Indianapolis and Its Decoration Day Race

If there is one thing that Indianapolis is known for, it is racing. Oh, yes. Almost anyone in the WORLD would respond “Indianapolis 500” if you mention the city. Memorial Day weekend has become a time when the population of the city doubles and triples, with all of the visitors coming to watch “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But the subject of this post isn’t something related to a farm field with a large rectangle with curved corners in Speedway. As a matter of fact, the subject article of this post dates from the Indianapolis News of 23 May 1896, some 13 years before that other race started.

Before it became known as Memorial Day, 30 May of each year was known as Decoration Day. The holiday floated depending on the location of 30 May on the calendar. It was declared a Federal Holiday in 1868. In Indianapolis, the end of May signified, among other things, the end of the “rainy season,” otherwise known in the rest of the world as Spring. The weather starts getting drier and hotter right after Decoration Day. So it made almost perfect sense to use that holiday as a day to get together to watch a race.

Indianapolis News, 23 May 1896. This map shows the route of the annual Decoration Day Bicycle Road Race of 1896.

The Indianapolis Cycle Club and the Cycle Board of Trade put together the annual Decoration Day Road Race through the streets of Indianapolis. At the time of the source article, thirty men were in the list of racers. Those racers, unlike previous years, weren’t all from Indianapolis. Entries would be taken until 26 May, the following Tuesday. It was estimated that seventy-five to one hundred riders would be at the starting line when the race kicked off. Batches of racers would be set off on the 13.625 mile course at intervals of one minute.

Prizes for the race, due to its amateur status, could not include money. But there were 38 prizes to be given to the riders. The rules state that each rider is only allowed to win one prize. Prizes include four different bicycles, tires, suits, caps, hats, electric lantern, a Kodak, fishing rods, shoes, lamps, golf hoses, sweaters, luggage and a speed indicator. These prizes came from merchants across the city. Carl G. Fisher, future creator of the Lincoln and Dixie Highways, and his bicycle store donated two sweaters, a pair of shoes, and a “speed indicator.”

The course was chosen due to the relative good condition of the route. “It is probable that not another road race will be run on Decoration Day throughout the entire country on a finer course than the one which will be used here.” There are a few bad spots along the way, but they are few and far between.

The race started at the corner of Meridian and 14th (now 21st) Streets , heading north to 30th (now 38th) Street. Here it turned west one block to follow Illinois Street, which since it was outside the city limits at the time, was called the Indianapolis and Westfield Road (which is now Illinois Street and Westfield Boulevard to Broad Ripple). From there, it followed what is now Broad Ripple Avenue to the Fall Creek and White River Gravel Road (now called Keystone Avenue). South along the Fall Creek Road, the course then turned southwest onto the Allisonville Pike (now Fall Creek Boulevard). The Allisonville Pike went as far as what is now 38th Street, with the Allisonville name being used across that numbered street. The route then turned south on Meridian Street at 30th, going back to the starting point at 14th.

A three block stretch of asphalt starts, and finishes, the course. Two bad street car track crossings, one at 26th (34nd) Street and the other at 28th (36th) Street, are encountered. From the Fall Creek bridge to 30th (38th) Street is “one of the worst spots along the whole course.” Potholes and loose gravel make this section a rough going. Turning at 30th (38th) Street gets interesting, with a wooden culvert to be crossed, with boards at one end being lose. Three-eighths of a mile after turning onto Illinois Street riders will encounter a small rise. Further along Illinois Street requires crossing a wooden culvert, a small wooden bridge and climbing a 200 yard long, fairly stiff hill. “This hill stops just beyond the carriage entrance for Fairview Park (now the location of Butler University).” This entrance would be at what is now 46th Street. From here, for the next one-half mile, is a gradual down grade. At the canal, the route drops along a steep grade for about 100 yards.

“Some riders may seek to cross the canal and take advantage of the cycle path, but this will not be allowed.” The first quarter mile along what is now Westfield Boulevard is reported in excellent condition. Then comes 300 yards of horrible conditions, including potholes on both sides of the road. After that, fresh gravel with wheel tracks already in place on each side of center.

At Broad Ripple, the course encounters the Monon tracks and follows the street car tracks along what is Broad Ripple Avenue (previously 62nd Street). The Broad Ripple section is reported as being the worst section of the entire course. One of the best parts of the route is along the Fall Creek and White River Road. “Men who are still in the hunt will be able to come down this road at a lightning clip.” This road runs along the west border of Malott Park (at what is now 52nd Street), and just south of the village is the crossing of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad (Nickle Plate). (As an aside, the street that runs along the railroad tracks is now called Erie due to the name of the railroad company. This is common throughout Indianapolis.)

A turn onto Allisonville Pike (Fall Creek Boulevard), the LE&W tracks are crossed again near 38th Street. Then the course, still following the old Allisonville Pike turns west along 38th Street until Meridian Street, while the Allisonville Road turned south on what is now Central Avenue. The Monon tracks are crossed again on the west side of the Fairgrounds. At Meridian Street, the repeat of the conditions encountered on the way out happens. To avoid having racers cutting across the course, checkers were located at each cross street. “If the race is at all close, there will be a great sprint from Fall Creek to the tape.”

Racing, it seems, has been a part of Indianapolis’s Memorial Day for much longer than the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which included a partner that provided prizes for this race.

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