Twice the Fun at the Double Decker Bicycle Track

 
By Joy Neighbors

Dateline: August 1896

West Baden Springs Hotel
The construction of a one-of-a-kind double decker bicycle track was part of a multi-year expansion phase at West Baden Springs Hotel. Owner Lee Sinclair began by building an opera house in 1893. The next year he added 200 rooms to the hotel and the following year brought the arrival of a grand casino, complete with a ballroom.

In 1896, Sinclair decided to construct the double decker bicycle track a few hundred yards south of the hotel. The oval track distanced one-third of a mile and was longer than two football fields – measuring 20 feet wide by 400 feet long. The cost of the project was estimated to be a whopping $10,000.


Passing the Time
The covered structure was built of wood and housed ponies and horses on the bottom floor. The second floor was comprised of the bike track where riders could cycle around the oval during the day, but evening brought out a different sort of guest. Around 4pm, the track was cleared of the sports-minded and rocking chairs were set out as fashionable men and women promenaded around the track for amusement and conversation.

Both levels of the track were lit with newfangled electric lights. The bottom floor was used for horse riding and pony cart rides. The center field of the track was not roofed and had a regulation baseball diamond lit by electric lights.

Taking a Spin
Miss Helen Rogers of Dayton, Ohio was the first cycler to take a spin around the track in May 1896. By June, biking exhibitions were being held at the facility by area companies showing off the latest in bicycles. The two-story track was so novel, the West Baden Journal published this anonymously penned poem to mark the grand occasion:

To Celebrate the New Bicycle Track

Only a cycler speeding by;

Only a maid with a witching eye;

Only a moment he waved his hand;

Only a smile so sweet and bland;

Only a stone so smooth and round;

Only a thud as he hit the ground.

A Cleared Track
Bikers enjoyed the regulation track, which was banked for attaining high speeds. The West Baden Journal reported, in 1897, that guest John Huebner of Toledo, Ohio broke the track record, making it around the oval in one minute and 57 seconds. In 1898, high winds caused damage to the track but it was quickly repaired and new cyclers continued to ride the covered track and stay at the hotel.

Baseball Practice Inside the Track

Baseball games were played in the centrally located ball field by the home team, the West Baden Sprudels and the neighboring French Lick Plutos. Teams that came here for spring training included the St. Louis Browns, St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. The Cubs practiced on the field before they won the 1908 World Series – the most recent series win for the team.

But by the 1920s, America’s love affair with biking had fizzled and the wooden structure began to fall apart. The hotel's current owner Ed Ballard wanted the track torn down and went about getting estimates for razing the building, but Ballard felt the submitted bids were too high so he decided to let the structure fall in on itself.

The Area Today
As luck would have it, a heavy windstorm blew through the area on Saturday July 25, 1925 and nearly demolished the track. Ballard, ever the businessman, turned the damage report in to his insurance company, which presented him with a check for $100,000 for the loss. Ballard immediately had the rest of the track torn down. By the autumn of 1925, the double decker bicycle track was only a memory.

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