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Nine Days and 522 Miles: A Bike Tour from Indianapolis and Back Again

After the last blog post about the Indianapolis Arrows baseball team checked in at over 3,000 words, I decided we all needed a shorter and more succinct post to recover from that joint trauma. For this post, we will look back at the bicycle craze of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time bicycle riding for sport, transportation, and recreation became a widely accepted and popular activity. Indianapolis itself became a center of bicycle manufacturing. Internationally, the Tour de France had begun in 1903, and long-distance touring rides were common. The craze began to wane a bit as the first decade of the 20th century concluded, mostly thanks to the automobile, although bicycling remained a popular activity, as was bicycle racing, and touring trips through the Indiana countryside were still popular.

 

Fast forward a bit to the summer of 1911. Indianapolis schools are out and will not begin again until early September. In mid-August of that summer, three friends decided to embark upon an adventure: a bicycle tour from Indianapolis, through the southern part of the state. The three friends were Harold Simpson, Donald Ferguson, and Karl Schoen. All were 17 years old.

Indianapolis history bicycle Monument Circle
(Left to right) Karl Schoen, Harold Simpson, and Donald Ferguson, on the southside of the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument, likely once they arrived back in Indianapolis. Credit: The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, 1911-1912

 

The main objective of the ride was to visit Wyandotte Caves, located near the Ohio River and just west of Corydon. The riders planned to travel light and carried only a blanket and an oil cloth (to protect them from the elements while camping), a spare shirt, what was described as a “army kitchen set,” handkerchiefs, a bike repair kit, and two extra “hose,” which I think may be old wording for tire innertubes. No night riding was to be attempted, although a camp light was taken, along with a camera. No details were provided about the bikes, although, as noted below, they were equipped with coaster brakes, and as shown above, were single speed.

 

Their plan was to camp most nights, although in towns which had one, the local YMCA would be used as shelter. For food, they kept it simple carrying crackers and sardines, and reportedly, an occasional watermelon procured along the route.  The group launched their adventure at 7 am on August 14, 1911, a Monday. This first leg of the trip took them sixty-four miles to the Seymour area. The group suffered two punctures along the way, both of which were quickly repaired. Road conditions were described as “exceptionally good.” That evening, rain pelted the group as they camped.

 

The next day progress was slow due to the previous night's rain and muddy roads. Harold Simpson suffered a flat tire and had to walk the last few miles to Crothersville, Indiana, a small town in between Seymour and Scottsburg. A phone call to Seymour to obtain a new tire (because Crothersville had none or did not have a bicycle shop) resulted in a few hours delay before a new tire was obtained.  Continuing on, the group arrived in Scottsburg around 6 pm, and experienced the best roads of the trip, which were described as being made from slate. A heavy rain began just before reaching Scottsburg, and Simpson’s poor luck continued, as he crashed on the slick roads and suffered injuries to his legs and arms. The group slept that night in a mill and dined on salmon sandwiches (presumably the salmon was canned) and graham crackers. Unclear where they found the salmon.

 

The third day of the trip, August 16, saw the group pushing for the former state capital of Corydon. Their route took them close to Louisville, Kentucky, and they decided to ride across the Ohio River to visit Louisville where they took time to swim in the pool at a local YMCA.  They also managed to obtain a new tire for Ferguson’s bicycle, which had been causing him some problems. After leaving for Corydon, the group dealt with numerous hills which are common in that part of the state, and Simpson’s bad luck continued with another flat tire.

 

Upon arriving in Corydon, the boys made stops at the original Indiana statehouse and other historical sites, and had a dinner of watermelon, donated by a local constable who had taken “pity” on the group. That night they slept on the floor of an open-air canning factory.

Approximate route ridden (and sailed) by the Schoen, Simpson, and Ferguson Expedition. Credit: Indiana State Library Map Collection

The next day, Thursday, August 17, the group rode seventeen miles to Leavenworth, Indiana, but stopped in the middle of the ride to visit the Wyandotte Caves for most of the day. The roadway the last few miles to Leavenworth was extremely rocky and forced the group to walk their bikes for the final stretch. Leavenworth is a river town, and the group planned to catch a boat downstream to Rockport, Indiana, about ninety river miles away. The group ate sardine and cracker sandwiches and slept in a wharf house on the river while waiting for their boat, which was supposed to arrive around 1 am. The boat was late, eventually arriving at 6 am on the morning of the 18th. The trip to Rockport took the entire day, and they arrived at 11 pm. They once again slept on the floor of a wharf house in that town. The next morning, they made for Evansville, but were confronted with sandy roads which forced them to walk once again. The route taken to Evansville is not clear. The state road map above shows the state road running north from Rockport before turning to the west. There could have been more direct routes to Evansville, today Highway 66 is a straight shot from Rockport, but it is unclear which route the group took.


Nevertheless, the three riders arrived in Evansville, and once again they visited a YMCA, where they took showers. They then turned northward, towards Haubstadt, a small town along present day Highway 41. Simpson’s bad luck continued with another flat tire, and the group briefly became lost. Once in Haubstadt, the boys spent the night on benches at the local railroad depot.

 

The next day was Sunday, August 20, and they set off for Vincennes. They rode through Princeton, and then stopped in Hazelton, a town on the White River, about halfway to Vincennes. The coaster brake on Simpson’s bike was malfunctioning, but because it was Sunday, no open bike shop could be located. The group managed to fix the brake and took a ferry across the river (a bridge exists today). The route north to Vincennes was slow, again due to the very poor quality of the roads. Upon reaching Vincennes the intrepid adventurers explored the various historic sites of Indiana’s territorial capital before settling in for a good night’s sleep on benches in a local park.

 

The trip to Terre Haute the next day was another slog. Deep gravel and sand on the roadway slowed progress and forced them to hike-a-bike for long stretches. They took an afternoon nap on the lawn of a schoolhouse in Sullivan, Indiana, perhaps because of the warm weather, but definitely because of the effort of the day. Upon arriving in Terre Haute that evening they slept at the local YMCA.

 

After leaving Terre Haute the boys rode to Plainfield, likely down the old National Road/US 40. Even though they were not far from home, they opted to stay the night, and again slept on the lawn of a schoolhouse. The next morning, Wednesday, August 23, was the last day of their journey. After departing Plainfield around 7 am, the boys arrived in Indianapolis at 8:30 am. The trip took nine days, and it covered 522 miles.

 

Little fanfare was given upon their arrival, although the Indianapolis News included a short article about their ride in that evening’s newspaper, which featured a less clear copy of the photo which appeared earlier in this post. Per the News, the boys reported that the roads of southern Indiana were "no good" for bicycling. 


The Indianapolis Star published a news brief about the ride the next morning, minus any accompanying photo of the conquering heroes.

Indianapolis Star, August 24, 1911

Of the group, Karl Schoen perhaps became the most notable for his post ride exploits. He graduated from Purdue in 1917 and was married. Shortly thereafter, he joined the Army Air Service and fought on the western front during World War. Unfortunately, he was killed during a dogfight with several. German aircraft on October 29, 1918. This story was described in this blog posting from 2018. Schoen Field at Fort Benjamin Harrison was named in honor. The history of that airfield is described in Vanished Indianapolis.



Sources


Indianapolis News: August 23, 1911


Indianapolis Star: August 24, 1911


The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, 1911-192, https://archive.org/details/bicycli64231911161912newy/page/201/mode/1up




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2 Comments


slcurts
Jun 04

Bikes didn’t have inner tubes at that time, or at least not replaceable ones - they had single-tube tires, aka tubulars, aka sew-ups, that had to be glued to the rim. Repairing punctures in them was difficult at best, which is why they had to keep buying new tires. Could ‘hose’ have just referred to socks?

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Ed Fujawa
Ed Fujawa
Jun 04
Replying to

Thanks Stan! I remember tubulars from cyclocross racing (and I always raced on tubeless tires during the MTB season). I'm thinking you are right as well on "hose."

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