Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When Waltham Was the Hub of Cycling

In just a few weeks, the Tour de France will capture the attention of cycling fans. But did you know that at one time the eyes of the cycling world were once focused on Waltham?

After the bicycle was introduced in Boston in the 1870s, the sport of cycling took off like Lance Armstrong on an Alpine mountaintop. The popularity of bicycle racing in Boston reached its zenith in the 1890s when fans poured into velodromes around the region to watch two-wheelers circle the track. One of the area’s premier cycling venues was Waltham Bicycle Park, which opened in 1893. The oval was considered the fastest dirt track in the country, and numerous world records fell at the track.

Waltham Bicycle Park was a unique venue when it opened because it was the first track in Massachusetts built solely for bicycles, unlike other cycling tracks that were also used for horse racing. The park had a covered grandstand flanked by bleachers on both sides, which seated a total of 9,000. When the track opened on Memorial Day in 1893, an overflow crowd of 15,000 showed up. Crowds as much as six people deep lined the circumference of the track, and spectators watched from surrounding hillsides and even the roof of Waltham Hospital across South Street. The track had electric lights that allowed for nighttime racing.

The Boston Globe had this to say about the track when it opened: “There may be more beautiful spots within 10 miles of the State House than the one in which the new Waltham bicycle park lies. But it would take a week’s hunt to find them. The track sits among the hills in a sheltered valley like a jewel in a brooch, and the view from the grandstand is charming, and looks away to a low range of wooded hills.”

Crowds between 10,000 and 15,000 often filled the track to watch professional solo and tandem racers. Some of the fastest cyclists rode Orient bicycles, which were built right in Waltham by the Waltham Manufacturing Company of Charles Metz. Metz held 22 patents on early bicycles.

Metz was also a pioneer in the development of motorcycles, which the company began to manufacture in 1898. Tandem motorcycles were tested, often by Albert Champion (who would later invent his famous A.C. spark plug in the Cyclorama in Boston’s South End), and raced at Waltham Bicycle Park. The person in the front drove the machine while the person in the rear operated the motor. Waltham Bicycle Park was the scene of a horrific accident in 1900 when, during a race meet, Albert Champion swerved into the grass on a turn and motorcycle tandem behind him were forced over the bank of the track, striking an electric light pole and picket fence. Both men were killed, and half a dozen spectators were injured.

In a way, Metz led to the demise of the Waltham Cycling Park as the sport of bicycling began to fall out of vogue around the turn of the twentieth century with the rise of motorcycles and the automobile. (Metz was also a pioneer in the development of automobiles and airplanes.) According to the Waltham Museum, the park was sold to the city in 1902 and became the home Waltham High School football.

Today, the site of the Waltham Bicycle Park is Nipper Maher Park, just off South Street near Brandeis University. The property continues its sporting connection as the home to numerous baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and basketball hoops.

If you want to learn more about the Waltham Bicycle Park, I’ll be speaking at Back Pages Books on Moody Street at 7 PM on Tuesday, June 23. I’ll be talking about this and other stories from the history of Boston sports taken from The Die-Hard Sports Fan’s Guide to Boston. Hope you can make it.

8 comments:

shane said...

Interesting read! I never knew that there was a track in Waltham. It is always amazing to read about and see pictures of the days when track racing was so popular.

There is still a thriving bike racing community in Boston, and recently there has been a grass-roots effort to construct an indoor track (velodrome) in the Boston area. Check out their website at

http://www.bostonvelodrome.com/

Thanks for the info!

-Shane

Chris Klein said...

Shane,

That's interesting about the velodrome. Thanks for the link. As I write about in The Die-Hard Sports Fan's Guide to Boston, there was indoor cycling decades ago at the Cyclorama (kind of ironic) in the South End and even in Boston Garden.

There were other outdoor cycling tracks in the area as well. Beacon Park (now the site of the Allston railyard) was the location for the first recorded bicycle race in the U.S. Charles River Park Velodrome was on the site of the building that used to be the NECCO factory in Cambridge. There were also tracks in Medford and in Revere on sites that are now Suffolk Downs and the Wonderland Dog Track parking lot.

Skid said...

I love learning new things about newrby places. This place happens to be steps away from my home.
I pass Nipper Maher Park every day but have never had the opportunity to play ball there.
It is wonderful to know that such history was made on those very grounds.
Thanks for the post!

Ray said...

Thanks, I discovered this post while returning to the Internet for more information about Bicycle Park.

I did not know it was a dirt track.

Thank you for the NYT link.
If you haven't done so yet, you'd probably enjoy a visit to the Waltham Museum of Industry and Innovation and the Waltham Museum.

Thanks again for sharing your discoveries.

Chris Klein said...

Ray,

I've had the Waltham Museum on my list of "to-do's". I just moved out of town, but not too far, so I still want to visit.

Chris

Jeff P. said...

As Shane mentioned, track racing is alive and well in the Northeast...presently riders can race on the newly painted 333m track in Londonderry, NH at the Northeast Velodrome & Cycling Park. Racing is held weekdays (T,W, Th), with training on Saturdays, and racing on 10 Sundays through September.

For more info, please go to the main website: www.northeastvelo.com

Thanks, great info about the Waltham venue.

--JP

Amy Green said...

Great piece. I used some of your info in a larger piece on the bike craze and Waltham's influence. See research papers at this site: Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation.
Do you know if there are any other extant pictures of the race track?

Christopher Klein said...

Amy, Enjoyed your piece. I'm not aware of any other pictures but it's been a while since I researched the subject. A local author, Lorenz Finison, has written a book called "Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900." He might know of any photos that could exist: https://www.facebook.com/cyclingcraze/. Chris