Monday, September 24, 2018

The Six-Day Ladies’ Bicycle Race

by Erin Doane, Curator

Starting on August 28, 1900, Eldridge Park hosted “the greatest and most novel athletic event ever conceived” – a six-day-long ladies’ bicycle race. The management of the park contracted with promoter J.L. Keller to bring six professional lady cyclists in for the event. A special “saucer-shape” board track was constructed on the plot of land between the statue of American Girl and the deer reserve. The oblong wooden track was 86 feet wide by 154 feet long. The sides on the straightaway portions were banked at 22 degrees while the ends were set at a 45 degrees. Sixteen laps around the track equaled a mile. Seating for 8,000 people was also constructed around the track.

Lady bicyclist in Eldridge Park near the American Girl statue, 1899
The race promised to draw in thousands of people from a radius of 75 miles to witness the spectacle. Previous ladies’ bicycle races put on by the promoter in New York City, Chicago, Pittsburg, Grand Rapids, and many other smaller cities had drawn upwards of 10,000 people each day of the event. Elmirans were very fond of bicycling – over 7,000 bicycle licenses had been issued in the city since April 1 of that year – so there was no doubt that people would come out to watch the race.

Leading up to the event, there seemed to be some concern about the propriety of watching women race bicycles. An article in the Star-Gazette assured readers that, while professional male riders typically wore armless shirts and very abbreviated trunks, the women would all be neatly attired in sweaters, knickerbockers, and stockings. The paper also reported that when the women raced in Philadelphia, there were several clergymen in the crowd who had come specifically to see if there was anything objectionable or immodest about the race. They all went away perfectly satisfied and one promised to return the next day to see the finish.

Women wearing casual cycling outfits, c. 1890s
The six women who came to Elmira for the race – Rossie Hatch, Mary Petchard, Margaret Gast, Emma Bayne, Lucy Berry, and Clara Harvey – were seasoned professional racers. These “heroines of the diamond frame” could all easily make the 18-mile-an-hour speed required for entry. Miss Hatch was not yet twenty years old but had been racing for five years. She won $500 worth of diamonds in Chicago in 1896. Miss Gast had recently become world champion for long-distance cycling after riding 1,000 miles in 113 hours and 23 minutes. Mrs. Bayne was also a distance rider. She rode 4,500 miles in 29 days, 21 hours, and 50 minutes and then led the dancing at the ball held in her honor the same day she finished the ride. Miss Berry sang in the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Indianapolis until her voice suddenly forsook her and then she took up bicycling as a profession.

Racing began in Eldridge Park on the afternoon of August 28. The track was nearly filled with spectators. Tickets for the grandstand cost 15 cents while seats inside the track, the best place to get up close to the action, cost 25 cents. If a person rode their own bicycle to the event, they could check their wheel for 10 cents and receive a free admission ticket. Similarly, if one bought a 10 cent round-trip ticket to the park on the Maple Avenue or West Side trolleys he or she also got a free ticket to the races. It was noted that more than half the seats in the grandstand were occupied by ladies.

Races took place for two hours twice each day starting at 2:30 in the afternoon and again at 8:30 in the evening. The first day of racing was filled with excitement. Accidents were common on the track as the riders jostled for position and it seemed that every one of them was physically giving their all. Two riders fainted dead away while riding and toppled over the handlebars of their wheels onto the track. They were given restoratives and went right back to racing. Miss Gast was in the lead after the first four hours of racing with 60 miles completed. The following days of racing provided more thrills and spills as the growing crowd cheered on their favorites.

Star-Gazette, August 29, 1900
Those who attended the races found some of their own excitement outside of the track as well. A fight broke out on the Elmira & Horseheads street car after it picked up a large crowd at Eldridge park following the end of the first day of racing. One man stood up to give his seat to a lady and another man took the space. The first man punched the seat stealer in the eye. The stealer’s niece then started yelling at the man who had done the punching. The lady friend of the puncher started yelling back. The wordy fight turned into a first class hair pulling match between the two women. The fight reportedly caused considerable excitement on the packed trolley.  Earlier that same night, Morvalden Ells was arrested and charged with malicious mischief in climbing a fence at the park to witness the six-day bicycle race.

At the end of the six days of racing, Miss Margaret Gast came out the winner with 358 miles. Mrs. Bayne came in a close second with 354 miles. Miss Hatch finished in third place despite having her left arm bandaged from elbow to wrist because of several hard falls. Miss Petchard managed to get back into fourth place after taking a header over the bars of her wheel on the second to last night of racing. Miss Berry came in fifth but had to give up on the race after she fell into her trainer’s arms and was carried from the track unconscious. Miss Harvey, unfortunately, suffered a great deal of neuralgia caused by the climate in Elmira.

Star-Gazette, September 5, 1900

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