Bicycling Indianapolis

In 1896,the Indianapolis News published a series of articles about bicycling in and around Indianapolis. That series of articles is what I have been using to create these “Bicycling Thursday” series of posts here at Indiana Transportation History. These articles generally have covered riding different roads, usually old state roads, leaving Indianapolis. I will include links to all of those below. But this article is about something different. There was a proposed bicycling route that covered quite a bit of the north side of the city and Marion County.

Today’s information comes from the Indianapolis News of 14 March 1896. This plan was to be financed via the sale of subscriptions, much like the way that roads were paid for before this, and how Auto Trails, starting in the 1910’s, were going to be financed afterwards. Most of the route wouldn’t use roads in place. Where it did use roads, it would be built along side that road. Most of the route would make use of riding on the banks of water courses through the county.

Proposed bicycle route through Indianapolis and Marin County as described in the Indianapolis News of 14 March 1896.

The potential route started along Indiana Avenue in downtown Indianapolis. It would follow that road to where it crossed Fall Creek. It is mentioned in the News that the condition of Indiana Avenue, at that time, from West Street to Fall Creek, is such that “no worse road was found in going over the entire course than in this street.” The path would then follow the levee along the north bank of Fall Creek “south of the new pumping station of the Water Company.” The proposed route would continue along Fall Creek, then the east bank of the White River until crossing the Indianapolis Belt Railway. Here, the bicycling route would join the Crawfordsville Free Gravel Road until that road crossed the White River. The Crawfordsville Free Gravel Road is now Waterway Boulevard (after having been named Speedway Avenue), and it crossed the river at the Emrichsville Bridge, later replaced by the current 16th Street bridge.

The proposed path would then continue to follow the White River until after it crossed the “Flack Pike,” now 30th Street, passing “many giant sycamores, winding in and out with the deviation of the stream.” Just north of the Flack Pike the river and the Central Canal come close to one another, where the proposed route would switch over to the tow path along the north bank of the canal on its way to Broad Ripple.

“The ride up the tow-path every wheelman and wheelwoman in the city is familiar with – its beauties, its dangers and it tribulations often.” It is described as a beautiful ride. However, washouts, gullies, chuck holes and soft spots are common along the way, “and a sudden dip into the canal has a most dampening effect on enthusiasm.” The tow path continues through Fairview Park, now the site of Butler University. There is a fairly steep climb before the path would cross Illinois Street. Here, a bicycle rider could choose to use either side of the canal to get to Broad Ripple. But the official route would continue along the north tow path.

At Broad Ripple, the path would follow the Westfield Pike north past the Broad Ripple damn and across the White River on a large iron bridge. After crossing the river, the path then turns south to follow the river along the north/west bank to a point where it crosses White River again at what is now the 82nd Street crossing after passing the Haverstick Farm. After crossing White River, it would follow what was then the Fall Creek and White River Free Gravel Road (FCWRFGR) back towards the city. The first part of that free gravel road doesn’t now exist above what is now 79th Street. From there, it is known as River Road to the point where the FCWRFGR turned south on what is now Keystone Avenue.

The new path would be built along the FCWRFGR until it got to Malott Park, at what is now 56th Street. The route would then turn east “on the dirt road from Malott Park to Millersville.” It is mentioned that this dirt road is very narrow in places, with “scarcely room on either side for the path.” Here, the builders of the route hadn’t decided whether to follow Fall Creek’s north bank or the Millersville Free Gravel Road and the south bank of Fall Creek to Meridian Street. Here, riding down Meridian Street would bring rider back to downtown Indianapolis, and the point where the route started.

Some of the path, as described, has, in more recent times, been added to the Indy Parks trail system. It starts on what is now the White River Trail. It then crosses over to the Central Canal Trail above the old Riverside Amusement Park north of 30th Street. At Illinois Street, where the rider in 1896 had two choices, the path chosen by Indy Parks runs along the opposite bank of the Canal than was chosen to be followed then. Most of the rest of the route, that can still be traveled, can be followed by using the streets that exist now. There are a few places where this can’t happen.

The following is a list of the other entries in this “Bicycling Thursday” series.

Indianapolis and Its Decoration Day Race
Allisonville Pike (Allisonville Road to Noblesville)
Crawfordsville Pike (Old Crawfordsville Road to Crawfordsville)
Madison Road (Madison Avenue from Southport to Indianapolis)
Michigan Road North (MLK/Michigan Road north to Augusta)
Michigan Road South (Southeastern Avenue)
National Road West (Washington Street west to Plainfield)
Pendleton Pike (Pendleton Pike to Oaklandon and beyond)
Reveal Road (Dandy Trail through Eagle Creek valley)
Rockville Road (Old Rockville Road from Danville to Indianapolis)
Shelbyville Road (Old Shelbyville Road from Indianapolis to SE Marion County)
Three Notch Road (Meridian Street south to Southport Road)
Westfield Road (Westfield Boulevard and Illinois Street from Westfield south)

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.

** edited 06/03/2021 by Paula Trefun Simpson to note that the ‘canal’ mentioned was the Central Canal