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“Pride of Schenectady:” Ray Trail's short but brilliant running career earns a place in Hall of Fame

Friday, September 10, 2010
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Ray Trail, left, poses with teammates Ernie Marshall, John Scasny and Duncan McFarland after Mont Pleasant won the prestigious distance medley relay championship during the 1936 Penn Relays in Philadelphia. Trail also broke world interscholastic mile records and won two national cross country championships during a short but spectacular career. (Photo courtesy of Bob Pezzano)
Ray Trail, left, poses with teammates Ernie Marshall, John Scasny and Duncan McFarland after Mont Pleasant won the prestigious distance medley relay championship during the 1936 Penn Relays in Philadelphia. Trail also broke world interscholastic mile records and won two national cross country championships during a short but spectacular career. (Photo courtesy of Bob Pezzano)

“A blazing red streak scorched across the cinder path horizon to a permanent place in the track world’s hall of fame Saturday afternoon . . .” That’s how the Binghamton Sun described Ray Trail, his cherry and white Mont Pleasant High School uniform glistening in the sun as he broke Glenn Cunningham’s world interscholastic mile record on May 24, 1936, with a time of 4:24.4 in the En Joie Championships.

It was one of many outstanding accomplishments in a short but spectacular running career in Schenectady that was highlighted by two national cross country championships and two world interscholastic records. Trail’s feats were teletyped across the country by The Associated Press, putting Schenectady and, in particular, Mont Pleasant at the center of the national running map.

As a result, Ray Trail is being inducted into the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame Monday night at Proctors.

“Whenever you asked the old-timers who was the greatest athlete ever at Mont Pleasant, they’d always come up with Ray Trail,” said Craig Brown, a 1963 Mont Pleasant graduate and former principal at Schenectady High School who serves on the Hall of Fame committee.

But this was much more than the story of a runner with incredible natural talent. Ray Trail was a full-blooded Mohawk Indian who grew up poor on the St. Regis Reservation in Franklin County on the U.S.-Canada border. He worked at odd jobs as he ran, trying to unite his family, which had been scattered. And the student with a flashy smile and warm personality who regularly spoke before assemblies rapidly became popular and was voted president of the boys’ student council.

Adding to the mystique of this legendary runner with Olympic potential was his stunning downfall and disappearance from the public spotlight — a life ruined by alcohol — leading to a tragic death at the age of 29.

But those who witnessed Trail run during his 11⁄2-year stay at Mont Pleasant were simply amazed by his fluid running style and remarkable ability to recover quickly after races. He dominated races to the extent that he would stop, turn around and run back several paces, trying to catch a glimpse of the competition. And teammates struggled to keep up with Trail on training runs along city streets.

“I remember him. He was a great runner,” said Hall of Famer Bill Leonard, 86, who in the following years became an accomplished runner himself at Nott Terrace High School and the University of Notre Dame. “He ran like a deer, effortless, just glided along.”

Another Hall of Fame member, longtime area sports official Tommy Brennan, was three years behind Trail at Mont Pleasant.

“He was terrific. He was out of everybody’s class, especially in New York,” said Brennan. “He was a very quiet person, unassuming, not one of those hotshots. He knew his place.”

Ray Trail was already a running legend in the North Country well before he came to Schenectady, winning everything in sight from 880s to 17-mile road races, and even winning running contests against horses. His feats were chronicled in newspapers from Ogdensburg to Saranac Lake, and sports columnists were still writing about him decades later.

By most accounts, Raymond John Trail was born in December 1916, although his grave marker in Hogansburg reads 1917. He was the grandson of Chief John Gray, and would have been in line to become chieftan of the Mohawk Nation, had he not left the reservation. But life on the St. Regis Reservation was one of poverty, and his family became scattered. Trail’s mother worked summers in Saranac Lake and labored during winters on the reservation. His brother Thomas, born in 1923, was sent to work on a farm along the Canadian border, and his youngest brother Donald (1925) was also separated from the family.

Trail showed natural athletic ability as an adolescent, excelling in youth basketball programs and even getting the high youth score for the week (39) at the Tom Thumb Golf Course. But he especially excelled as a runner, and began regularly defeating varsity runners at Massena High School until they realized he was not yet in high school and ineligible to compete in those races.

But once Trail became a freshman, he began a long streak of high school victories in both cross country and track at Massena, winning sectional titles. As a freshman, he ran a 4:36 mile and finished a competitive second in the mile in the state meet in Ithaca.

And he was literally running away with cross country races. A 2.8-mile race in 1931 in Ogdensburg began and ended at the goalposts during halftime of a benefit football game. Trail built a large lead and ran into an unexpected obstacle. “Through some misunderstanding, the ticket seller refused to allow Raymond Trail, first in the race, to enter the grounds until he produced a ticket,” it was reported in the Massena Observer. Several minutes passed before he matter was cleared up and the runner was allowed to finish the race. He still won.

Trail stayed only two years at Massena and moved on to Franklin Academy in Malone and briefly at Tupper Lake High School. During winter and spring of 1934, he spoke regularly before Rotary, Elks and Kiwanis clubs, making passionate speeches on Indian rights and dispelling myths about Indians and their religious beliefs. He even received the $10 first prize in the Malone Elks public speaking contest in June 1934.

Harness races were common at fairs and community holiday celebrations in those days, and Trail became the star attraction at many of them, boasting he could cover a half-mile faster than the best trotter or pacer on the grounds could cover a mile. Trail never lost, and got his time down to 1:55 on July 4, 1934, in Malone, with his equine rival following in 2:17.

Trail turned from high school competition to AAU meets and hitch-hiked to races all over central and northern New York, often going days without eating. He outdueled Syracuse star Robert Carr in the 880 in a meet in Watertown in September 1933, then 10 minutes later, won the mile. In the 12-mile Morristown-Ogdensburg “marathon” on Memorial Day in 1935, Trail’s lead was a full mile by the seven-mile mark, and after the race he was “fresh as a daisy” as the other runners wilted in the heat.

It was often said that the only training Trail did for races was to put on his track uniform.

Lou Gregory, the U.S. marathon star of the 1932 Olympics, ran against Trail in many road races and predicted that the young star would become the next great American marathon runner.

Defeating Ray Trail was everybody’s goal, and another North Country running legend, Art Charland of Saranac Lake High School, did that in a meet at Canton in 1935. He had been promised a new boat and outboard motor if he “would go out and beat the Indian,” it was reported by Bill McLaughlin in a 1976 Adirondack Daily Enterprise piece looking back on Charland’s career. Both broke the state record, and Chartrand ran 4:30.

Before he went on to Notre Dame, Steve Szumachowski, a Schenectady Hall of Famer who was also a two-time national cross country champion, contacted Trail about coming to Mont Pleasant. They were never on the same team because Szumachowski graduated in 1935, but they did face each other on June 24 that year, in the Adirondack AAU championships at General Electric Field. In the surprise of the afternoon, Trail handily defeated Szumachowski in the 3,000, running 9:41.8. At the time, Trail held the Adirondack AAU record of 9:14.

That same summer, Mabel Hearon Hodgkins, a drama teacher at Mont Pleasant, saw Trail run in a race in Richfield Springs and encouraged him to visit Schenectady and enroll at Mont Pleasant. Trail arrived in August, and she and her husband put him up as a boarder and found him work. Trail opened up at a local store in the morning before school and worked there evenings after practice. He also worked in the school cafeteria to earn his lunch money.

Trail’s first appearance in a Mont Pleasant uniform was September, when he ran a close second to Fordham junior James Rafferty in the 800 during the Mayor Thatcher track meet at “the new” Bleecker Stadium. Over the next decade, Rafferty went on to become a five-time national AAU champion.

During an era when even local teams’ time trials for upcoming meets made news, Mont Pleasant coach Norman Kitching realized just how talented his new runner was when Trail covered the 17⁄8-mile Mont Pleasant cross country course in 9:12, taking 14 seconds off of Szumachowski’s course record. By tacking on the time Trail took to cover the final 220 yards, the effort translated to a 9:47 for two miles, well under the world interscholastic record of 9:53.

“Trail is the smoothest high school runner I have ever seen,” Kitching told the Union Star that day. “His running seems effortless and his stamina amazing. The boy should go far in cross country, but especially track.”

Trail actually lost the race he was preparing for, the Manhattan Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park, to Ernie Dauenhauer of Syracuse Central. Dauenhauer had also denied Szumachowski a third straight national championship the year before. But Trail never lost to the Syracuse runner again, coming back to defeat him at RPI, on his home course in the Syracuse Central invitational, and in the American Interscholastic Championships in Newark, N.J.

College coaches were taking note, too. Harry Hillman of Dartmouth called Trail “the most outstanding interscholastic cross country runner in America.” And it was written that every time Manhattan coach Pete Waters saw Trail run, he would almost swallow his cigar in amazement.

Success carried over into the indoor and outdoor track seasons. While his teammates raced around the halls at Mont Pleasant, Trail trained privately on the old banked-board track at Union College in preparation for his first appearance at Madison Square Garden. On Feb. 24, he soundly defeated a field of 50 runners, broken into three heats and based on time, in the national interscholastic mile championship with a 4:31.6. The next month, though, he got on a lightning-fast track at Dartmouth and dramatically lowered that time to 4:24.8, breaking the world interscholastic indoor record.

Trail quickly eclipsed Szumachowski’s school record of 4:34.7 in the outdoor mile by running 4:28.5 in a dual meet against the RPI freshman team on May 7. He not only broke Cunningham’s world interscholastic mile record of 4:24.7 at the En Joie meet later that month, but also came back one week later at Brown University to lower the standard to 4:22.3. During the same meet, he clocked 9:53.4 for the two-mile, narrowly missing another record.

Another high point of Trail’s only outdoor season at Mont Pleasant was when he anchored his team to the distance medley relay championships in the Penn Relays, dazzling the crowd at Franklin Field with his 4:30 anchor leg. John Scasny ran the 220-yard leg (nowadays, that leg is 1,200 meters), upcoming sprint star Ernie Marshall ran the 440 and Duncan McFarland the 880. Trail had a faster split, 4:27, at the New York University Relays one week earlier.

It was after this terrific spring that Trail traveled back to St. Regis Reservation and shared with his grandfather the dream of competing for the U.S. in the 1940 Olympics in the 1,500. He also wanted to break Cunningham’s world intercollegiate mile record and believed he could lower his mile mark to 4:15 in the space of six months.

Trail won meet after meet during the fall cross country season in 1936, atoning for his 1935 loss in the Manhattan Invitational on a very muddy course and repeating as national champion, although he ran a faster time the year before.

But it was during this time that his friends became alarmed with Trail’s drinking habits, and how it was already taking a toll on the runner’s body.

Trail’s high school eligibility expired following the cross country season, so instead of graduating with his class, he moved on to Holy Cross Prep. But by the summer of 1937, Trail was back in Schenectady, trying to pick up the pieces. An article in the Union Star carried the headline “Ray Trail needs some help,” and added the line “If you want a good, speedy errand boy, send for Ray Trail.”

From that low point in his life, Trail did find some work and completed the high school credits he needed to enter Syracuse University at the encouragement of his friends.

Trail won his first cross country meet at Syracuse and had a solid season with the freshman team. Syracuse coach Tom Keane was anxious to run Trail in the mile the next spring. But Trail didn’t stay in school long enough for that to happen. He also attended Holy Cross College briefly, but not long enough to run there, either.

Trail’s dream of competing in the Olympics was shattered when war broke out in Europe and the Games were canceled. His hopes of getting a scholarship to Dartmouth evaporated, too; in fact, many scholarship offers were withdrawn when word of his drinking got around.

Trail returned to the St. Regis Reservation each summer to re-orient himself and worked in youth camps as a counselor, along with other members of the Akwesasne Indian Club.

Trail did achieve one of his goals. In 1938, his mother, then remarried, and brothers were reunited and moved into a two-family home at the corner of Summit Avenue and Van Voast Street in Schenectady. Ray Trail did not live with them, but often visited.

Steve Jordan, a retired fire chief at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in West Milton who now resides in Charlton, lived across the street from the Trail family and was close friends with Thomas. Whenever Ray came to visit, it was a special occasion; even two years out of high school, he was still idolized.

“We all wanted to be Ray Trails,” he said. “We thought he was the nuts. He was like our hero. We wanted to chase him when he was running around Summit Avenue. He’d get way ahead, and we would quit.”

In the following years, he ran only one race of significance, finishing fourth in the Downstate 16.4-mile Run behind 1936 Boston Marathon winner Ellison Brown, a Narragansett Indian, and Canadian Olympian Bob Rakin.

Trail was working at the Kendala Munitions Dump near Syracuse when the United States was drawn into World War II. Within a week of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Trail enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was sent to basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas. Little else is known about his service record.

After the war, Trail got a job as a steel worker upstate in the North Creek-Mineville area, but his days were numbered. In addition to the toll alcohol had taken on his body, Trail contracted tuberculosis, according to Larry Hart in a January 1984 “Tales of Old Dorp” column in the Schenectady Gazette. Trail spent his final weeks in Saranac Lake, which was well-known for its TB sanatoriums.

Charland visited Trail in those final days and was surprised at what had become of the old rival he had admired and respected.

“The last time I saw him and talked to him he was at Saranac Lake General Hospital,” said Charland in 1976. “He had had a complete physical breakdown.”

Ray Trail died on the morning of Aug. 9, 1946 from rheumatic fever with little fanfare. He never married or had children. Small notices appeared in both Schenectady papers, and North Country sports columnists would later lament about what could have been, with more serious training and without the alcohol abuse. McLaughlin wrote a column on the runner’s life, aptly headlined “Ray Trail — on a path of tears and glory.”

Thomas Trail, who also ran for Mont Pleasant and served with the Canadian Royal Air Corps in the war, died young, as well, the victim of a 1950 car accident in New Jersey at age 27. He had been working for the Delaware Bridge Company in New York at the time and living in Brooklyn, and was buried alongside Ray at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Hogansburg. Donald Trail was also living in Brooklyn at the time, but his whereabouts are unknown. He would be 85 today. As a result, no living relative will be on hand for Monday’s induction ceremonies.

The Mohawk Indians of the St. Regis Reservation are far better off, financially, these days since turning to gambling as a source of revenue in the 1980s and later opening the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino near Hogansburg.

Trail’s story has a tragic ending of unfulfilled dreams and squandered talent, but his years at Mont Pleasant were glorious. At a time when Nott Terrace dominated the running scene, winning national championships under Billy Eddy, the Indian runner with a flashy smile swooped in and stole the headlines, raising “The Hill” to a level with its crosstown rival while capturing the hearts and imaginations of an entire city.

In the 74 years since that “blazing red streak scorched across” cinder tracks and cross country courses throughout the Northeast, no high school athlete in the Schenectady City School District has broken Ray Trail’s mile record of 4:22.3.

 
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