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.

Toll Roads, and State Takeover

There was a point in Indiana transportation history when the majority of “improved roads” in the state were toll roads. The National Road, for instance, originally built across Indiana in the 1830’s, fell, by 1842, into the maintenance responsibility of the counties through which it passed. Congress turned over the National Road to the state in 1848. In 1852, the entire road was let to a toll road company.

The National Road wasn’t the only one. Almost every major road in the state went through the toll road treatment. It wasn’t only the “state” roads that ended up being made into turnpikes. Land owners could, and did, by law create their own toll roads.

In 1883, a law was passed by the Indiana General Assembly that allowed for the “Appraisement, Purchase and Conversion of Toll Roads into Free Roads, and for their Maintenance as Free Roads.” This allowed counties to purchase toll roads when :they have been petitioned to do so by a majority of the land owners and stockholders in said toll road.” Often times, it would be put to a vote by the residents of the county. From what I have seen in newspapers, Cass County (Logansport) tried at least three times to get a positive vote. It would take several years for this law to become fully used by the counties of the state.

The Richmond Item of 10 February 1893 reported that the county had issued its list of purchase prices for toll roads in Wayne County. (For instance, The National Road was appraised at $12,000. This would end up not being the original road east of Richmond, having been replaced by the Richmond-Eaton Pike. That road is now called “Old National Road.”) The Fort Wayne Daily News of 13 December 1897 reports that Allen County has finally appraised the Fort Wayne and Little River Turnpike, the last toll road in Allen County.

Indianapolis News, 25 October 1889. List of toll roads that
were purchased by the Marion County commissioners
to become “free gravel” roads.

The purchases were going on all over the state. Looking through newspapers.com, with a search of “toll road” from every available newspaper in Indiana, the number of newspapers is fairly large. That only includes entries between 1800 and 1940.

Indianapolis News, 25 October 1889. List of roads that still
collect tolls, but have been petitioned to be purchased.

The attached snippets show the toll and free road situation in Marion County in October 1889. The bottom of the picture to the left shows that, at this time, Marion County contained 215 miles of gravel road, 70 being toll roads. Looking at a map of Marion County of that period, this is just a very small percentage of the roads in the county.

Until the counties started taking over the turnpikes (or toll roads, you decided which to use), toll houses were not only a common sight all around Indiana, they were basically landmarks. There is still one in existence along the old Michigan Road northwest of Indianapolis. Another Jim Grey entry, “For sale: Michigan Road Toll House” covers this quite well.

Now, the only toll road in the state is the Indiana Toll Road that runs across the top tier of counties. It is basically an extension of one toll road (or turnpike in Ohio and Pennsylvania) from Chicago to Philadelphia. This may change in the future. No one can ever be sure.

Carl Graham Fisher

There are few people that have had more influence on the current state of cross country travel than one Hoosier: Carl Graham Fisher.

Arguably, we owe the complete system of United States travel routes, whether it be US routes or Interstates, to a young man from southern Indiana that was not only interested in automobiles, but was also a promotion genius.

Carl Fisher was born in Greensburg, IN, on 12 January 1874. In the late 19th century, he became interested in bicycles. He opened a small bicycle shop with his brother. His love of bicycles led to his being involved in racing. This, in turn, led to an interest in the new automobile industry.

Mr. Fisher made his fortune, along with his friend James A. Allison, when he bought an interest in a patent to make acetylene headlights. The company formed to manufacture these headlights, Prest-O-Lite, went on to produce most headlights used on cars at the time. Prest-O-Lite began in 1904. It would be about a decade before the electric headlight became common. Fisher and Allison sold Prest-O-Lite in 1913.

While still owning Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had hands in two things that would change not only Indianapolis, but the entire country.

The first was as one of four people that put together a automobile test track in a large field along the Crawfordsville Road west of Indianapolis. That test track decided to put on a car race in 1909, which only met with disaster, injuries and death. Fisher convinced his partners to make some improvements in that track, paving it with 3.2 million bricks. In 1911, the race was tried again. Today, it is called the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The second was a brain storm. In 1912, Fisher conceived a great coast-to-coast road. That road would become the first Auto Trail, named the Lincoln Highway. It was this route that encouraged a then Lt. Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower to support the construction of the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, or Interstate System, when Eisenhower became President of the United States.

After the sale of Prest-O-Lite, Fisher had another transportation brainstorm. He had already created the east-west route. Now a north-south route was in order. Starting in two locations, Chicago and northern Michigan, a series of roads was brought together in two paths to connect to southern Florida. According to sources, it was to allow people of his home state of Indiana to vacation in Florida. This highway was to be called the Dixie Highway.

His two ideas, the Lincoln and Dixie Highways ended up having a junction in South Bend.

Carl Fisher went on to work on other projects, just not as transportation oriented. He did create a city in a swampy area near Miami. That swamp would become Miami Beach.

Carl Fisher died on 15 Jul 1939 after a lengthy illness. Although he had lost his fortune in real estate with the stock market collapse of 1929 and following depression, he continued to work as a promotion man for his former partners.

Carl Fisher left an indelible mark not only on Indiana, but on the country as a whole.

Bonus fact: Neither of his highway brainstorms connected to his original home town, and only the Dixie Highway connected to his adopted hometown of Indianapolis. The Lincoln Highway, however, did connect to the namesake town of his hometown. Greensburg, Indiana, was named after the hometown of the wife of the founder of the town: Greensburg, Pennsylvania.