Bicycling Thursday: “Race” From Indianapolis to St. Louis

I have made mention numerous times in this blog that when the Good Roads Movement started, it was all about the bicycle…not the automobile. And the biggest thing going at the end of the 19th century was the bicycle race. There were races scheduled across the country in 1895, from Spring to Fall. Indiana would include Fort Wayne (5 August) and South Bend (7 August). But, according to the Indianapolis News of 22 June 1895, “the topic that wheelmen are discussing at present is the coming relay race from Indianapolis to St. Louis.”

It wasn’t so much of a race as a message delivery. At the time, military interest in bicycles wasn’t all that great. But that interest had improved to a point where the military had been involved in a great relay race from Chicago to New York. Indianapolis’ race would involve the bicycle corps of the Indianapolis Light Infantry. The Indianapolis News of 8 June 1895 lists the members of that corps. Many of the 13 members of the corps were Century riders: those that have completed 100 miles in one ride in one day.

This particular relay race would carry a message from the offices of the Indianapolis News to Indianapolis Light Infantry Captain Curtis in the office of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Unlike the Chicago-New York race, which changed riders every five miles, this relay would change riders every 50 miles. The route to be followed would be the National Road west from Indianapolis. Or at least as much of it that was in place at the time.

The first leg would be from Indianapolis to Harmony, Indiana. Harmony is three miles east of downtown Brazil. East of Harmony, the National Road followed pretty much the poath US 40 does now…with the exception of the area of Reelsville. That is an interesting story in itself, and would like to refer you to Jim Grey’s “Down the Road” blog, and the 22 January 2018 entry “Puzzle solved: The National Road at Pleasant Gardens and Reelsville in Indiana.”

The next legs connect Harmony to Martinsville, Dexter, and Pocahontas, Illinois, before the last leg carries the message into St. Louis.

What is important to remember is that at the time, the Indiana portion of the race was carried on some road that were considered, at the time, in very good condition. The National Road was, in 1895, just restored to a free road status, having been a toll road (the National Pike) for around half a century. Guide books at the time described the road conditions going downhill fast once you cross the Illinois-Indiana state line.

The “race” didn’t go as planned. “After seeing the dirt, plank, gravel and sand roads, to say nothing of the hills, they (the Indianapolis Light Infantry bicycle corps) realized that they would be unable to make the race in the time they had allowed themselves in case it rained.” (Source: Indianapolis News, 6 July 1895) There was consideration to postpone the race in case of rain. That idea was shot down because “it was decided that it would hardly do for a military relay to be hindered on account of a little rain.” Well, it did rain. And the last three riders would find themselves “hub deep in mud.” The Indiana end of the race it didn’t rain nearly as much.

“Where there were good roads, the first two relay drivers gained one hour and thirty-six minutes on the schedule time.” That would be from Indianapolis to Martinsville, IL. After that, it is reported that mud and clay caked so much into the bicycle wheels that they wouldn’t move. It is noted that “the riders have the consolidation of knowing that over the roads they traveled a messenger on horseback probably could not have made better time.” In the end, the message arrived six hours later than scheduled.

Jim Grey has another page, The National Road in Illinois, for the road trip in that section. And he has The National Road in Western Indiana, Revisited covering his road trips along that section of the road. While this is an older site, it is very interesting when it comes to his road trips across the state and country.

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