Posts Tagged ‘History’

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.

Detroit Patrolman Charles Stewart’s “Horrible Death”

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

detroit-police-at-elmwood-station-1895The Detroit Police Department (originally called the Metropolitan Police) were among the first to put officers on bicycles.

In 1893, Officer Charles J. Stewart was appointed to the department and began his assignment on the Elmwood Precinct bicycle patrol. The Elmwood station was on Elmwood Avenue between Lafayette and E. Fort Street. The station and those segments of Elmwood and Fort no longer exist, but it would have been a block east and just south of the current Lafayette/McDougall intersection where the MLK High School is now

The Detroit News has an 1895 photo of Officers Joe Whitty (left) and Stewart taken at the Elmwood Station. Both are wearing their bicycle police uniforms, which included knickers to prevent their pant legs from getting caught in their front sprocket. Their bikes were fixed gears with dropped bars and designed to go fast. It doesn’t appear they had brakes.

There were very few automobiles on the roads, but Whitty and Stewart had to be able to catch the fast cyclists of the day who might be scorching (i.e. speeding) on Detroit’s streets. The speed limit was 8 MPH in the downtown area and 12 MPH outside of it.

Baulch-cycle-ad-1897On September 16th 1899, Whitty and Stewart made plans to meet at the corner of E. Jefferson and Orleans. This is where E. Jefferson crosses over the Dequindre Cut today. F. Baulch Cycle Manufacturing and store was in the southwest corner where they’d planned to meet. Baulch made a number of different bikes, including the Defender, Fairy, Junior, Matchless, Queen, and Scorcher. It’s possible that Whitty and Stewart rode Baulch’s, perhaps even the Defender model.

On this evening at 8:25pm, the Detroit Free Press reported:

Very few persons took particular notice of the figure in blue as it sped across Jefferson Avenue at Orleans Street astride a wheel. Cycles were passing to and fro in droves and the usual crowd of wheelmen stood in front of the F. Baulch Manufacturing Company’s store…

Suddenly there was a despairing shriek and all heads turned in the direction of an east-bound Jefferson [street] car, Number 704, that had barely reached the corner. A form was seen to disappear beneath the wheels, the car made a few convulsive movements, and there was a sudden rush to the spot. Witnesses state that the car went at least seventy-five yards after the collision

When the crowd struggled to get closer to the car beneath which was the twisted and bleeding form of a man, some person asked who had been killed.

“Why, it’s Joe Whitty, the bike cop,” remarked one man. Iron jacks were soon employed in lifting the heavy car. Slowly it parted from the human form beneath and finally, after fully half an hour, the body was free and was carried to the side of the road.

“Life was then extinct” according to the Free Press. An ambulance then took the body to the Elmwood police station.

A moment after [the] ambulance had rolled away from the station with what everybody supposed was the dead body of Joseph Whitty, the door of the Elmwood station was thrown open and a man as pale as death entered. He look about as if in a dream.

“My God,” cried an officer, “here’s Joe Whitty. He ain’t dead.”

captain-william-nolan“No, I ain’t dead,” remarked Whitty like a man stupefied, “as I was coming up lots of people said I was dead.”

“Where’s Stewart?” cried Captain [William] Nolan.

“I don’t know,” said Whitty, “he must be dead.”

Tears were falling from Whitty’s eyes and he was trembling. Captain Nolan rushed to the telephone and, in husky tones, notified the undertaker of the error in identifying the dead man. It was a scene of confusion, but the heart of every man in the station was touched and many wept. Whitty could hardly realize the condition of affairs.

There was speculation that Stewart had been pursuing a speeding cyclist, but Whitty concluded his partner was “simply endeavoring to pass in front of a swiftly moving [street] car.” In 1899, the Jefferson Avenue streetcars were electric. The 704 was a big 50-seat model with a weight over 10 tons — no match for a bicycle.

Officer Charles Stewart (Free Press)Stewart was 30 years old, married with a 2-year old daughter Leona. Detroit City Council provided a pension to his widow of $25 per month for the rest of her life or until she was remarried. Every month, Lillian Stewart had to provide the City Clerk with certificates from two reputable people stating that she had not remarried. It appears she never did. We found a gravesite for a Lillian Thomas Stewart at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Southwest Detroit. However we did not find one for Officer Stewart.

Leona also received a pension of $5 a month until she turned 16.

So why wasn’t Whitty riding with Stewart to the bike shop? Whitty had a tire puncture and had to fix it, wrote Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon in his book In the Line of Duty.

According to the International Police Mountain Bike Association, Officer Stewart was the second public safety cyclist killed in the U.S. The first was Patrolman Frederick H. Lincoln of the New York City Police Department who crashed after hitting pedestrian and striking his head against a curb.

Evolution of the Wheel

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

The following editorial ran in the August 5th, 1899 Detroit Free Press.

This year was arguably at or near the peak of Detroit’s golden-era of bicycling. What’s striking is how the benefits of bicycling are practically the same today as they were more than a century earlier. Surprisingly, the health benefits of bicycling are not mentioned.

Evolution of the Wheel

There could be no more fitting time to apostrophize the bicycle. The pavilion dedicated to it last evening at the island is a monument to one of the most marked and widely appreciated innovations of our modern civilization. The evolution of the wheel has been steadily toward the ideal. In beauty, speed and utility, its record is one of unbroken progress. It has made itself a formidable factor in the social problems, in politics, in war and in the ever pressing question of personal economy. It is the foe of monopoly, the handmaid of pleasure, the companion of loneliness and the champion of good roads.

Like many other great successes in this uncertain world, the bicycle was of humble origin. It sprang from the wheelbarrow, and no one blames it. This is the reason that you can fall so far and be so long about it when you are mixed up with one of these machines, no matter what price or what model. The velocipede, which the best authorities testify was a connecting link, was uglier than anything except a three-humped camel trying to escape its keeper. The device will best be recalled as propelled by a small boy with a straw hat over his ears, his busy feet on a level with his chin and his shoulders settled down on his waist line. Then came the ungainly affair with the enormous fly wheel in front, and a pitiful little baby wheel trailing. To drop from it was like falling off a load of hay and it forced upon short, fat men the indignity of mounting from a second story window or a convenient shade tree. Nearly all of those who were thrown from it and survived are miscellaneously maimed.

But it is through such rugged stages that success is reached. The bicycle became a thing of beauty and a joy forever, with pneumatic tires that are blown up as they deserve it, artistic finish, ball bearings, spring seats and an unaccountable disposition to participate in a scorch. At last they have thrown off their chains and have the highest degree of freedom attainable by things inanimate. They neither eat nor drink but are always merry. They toll not, neither do they spin — when a policemen is looking — yet Solomon in all his glory could not have ridden one of them to save his life. They do not shy at firecrackers, a cow in the road, or a locomotive whistle, it does not require two hands to hold them when an interested couple are going home, as it does a horse headed for the oats bin, and they will stand without hitching, wherever the bicycle thief permits. In time, it is predicted, they will have wings, and humanity itself aspires to nothing more desirable.

The pavilion mentioned in the editorial was Bicycle Pavilion on Belle Isle. It still stands but is now called the Athletic Pavilion.

The Good Roads movement led by bicyclists in 1899 is similar to today’s Complete Streets movement.

A “scorch” is riding fast on a city street. Those who did that often were called scorchers.

Wings? Well that prediction came up a bit short.

Detroit bicycling in 1898: No other city compares

Monday, March 4th, 2013

1898 Detroit Official GuideWe recently purchased the Detroit Official Guide from 1898.

The city was growing then and it appears this guide was intended for newcomers. Most of the pages list “reliable merchants”, including sixteen bike shops around the downtown area, nine of them on Woodward Avenue.

Beyond the retailersr, bicycling has a prominent place in the guide. The appendix lists city officials first then bicycling information.

And it speaks very highly of Detroit’s cycling opportunities. Detroit and Brooklyn were America’s best cycling cities in 1898? We’d like to think so, but it could just be visitor’s guide boosterism.

From the Guide:

With perhaps the exception of Brooklyn, noted for its cycle paths, no other city in the country can compare with Detroit in the facilities which it offers for pleasant bicycle runs. The suburban runs are especially fine. Elsewhere mention has been made of the streets and avenues of the city, and they need only be referred to here in passing. Miles of excellent macadam extend in all directions leading to scenes of beauty and interest. The course around Belle Isle is famous but that is only one. In reaching the Island you ride past some of the finest homes in the country beneath a canopy of foliage of trees planted more that a century ago, on a perfect asphalt pavement. To write of the attractions of the various cycle paths would be to write a long story. Suffice it to merely point them out:

Going out Fort St. West, rides may visit Ecorse, 9 miles; Wyandotte, 12 miles, Trenton, 17 miles; Flat Rock, 25 miles.

Michigan Ave. — Dearborn, 10 miles; Inkster, 15 miles; Wayne, 18 miles; Canton, 23 miles; Denton’s, 26 miles; Ypsilanti, 30 miles; Ann Arbor, 38 miles.

Jefferson Ave. — Grosse Pointe, 10 miles; McSweeney’s Club, 24 miles.

Woodward Ave. — Highland Park, 5 miles; Whitewood, 7 miles; Royal Oak, 12 miles; Birmingham, 18 miles; Bloomfield Center, 21 miles; Pontiac, 28 miles; Drayton Plains, 31 miles; Waterford, 33 miles; Clarkston, 35 miles; Orchard Lake, 32 miles. The road out Woodward Avenue is always good.

Grand River Ave. — Greenfield, 8 miles; Farmington, 10 miles.

And the bicycling ordinances? There weren’t many. Remember there were no stop signs, traffic lights, one way streets, or expressways. To the 1898 cyclist, the condition of the road surface was the most important information needed for a productive ride.

Of course the ordinances were important as well — and they were quite simple. We especially like the ordinance permitting businesses to have bicycle racks.

From the Official Guide:

(more…)

Tom Cooper: Fastest man in Detroit

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Prior to the advent of auto racing in the early 1900s, bicycle racers were the fastest men alive. And from 1895 to 1900, no Detroiter was faster than Tom Cooper.

Cooper was born in Birmingham, but moved to Detroit with his family at age 18. He became a pharmacist by trade but eventually switched to bicycle racing.

Turning professional

Friend John Colquhoun told the Detroit Free Press about Cooper’s breakthrough race when he beat champion racer Eddie “Cannon” Bald in Battle Creek on July 22nd, 1895.

“Cooper was a low salaried drug clerk at the time, fair and ruddy faced. He had no racing wheel [i.e. bicycle] of his own — he couldn’t afford it.

“As they were lining up for the pistol, Cooper could scarcely keep his admiring eyes off the great Bald. Finally Bald took offense at the individual ovation and asked the ‘kid’ what he means.

“‘I was just thinking,’ Cooper replied, ‘how fortunate I would be if I could finish second to you, Mr. Bald.’

‘”Get t’ell out of my way,’ was all the satisfaction Cooper got, ‘or you’ll not finish at all.'”

That apparently inspired young Cooper who soundly beat Bald. Afterwards Cooper was approached with a sponsorship deal.

“‘How would you like to sign for the rest of the season at $50 a week?’

“‘For $50 a week!’ cried Cooper. ‘Come sign me for life.'”

The bidding began and he was eventually under contract earning $200 a week (~$5,500 a week in today’s dollars) while also getting paid $1,000 to use a sponsor’s saddle and $500 to use another’s chain.

After six years of professional cycling — and most likely being the highest paid athlete in Detroit sports — he’d saved $60,000 to $100,000.

Cooper was the pride of the Detroit Wheelmen cycling club.

He set world records in 1897, was the National Cycling Association (NCA) U.S. Champion in 1899, and spent the 1900 season racing in Europe.

After returning from Europe he agreed to a match race against Marshall “Major” Taylor, who was the League of American Wheelmen champion and world champion in 1899, and the NCA Champion in 1900.

Taylor wrote in his autobiography, “If there were two riders on earth that I wanted to meet in match races above all others, they were Eddie Bald and Tom Cooper.”

The race was held in front of a 10,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Taylor won the first two races to take the best of three. Cooper left humiliated.

He continued to race the U.S. circuit in 1901 but retired afterwards at the age of 25.

Interestingly enough, his last bike race may have been at Detroit’s first major automobile race on October 10th, 1901. He and Barney Oldfield raced a motorized tandem bicycle against the clock, which received “scarcely a ripple of applause” according to the Detroit Journal.

Henry Ford was in that first auto race. He had Tom Cooper ride with him during his warm up laps. The champion cyclist advised Ford on how to best race the track and handle his machine. Ford won the race.

Afterwards, Cooper headed to Colorado to manage a coal mine but he would be back the next summer itching to race once again — this time in automobiles.

Read more about Cooper’s return to Detroit and his partnerships with Henry Ford and Barney Oldfield