningitis and he was the first person buried in the on-campus cemetery. It is estimated that there were less than fifty brothers buried there. In 1953, the brothers wanted to move the cemetery to a larger space down the road, but they legally were not allowed. There is currently a plaque outside of McCann with the names of the brothers that they knew were buried there to commemorate their legacy. 

The plaque that sits outside The McCann Center. Photo by Mackenzie Meaney

There was a call for a new gym after Howard Goldman, the former men’s soccer coach and physical education department chair, saw the 220-by-260 foot building (which is now Marian Hall). Goldman had heard about the McCann Foundation, which was left behind after James McCann, a wealthy Poughkeepsian who left his fortune to “improving the social and recreational life in Poughkeepsie,” according to a 1977 edition of the Marist Circle.

Construction broke ground around 1970, according to Ansley. “When they were expanding Route 9 and the construction had all of this clean fill, President Rich Foy said ‘we would be happy to take it off your hands’. So it leveled out the area and gave the college space to expand on.” 

Leveling the ground covered all of the previous graves of the deceased brothers so they removed the headstones and just covered the cemetery over. 

The former cemetery. Courtesy of the Marist Archives

The original James J. McCann Recreation Center opened in 1977. Marty Liquori, a former Olympic track and field athlete, spoke at the dedication ceremony. It had a fieldhouse occupying the whole left side of the building (now where the cafe and basketball arena reside), complete with a track around it. The pool has always been on the right side of the facility. McCann also had a versatile court that could be used for racquetball, handball and squash.

After Marist basketball legend Rik Smits graduated, he donated two maple floors for Marist basketball to play on  as a gift, because the first one was ruined in a freak sprinkler accident.  This stood as the floor in McCann until 2011, when Marist got a new maple floor via the Red Fox Club.  

Over the years, McCann has seen multiple renovations to get it to where it is now. John Gartland spearheaded the renovation in 1997 to improve the fitness center areas that students could use in their free time, and the “fieldhouse” name was dropped and replaced with McCann Arena in 2011 after renovations to the entire facility which included player locker rooms, player lounge, a team film room, coaches office and locker rooms, and conference rooms.

All of that was again updated into the McCann we have today in 2019, which officially opened in 2020.

Leonidoff Field at Tenney Stadium

Leonidoff Field is named after a former Poughkeepsie doctor. Dr. Aleksei (Alex) A. Leonidoff arrived in Poughkeepsie from Russia in 1925 to be an assistant physician at Bowne Hospital (now Bowne Hall on Dutchess Community College). Leonidoff opened his own private practice in 1930 and two years later joined the staff at St. Francis Hospital (now MidHudson Regional). 

Leonidoff donated $25,000 to Marist in 1941, as well as a house located at 80 South Hamilton Street. The house was to serve as a Russian studies center and was sold after a few years. The money given, however, had the directions to go towards a football and soccer field. The field was dedicated to Dr. Leonidoff in 1968. 

“Dr. Leonidoff was a good friend of the college, and really gave the first major donation from an outside party or individual to the college,” Ansley says. A 1968 edition of the Marist Circle mentioned that his colleagues called him “the man,” speaking to his dedication to his profession and Poughkeepsie.  

The old scoreboard at Leonidoff Field. Photo courtesy of the Marist Archives

Tenney Stadium gets its name from a donation by Tim Tenney, a current member of Marist’s board of trustees, and current CEO/president of Pepsi-Cola of the Hudson Valley. Construction started in 2006, and opened the following year. The first game to ever be played at Tenney was a men’s soccer game, in which the Red Foxes tied Rider with a score of 1-1 and the game was played in front of 598 fans. The dedication ceremony took place the following day at a football game against Duquesne, where Marist lost 31-21, but played in front of a crowd of 4,621 people.

Gartland Athletic Field

Most students can sit on the wall overlooking the Gartland Athletic field to catch a softball game, which is one of the more recent sports established at the college. The construction of the softball field is relatively recent, as softball became a sport at Marist in 1991, with their first game in 1992 against Pace University. Before that started though, the field’s history runs as far back as almost 100 years ago.

From 1927-1941, Woodcliff Pleasure Park occupied most of the north end of campus. It was home to the largest roller coaster in the country at that time called the Blue Streak. It stood between 120-130 feet tall, a record that stood in the U.S until 1977, and went at an exhilarating speed of 65 miles per hour. It was designed by Vernon Keenan, the same engineer that designed Coney Island’s famed Cyclone roller coaster. 

Promotional poster for the Woodcliff Pleasure Park. Courtesy of the Marist Archives

Many of the amusement parks that were built in the Hudson Valley that are no longer in use were constructed somewhere between 1880s and 1920. Wesley Gottlock, co-author of Lost Amusement Parks of the Hudson Valley explains this in an interview with Hudson Valley Magazine, saying “Toward the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had kicked in. Folks were working in industry, and not bound to farms anymore — which, for the first time, allowed them to have time off on the weekends. So a need for recreation arose.”

The proximity to the Hudson River was one of the most appealing qualities of the north end complex. New Yorkers could take the Hudson Valley Dayliner Cruise up from the city and get off at the park. The liner traveled all the way up to Albany, but gave visitors ample time to enjoy the park before the cruise turned around to pick guests up. 

The property was originally owned by John Winslow, who was an ironsmith during the Civil War, and was most famously known for helping engineer the USS Monitor, an impressive vessel that Union forces used at The Battle of Hampton Roads. After Winslow died, the property, named Wood Cliff, was handed off to his children, who sold it to a man named John Marian, and Marian eventually gave it to Fred Ponty.

Ponty was a household name in the amusement park industry. His first park, Paradise Park in Rye, New York (now called Rye Playland), was a booming success. Ponty was determined to construct the land in Poughkeepsie into his dream amusement park. 

Woodland Pleasure Park housed all the amenities that any luxury amusement park has. In addition to Blue Streak, the park had an Olympic sized swimming pool, a roller skating rink, an arcade, a space for bumper cars, a ferris wheel and multiple other attractions. 

The footbridge that lead visitors to the park. Courtesy of the Marist Archives

The beginning of the end started less than 20 years after the park opened. Two parties claimed to have booked the park on the same August day and neither wanted to leave. As a result, a huge brawl broke out, and Poughkeepsie police could not contain the scene and had to call in state troopers to try and suppress the riot. Multiple people were injured, buildings and other parts of the property were damaged and the possibility of reopening remained uncertain. 

After an inspection of the park post-riot, inspectors found multiple high-risk safety concerns. One of those was within the footbridge that carried pedestrians from where the Dayliner dropped them off and into the park. That was the nail in the coffin for Woodland Pleasure Park, as it was completely demolished in the subsequent years. 

“Some of the brothers said that they used some of the lumber from the roller coaster to build their beehives,” said Ansley. 

McCann Baseball Field

Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers, grew up preferring manual labor over sitting in a classroom. He loved to farm and get his hands dirty. Therefore, When the brothers arrived in Poughkeepsie, they put a farm on campus. 

The farm stretched in the area of the current McCann baseball field. The outfield was where they placed most of their fruits, such as their extensive strawberry field. 

In addition to strawberries and other crops, there was livestock on the farm. Cows, pigs, chickens, pigeons and rabbits all called the baseball diamond home between 1940 and 1962.

The former farm on campus. Courtesy of the Marist Archives

“Some of the brothers would go out and teach,” Ansley says. “They would be asked to drop off eggs. So they had what was called the egg run. They would make deliveries as well, which I think is an interesting piece of history that is lost now, more or less.”

Cornell Boathouse

Instead of retelling a story that has already been told by our Editor-in-Chief Bridget Reilly, here is the link to dive into the history of one of the campus boathouses. 

Bonus: Ski Slope

Now that we have covered all of the history of the main facilities on campus, here is a little bonus one that not many have heard about. 

Marist used to have a ski slope, directly on campus, from 1965 and was taken down somewhere between 1970-77 to prepare for the construction of McCann, and located behind Sheahan and Leo Hall, through the McCann and Sheahan parking lots.

The idea was originally proposed by the president of the ski team, Walt Darbin. Original layout of the slope included two lifts, two slopes, two trails, a wooded slope, an area to stay warm and lights for night skiing. 

President Foy and Brother Brian Desilets, the moderator of the ski club, were avid skiers themselves, according to Ansley. It officially opened in 1967 with two expert slopes, a lift, an intermediate trail and a novice hill. Students on the ski team offered lessons on the weekend to students who wanted to learn, and it was much cheaper than surrounding mountains. 

“I talked to him and it’s funny,” Ansley says of Brother Desilets. “We talked, We interviewed him a couple of times and I don’t believe he ever mentioned that he was the one to put that in [the ski slope], but it seems to be fairly well documented as the guy that did it.”

According to a 1969 issue of the Circle, student Bill O’Reilly wrote about the ski slope, saying, “Ah, think of it, the outdoors, the thrill of the ride, the wind rushing into your face, the dull thud of hitting a rock on your way down, the sickening splash as you hit the swamp and are devoured by a turtle when you hit the bottom…”

So maybe the slope wasn’t the best addition to our campus, nor the best maintained, but who else can say they really ever had one of those within walking distance?

The existing and former buildings on campus have buckets-full of history, waiting to be dug up and retold. Now that you know all about Marist’s past, hopefully you can be a bit more mindful and appreciative of how far the campus has come. 

Edited by Andrew Hard and Bridget Reilly

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