Before it was called the Harlem River Drive, the parkway running north and south along the west bank of the Harlem River was called the Harlem River Speedway. Construction began in 1894, and the speedway opened in July of 1898.
It stretched from 155th Street in Washington Heights to Dyckman Street in Inwood. At first, use of the speedway was restricted to equestrians and carriage drivers. This pleased the wealthy, who worried that sharing the road with other vehicles would ruin their good time. In advance of the speedway’s opening, a New York Times headline from May 15, 1898 announced: “No Danger that Bicyclists Will Mar the Horsemen’s Sport on the Speedway. THEY ARE EXCLUDED BY LAW.”
The speedway became a tourist destination where people could watch horse and boat races, visit Highbridge and Fort George Amusement Parks, and enjoy the scenery along the Harlem River.
Some New Yorkers were unhappy that tax dollars were used to build an exclusionary road. As Charles C. Sargent, Jr., noted in his article “A Horseman’s Paradise” in the November 1898 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “For the men – a few hundred at most – who own fast horses and want to ‘try them out,’ the sapient rulers of New York have spent in making the Speedway money that would have built thirty school houses, and would have provided twice over for the twenty five thousand children turned away last September from the overcrowded primary schools of the metropolis.”
It was not until 1919 that the Harlem River Speedway was opened to motorists. Three years later, it was paved.
In 1940 Robert Moses envisioned a highway that would connect all of Manhattan’s driveways. The Harlem River Drive would incorporate sections of the old Harlem River Speedway, linking the Henry Hudson Parkway, the George Washington Bridge, and the East River Drive. In addition, traffic from the Triborough Bridge and bridges connected to the Major Deegan Expressway would flow into the Harlem River Drive. This ambitious project was completed in 1964 at a cost of $38 million.