September 8, 2022
This story first appeared in July 2009.
Although the first documented appearance of a bicycle dates back to a demonstration of the high-wheeled bicycle called “Ordinary” in 1869, these old-fashioned contraptions would be almost unrecognizable to cyclists today. With their huge front tires and seats that seemed to require a ladder to climb, these early bikes were clunky and unwieldy for use by all but the most daredevil souls. (They didn’t call them “boneshakers” for nothing at the time.) It would be nearly 25 years after the end of the American Civil War before the motorcycle began to resemble the shape most familiar to riders today. today. The development of the safety bicycle with its two equally sized wheels in the 1880s made the new sport more acceptable as a pastime.
In 1889, bicycle mechanic and expert rider Harry T. Hearsey opened the first bicycle shop in Indianapolis, located at the intersection of Delaware and New York streets, east of the city. He would later open a larger store at 116-118 N. Pennsylvania St. Hearsey is credited with bringing the first safety bike to Indianapolis in 1889. Hoosiers adopted it immediately and within a few years the streets of Indy were so crowded with cyclists that the city council passed a bicycle licensing ordinance requiring a $1 license fee for every bicycle in the city.
Hearsey had fallen in love with Indianapolis while on an exhibition tour for Boston’s Cunningham-Heath Bicycle Company in 1885. He not only sold the first new-style bicycles in the Indy area, but he also formed the city’s first riding clubs. These clubs, with colorful names like the “US Military Wheelmen” and the “Dragon Cycle Club”, regularly organized festive long-distance bicycle trips known as “Century Rides” to cities like Greenfield and Bloomington. This period has been called “the golden age of the bicycle” by historians.
His innovations included the installation of a revolutionary foot air bellows system that would be known for decades as the “city pump” for public use outside his store. His store became a popular meeting place for cyclists in the city who enjoyed passing and rubbing shoulders with all the greatest racing cyclists of the time. Indianapolis was the Midwestern mecca for pro bicycling in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Hearsey often used the huge Tomlinson Hall in Indy to unveil the latest bicycle design in the 1890s. Tomlinson Hall was the largest public place in the city and Hearsey regularly filled the place to the rafters with excited Hoosier riders, which would be like renting Lucas Oil Stadium to unveil a new bike these days. Today, the City Market occupies the spot where Tomlinson Hall once stood.
Cycling was so popular in Indianapolis that the city built a race track known as the “Newby Oval” located near 30th Street and Central Avenue in 1898. The track was designed by Herbert Foltz, a graduate of Shortridge, who also designed Broadway Methodist Church, Irvington United Methodist Church, and Meridian Heights Presbyterian Church. Foltz would also design the new Shortridge High School at 34th and Meridian. The state-of-the-art cycling facility could and often did seat 20,000, and hosted several national championships sponsored by the main sanctioning body, “The League of American Wheelmen”. Legendary Indianapolis African-American bicycle champion Marshall “Major” Taylor raced at the Newby Oval almost exclusively until 1900. Taylor was hired by Harry Hearsey to perform bicycle stunts outside his store in 1892. Taylor performed his stunts while dressed in military attire. uniform and earned the nickname “Major”, which stuck with him for the rest of his life. Major Taylor was widely recognized as the first American international bicycle racing superstar.
During this turn-of-the-century era, Indianapolis became one of the leading bicycle manufacturers in the United States with companies like Waverly and Outing offering some of the best riding machines of the day. With the advent of the automobile and motorcycles in the early 1910s, interest in the bicycle as a mode of transportation waned. Harry Hearsey changed with the times and became Indianapolis’ first car dealership.
Indianapolis would soon become a pioneer in automobile manufacturing, second only to Detroit, in fact. It should come as no surprise that many of the founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were former colleagues of Harry Hearsey and members of his bike clubs. In fact, the first race ever held at the world famous track was a motorcycle race on August 19, 1909. Six people died in that first race, three riders, two spectators and a crew member. Scheduled for 300 miles, the deaths caused the race to be halted at 235 miles. Indianapolis cycling was indeed a deadly business at the time.
Al Hunter is the author of “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His latest books are “Bumps in the Night”. View Stories Weekly,” “Irvington Haunts. The Tourist Guide” and “The Mystery of the HH Holmes Collection”. Contact Al directly at [email protected] or become a friend on Facebook.