Posts Tagged ‘Caroline Kiner’

Elsa Von Blumen & Detroit’s first indoor bicycle track

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Some might think the new Lexus Velodrome is Detroit’s first — or even the first one indoors. It’s not. The Dorais Velodrome isn’t either.

In fact it’s challenging to know how many bicycle tracks Detroit has had since many were built just for a specific event.

One of those — and perhaps the first  — was built inside the former Music Hall for an endurance event in 1882.  Ms. Elsa Von Blumen (a pseudonym for Caroline Kiner) had come to Detroit in an attempt to ride 1,000 miles in six days, something she’d accomplished in Pittsburgh during the prior December.

Von  Blumen was born in Pensacola, Florida (or Kansas?), and not unlike Susan B. Anthony, moved with her family to Rochester, NY .

At age 19 she became a pedestrian racer, which was a popular sport at that time. There were plenty of endurance walking races, including six-day races in places like Madison Square Gardens and even Detroit. In 1881 she rode her first bicycle race against a horse: one mile for her, one and a half for the beast. She won 3 of 4 heats.

Many considered her the world’s top woman bicyclist of the time. Sue Macy, author of the book “Wheels of Change” says she was “one of the first competitive female athletes in the United States” — a role model for girls and young women at the start of the suffrage movement.

She told Bicycling World in 1881, “I feel I am not only offering the most novel and fascinating entertainment now before the people, but am demonstrating the great need of American young ladies, especially, of physical culture and bodily exercise. Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.”

Her Detroit Endurance Event

Her visit to Detroit didn’t start out well. She contracted a mild form of smallpox (called varioloid) shortly after arriving and was confined to the “pest house.” The case was very light and she soon recovered according to city’s Board of Health report.

To promote her race, images of her were posted at store shops around town. She offered a special invitation to other women.

Her plan was to ride for 91 hours at 11 miles an hour on a track that was 15 laps to a mile. The track was surveyed by the Assistant City Surveyor for accuracy. Chairs were arranged inside the track for spectators. There was a band to play music whenever she rode.

The Free Press downplayed her chances simply based on her appearance, “115 pounds, apparently not possessed of any of the physical characteristics essential to the successful accomplishment.”

She began her Detroit ride on Monday, April 10th, 1882 at 1 AM wearing a steel-gray suit trimmed with bullion fringe. She bowed to the crowd, got on her silver highwheeler bike, and the band started to play. She rode 35 miles in 3 hours before stopping for a two-hour sleep break. At the end of the first day, she’d ridden 140.

She mostly lived out of a Music Hall dressing room, ate three regular meals along with beef tea with crackers and some sips of port wine.

On Tuesday, she rode nearly 60 miles in the morning. Mr. Snow from the Detroit Bicycle Club rode with her for nine miles and crashed “in fine style” per the Free Press. The event manager also offered any local bicyclist $100 if they could match her miles for the final four days. She rode another 100 miles before the day was over.

Wednesday saw a slower pace at just over 10 MPH. Local ride “Robinson” was on the track riding behind her and hoping to win the $100 challenge. She finished the day with just over 449 miles.

Von Blumen continued on Thursday with another 70 miles by 3pm. The Free Press reported her looking “pan and wan, but as determined as ever.” She confidently stated that she would finish, but her nurse did mention her feet were getting cold. They had resorted to using a battery (!) to restore the blood circulation. She ended the day with 583 miles.

Friday’s low moment occurred when a spectator stepped on the track and caused her to crash over the bars.  She was thrown up against the steam heaters, hurting her head, and bruising her right leg from hip to ankle. She was carried to her dressing room and everyone thought she was quitting. Not so. She was back on her bike in 30 minutes, dizzy, weak and riding slow. While she ended the day with 707 miles, Robinson was now 7.3 miles ahead of her.

She started riding on Saturday still sore from the previous day’s crash yet got in 46 miles by noon. Her pace quickened. She had 800 miles by her dinner break. Many Detroiters began filling the Hall to watch, but especially women.

At 11:58 PM she got in 850 miles and the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause. As she stopped, so did the orchestra It was an impressive endurance feat, but especially given her illness before the event began.

Robinson did out ride Von Blumen over the four days by just thirteen miles, earning himself the $100 prize.

Financial Troubles

Although the event drew a fair number of paying spectators, it still lost $400. Oddly enough, the event manager died just after the event as well.

To help pay off her debt, Detroit citizens arranged a benefit race at Recreation Park. Von Blumen would race in a 5-mile time trial event and two 5-mile races against some horses. The Detroit Bicycle Club would also hold races for its members. There was a 25 cents admission.

But before the event took place, her doctor during the 1,000 mile attempt claimed he was owed $121 dollars and the police seized her bicycle.

Fortunately a sympathetic officer let her ride her bicycle and she beat both of the horses before a good number of onlookers.

Another benefit was held a week later where Von Blumen rode a 7.5 miles race against three horse relay team doing 15. She won by a mile, literally.

It appears she left Detroit via Grand Rapids during the couple weeks that followed. She continued bicycle racing until the highwheelers went out of style.

It doesn’t appear she came back to Detroit, but she certainly left her mark. There’s little doubt her event inspired many Detroit women and girls to take up bicycling, but especially after the safety bicycle became popular in the 1890s.

Further Reading: An interesting interview with Elsa Von Blumen about a “very funny incident.” It was published on the front page of the Detroit Free Press on April 28, 1882.