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January 18, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The popularity of cycling at the turn of the century

TERRE HAUTE — In the 1880s and the early 1890s, Terre Haute produced some outstanding cyclists.

Those were the times when facilities in most all major cities were primitive. Terre Haute was able to put together sizable meets for cyclists with high quality competitors.

With the advent of bicycle tracks in other cities, the interest in bicycle racing in Terre Haute declined and, being unable to prepare properly, so did the quality of the athletes.

In 1899, a bicycle track was created at Athletic Park, Terre Haute’s premier baseball park at 27th and Wabash. From April to December of the following year, when weather permitted, the arena was available for cyclists every Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every evening.

During the early months of 1900, Harry “The Kid” Hedges, who resided at 220 S. Fifth St., a member of the Hottentots racing team, consistently appeared to be the most formidable local cyclist. He embellished his reputation with daring maneuvers.

Hedges’ biggest threat was Archie Ferguson, a competitor who won with his head as often as he won with his feet. He was the envy of the younger set.

Charles “Gagwa” Davis was a veteran cyclist and had a bald spot to prove it. In recent years, Davis focused on endurance racing rather than sprints. In 1900 he improved his finish kick considerably.

George C. Rossell, Jr., who worked as a clerk for his father at Rossell & Day bicycle store, 720-722 Wabash Ave., finished the 1899 season with an extremely fast sprint. Though he had not yet returned to his previous form, it is expected that he would do so.

Hal Dronberger, who resided with his parents at 2021 N. Seventh St., was another youngster with great potential. Johnnie Wall, Jr., and James Downey, two Vandalia-Pennsylvania Railroad apprentices, also were promising.

Beginning June 27, 1900, races were held in Athletic Park at the open, novice and subnovice levels for cyclists of all ages. Blue ribbons were awarded to first place winners in every category. No entry fee was charged.

Ross Agnew and Walter McNabb were favorites in the novice division but several others, including Fred Kickler, Jr., who also worked for Rossell & Day, R.C. Hern, Pearl Conover, Albert Arnold, Dan Caldwell, Guy Jones and Harry Winemiller of Terre Haute, Homer Payne of Burnett, Berlin McMasters of Riley and Herve Fadden of Carbon, were among the dark horses.

Terre Haute newcomers Dan Cameron and George Evans were veteran riders who attended cycling activities at Athletic Park as spectators but did not participate right away.

Paul Ferrin, Johnnie Nichols, Bert Stump and Joe Weimer, novices in 1899, were elevated to the open division in 1900.

The Wabash Cycling Club hosted the biggest local cycling meet in several years on July 4.

The Swope & Nehf Medal, to be awarded to the cyclist who established the paced mile record, was on exhibit at the jewelry store during the summer of 1900.

Sheldon Swope, co-owner of the jewelry story, returned from a six-month worldwide tour on June 25. Swope and Emil Ehrmann departed Terre Haute on Dec. 26, 1899. Ehrmann wa not scheduled to return until late August 1900.

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On June 27, 1900, Alva M. Higgins, attorney for the Vigo Couny commissioners, told a reporter for the Terre Haute Express that franchises had been awarded to five interurban lines connecting to Terre Haute.

Higgins estimated the cost of constructing the five lines was “about $800,000; the line to Merom alone will cost $300,000.

“We believe that the operation of these lines will be of enormous commercial benefit to this city, as they will tap rich territory which belongs to this city but which has never before had the advantages of rapid communication with this city.”

An interurban line already had been laid to and from Clay County.

“Probably the first line to be constructed will be the line south on the Vincennes road,” Higgins predicted.

The Vincennes interurban road would stop at Prairieton, Middletown, Fairbanks, Staffordshire, Graysville and Merom. The connection to Merom would bring the Illinois communities of Palestine, Robinson and Hutsonville in touch with Terre Haute.

The line on the Sullivan Road would pass through Youngstown and would continue to Pimento, Farmersburg and Shelburn.

“The line to Clinton will probably be the second line built,” Higgins offered. “This will require a bridge over the Wabash River.

“After passing through West Terre Haute, the line will have the choice of two roads: the river road the St. Mary’s Road.

“On the former, the line would pass through Tecumseh and Durkees Ferry. The St. Mary’s Road is considered the most profitable, however.

“The line to Rockville will pass through Rosedale, which has a population of 200; Markle’s Mill, which has a population of 150; Heckland, which is about the same size, and will have side branches to Coal Bluff and Fontanet, which have a population of 400 each.”

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