The Big Ride in 1897

by Joe Ward -- Semi-Official Club Historian

I’m happy to report after weeks of searching through months of Courier-Journal and Louisville Times microfilm, that Louisville really did have one great heyday bicycle parade on October 8, 1897. They knew how to plan a bike ride in those days.

First they named a grand marshal, and let him name 34 assistant marshals and 68 captains. They put them all in white duck caps from Levy Brothers’, and blue and white sashes.

Then, they gave them 17 divisions of cyclists, all fanned out from Third Street at Broadway behind seventeen buglers on bikes and seven mounted policemen. The riders came from various clubs or rode in bikeshop groups. Third Street was cleared back to Market to accommodate the formation. All of the cross streets were cleared out to Fifth and First, and assigned to divisions as staging areas.

Many cyclists were in costume, and since the ride was at night, many bikes had lighted decorations. It caused a run on Japanese lanterns in local stores, a fact duly noted in the press a few days earlier.

To get that mass moving more or less all at one time, the bugle corps at the head sounded a precisely timed call, which was picked up and answered in turn by other buglers at each of the cross streets. After three such calls and answers, they rolled. The bugle calls continued though, going out whenever the buglers felt like it, to herald the approach of the parade at various points along the route.

The parade -- or, carnival, as they also called it -- was in honor of the Board of Park Commissioners, who had authorized construction of a cinder path for bikes out the Southern Parkway. The commissioners, whose president was Gen. John Breckinridge Castleman, waited on a reviewing stand somewhere south of the Confederate Monument. They had a cannon. Whenever they heard bugles, they shot off the cannon.

The Times reported you could hear the bugling and cannon fire for miles around.

There were a lot of female riders in bloomers, a real crowd pleaser in those days, and many cyclists in clown, Indian and tramp suits. A few men and boys wore dresses, which got laughs. One pair of tandems was decked out as a sailing ship, equipped with a 900 candlepower searchlight that could throw a beam “two squares,” and it played the light on the crowd on one side and then the other.

People jammed trolley cars on 2nd, 4th and 6th streets for some time before the parade, looking for ideal viewing spots along the route. By 8 p.m. -- show time -- they lined the sidewalks on Third from Broadway to the monument. The crowd was estimated at 25,000 to 50,000.

The event was even coordinated with the cycles of the moon, so the Louisville Times could report the next day that “a full moon was sailing on a cloudless sky, and the temperature was perfect.”

But you’ll note that I said they really knew how to PLAN a bike ride in those days. Then, as now, things could go wrong in the execution.

I think some problems may have been caused in part by the Courier-Journal and Times. They took a good deal of interest in the parade for weeks in advance. Maybe too much. Estimates of the number of cyclists who would participate started off at 10,000 and grew to 15,000. One account predicted the biggest ride the South had yet seen.

There was elaborate advance detail on the marshalls, captains, white caps, bugle calls and cannon, on the military precision that would prevail, and on the colors, costumes, and decorations. Reporters themselves supposed later that it got to sounding so spectacular that even people who had planned to ride in it didn’t want to miss seeing it.

Whatever the reason, the Courier-Journal reported the next day, a lot of cyclists who were supposed to be forming up north of Broadway as parade time approached crossed over instead and slipped into the crowd of spectators out along Third Street.

“Ten thousand to 12,000 had promised to take part, but 8,000 decided it would be more fun to watch others,” the C-J reporter said. It seemed to annoy him quite a bit personally. He said there was “an almost unbroken line of bicycles in glittering array against the fences” along the parade route, “while several thousand more were kept upright by the hands of their owners who stood within 50-deep lines.”

After the parade passed, though, many until-then-errant riders got on their bikes and joined in. The Times reported that when the procession reached its destination -- the Iroquois Cycling Club headquaraters, on Southern Parkway about where the Watterson crosses now -- it had “fully 10,000” participants.

I appreciated that, since I had promised you 10,000 riders in earlier columns.

There were other problems to mar the grandeur of it all, too. Some hotdog participants got tired of waiting for the parade to begin, and shot down Third Street ahead of the buglers, to the cheers of the crowd. They included seven men on the Stearns Septuplet, which was built by a popular manufacturer to pace races. In some places, spectators saw those early riders go by, and assumed the parade was over. They wandered out into the street in the way of the real parade, causing gaps in it as long as 10 minutes, to the consternation of the Courier reporter, among others.

An exasperated marshall named George Kast encountered what the Times called “one foolish fellow dressed as a clown who insisted on blocking the way,” and simply clubbed him to the pavement.

The spectators gave as good as they got, though. Small boys dashed out of the crowd from time to time and thrust pieces of lath into bicycle wheels, bringing more than one rider down and causing further delays. One of the four riders on the searchlight ship “was hit in the eye by a stone and knocked senseless from his wheel.”

Still, many thousands made it to the clubhouse, where W.T. Rolph gave a speech urging the park commissioners to construct more parkways. Southern Parkway then connected the city to Jacobson Park, which is now Iroquois, and was used by thousands of cyclists every night, according to some accounts. Rolph wanted similar boulevards to Eastern Park, now Cherokee, and Western Park, now Shawnee.

The cinder path celebrated by the parade was not finished in time for the event. Reading ahead, I learned, in fact, that it doesn’t seem ever to have attracted much cycle traffic, because it was “mushy.” The Park Commissioners were annoyed by that the next summer, when plans to resurface Southern Parkway -- then covered by “Paducah gravel” -- were hampered because they couldn’t get the cyclists off it.

But there were plenty of signs of doom ahead for cycling even as the parade got underway. The day before, for example, the cycle track at Fontaine Ferry, which had had trouble drawing spectators to bike races all summer, ran a “horseless carriage” race. A reporter concluded afterwards that the “wagonless horse” still seemed better for racing. But the Courier had noted in the advance publicity that horseless carriages, though slow and prone to breakdown, would be “as common on the street soon as horse drawn vehicles.”

And sometime before the opening of Louisville Society’s 1898 cycling season, its premiere organization -- the Iroquois Cycle Club -- changed its name to the Iroquois Wheeling and Dining Club.

I found that out looking ahead through the microfilm for the completion of the Wheelmen’s Bench -- or, Ruff Memorial, as they called it in those days. Though the parade went right by the bench, none of the accounts said a word about it, even though it should have been under construction then. I did get a feeling that the first dedication of that monument may well have been arranged by Aloyce Black. The evidence: next article.

This article is part of a series about the history of the Louisville Bicycle Club (formerly the Louisville Wheelmen) by Joe Ward, a long-time club member. The series originally appeared in the club’s newsletters in 1988-1989.


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