The Fast and Furious Life of the Brookside Park Bicycle Track

In the annals of Indianapolis cycling history, the Newby Oval reigns supreme as the most well-known bicycle track in Indianapolis during the city's golden age of cycling at the start of the 20th century. The history of the Newby Oval is well documented in several online sources, and a historical marker was recently placed near its location at Central Ave and 31st Street. However, another bicycle track, this one at Brookside Park, was hosting events more than 30 years after the Newby Oval ran its last race.


The Brookside track was not in Brookside Park proper, but on adjacent property, southeast of the corner of Sherman Avenue and 21st Street. The Map Indy aerial image from 1941 below shows the track, and Pogue's Run meandering along to its east and south. 21st Street is to the north. Brookside Park is to the southwest, or lower left, in this image.

Indianapolis history brookside park bicycle track
Map Indy, 1941 Aerial

The track itself was the brainchild of Charles Wehr, a bicycling enthusiast who had raced bicycles when he was younger and continued to ride for recreation and transportation later in his life. In the late 1890’s he was a member of the League of American Wheelmen and raced numerous events for the League around the turn of the century. Outside of cycling he was involved in sales, and worked for John-Manville Sales Corp., before starting his own company. He was also the head of the fire crew at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.


In the late 1930’s Wehr won approval for a plan to build a bicycle track for children on city land. Wehr was still involved in cycling, including as a member of Amateur Bicycle League of America, and as the supervisor of the City Parks Cycling Club. In these positions he had hosted numerous biking events and races around the city, including on the track at the State Fair Grounds, the running track at Willard Park, the then named “Butler Fieldhouse,” and various road races. His efforts to promote bicycling for children had been a long running mission. In an interview with the Indianapolis Times on Thursday, August 19, 1937, the author described how for the previous 25 years, Wehr had approached each mayor of Indianapolis seeking support to build a bicycling track for the boys of Indianapolis (no mention whether girls would also be using the track) in order to keep them safe from traffic on the roads. However, as described by the Times, he had been rebuffed each time. It wasn’t until the Great Depression, and the availability funding from various public works projects, that the track received the greenlight from the city.


The plans below show the location of the track on the property southeast of Sherman and 21st Street, and in relation to Pogue’s Run which flowed just to its south. The curving line just to the left of the bicycle track is the right of way for the Honey Bee interurban line. Beyond that is Sherman Avenue, with 21st Street at the top of both images. Both these images are from the Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings collection at the Ball State University Digital Media Repository (link in the 'Sources' section below).


Construction on the track commenced in the summer of 1937. The image below shows Wehr and J.E. Perry, an engineer for the Indianapolis Board of Park Commissioners, inspecting the construction, which was being done by the Works Progress Administration. Wehr told the News in regard to the track, that “[n]ow the boys can ride in safety and keep off the streets traveled by automobile drivers.” The Indianapolis Star reported that the track was to be 1/6 of a mile and thirty feet wide and surfaced with cinder on top of clay. The Times reported there was to be a four-foot bank in each turn which in Wehr’s opinion would allow a two minute ten second mile time.

Indianapolis history bicycling bike races Brookside
Indianapolis News, August 16, 1937

The track was completed in early 1938, and began to host numerous bicycling events and practices, especially for the various cycling clubs in the city. In mid-1938, a suggestion was made to have the WPA construct bleachers at the track, although it is not clear whether this was ever done. In July of 1938, a Mary Marshall of 2421 E. 16th Street petitioned the Board of Park Commissioners to allow her to constrict a small refreshment stand on the 21st and Sherman property “for the purpose of selling soft drinks during bicycle races which are held on this ground.” While the stand was not approved. Ms. Marshall was allowed a cart or small wagon to sell soft drinks on the property during bicycling events. At the same meeting, the Commissioners formally adopted the name ‘Brookside Athletic Field’ for the 21st and Sherman property, which included the track.

Indianapolis News, August 15, 1938

In June, a two-hour race sponsored by the Edgewood Wheelmen, Irvington Cycle Club, and the South Side Cycle Club was held at the track. In July of 1940 the Irvington Cycle Club sponsored a series of amateur races at the track, although the News reported on Saturday the 20th, in advance of the races, that club members and the park board had teamed up to help resurface the track, with the approval of the park board, and that the “velodrome” was expected to be finished by Wednesday or Thursday of that week. Local political parties also ran bike races, particularly the Democratic party, whose ward officials would sponsor races as part of party events on the eastside and for the wider city.


Events continued to be hosted at the track into the 1940's. However, Wehr’s time to enjoy the new track was short. On July 26, 1942, Wehr, then aged 63, collapsed on St. Clair Street while walking the steps into War Memorial Plaza. His cause of death was determined to be heart attack, and his remains were returned to his native Milwaukee for burial. Even just a few weeks before his death he had still been biking. His obituary noted that on July 2 he had traveled by bicycle to Shelbyville to visit customers, a distance of 30 miles, telling those customers that he had adopted his bicycle as his sole mode of transportation. He had also claimed that on some days he would cover 75 miles a day riding around the city.


The bike track did not last much longer than its sponsor, and appears to have fallen out of use by the mid 1940's. The impact of war rationing on the bicycle industry during World War Two may have limited the use of the track during those years and contributed to its decline. In 1947 the board of park commissioners allowed the sanitation department to use the property as a trash dump. This continued over the next few years before 1953 when a group of citizens from the area presented a petition of over 500 signatures to the mayor asking that the property be reverted back to its park purpose.


However, by the late 1950's, the northern section of the land where the track was located was converted to industrial use, while the southern was used for softball/baseball fields (an aerial image from 1956 shows the remains of the track still in place, but the quality of the image is very poor). The recreational use for the southern part of the property remained until the ballfields, which may have been privately owned, were closed in 2020 and used for vehicle parking for the adjacent industrial and commercial properties. The image below, from fall of 2021, shows the property today. The red dot is roughly the center of the bicycling track. The baseball diamonds to the southeast are part of the Forest Manor Park complex.


The Brookside Bicycle Track was not the first track used for cycling purposes in Indianapolis, nor was it the last. Even at the time it was built cycling events were being held at various running tracks around the city, while other running tracks were being modified for cycling use (a track at a park at Keystone and Pleasant Run Parkway North Drive was modified like this.) However, the Brookside track was special since it was built specifically for bicycling. More recently, the Major Taylor Velodrome was constructed in 1982 near Marion University and Riverside Park and is on the verge of celebrating its 40th anniversary.


Note: I was unable to find any photos of races being held at this track. If you have any, or believe you may have located any such images, please let me know!



Sources


Indianapolis News: September 21, 1934, August 15, 1937, July 21, 1938, June 28, 1939, July 20, 1940, July 28, 1942


Indianapolis Star: August 17, 1937, July 18, 1953


Indianapolis Times: August 19, 1937


Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1940, Digital Indy, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/42034/rec/1


Board of Park Commissioners Meeting minutes, 1938, Digital Indy,

https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/ipr/id/10179/rec/112


Sherman Drive, topographic maps, bicycle track, Holliday Tract, Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings, Ball State University Digital Media Repository, https://dmr.bsu.edu/digital/collection/IndplsPDArc/id/8541/rec/8




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