What Goes Around, Comes Around…
The recent surge in bicycle popularity, designated traffic lanes for cyclists, and issues of “sharing the road,” are not new to Indianapolis. Indeed, this “new” phenomenon is a REsurgence — more than 100 years after the first wave of bi-pedal preoccupation.
It’s commonly agreed that the first bicycle was invented in 1817 by a German named Baron Karl von Drais. The metal and wood confabulation was more of a “running machine” which the operator could sit upon while his legs pushed the apparatus along. It originally had no pedals. Von Drais’s first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine came about a year later. It was called the Velocipede or “dandy horse.” Over the decades, a variety of improvements were applied to this contraption of great-fascination-but-dubious-facility until the “High Wheel” appeared on the landscape, causing a great popular fervor.
High Wheels (AKA “Penny Farthings”) were introduced in the late 1860s by Frenchman, Eugene Meyer. This four-foot-tall bicycle offered an enormous front wheel which was enlarged enough to enable better-than-running speeds (though limited by the inside leg measurement of the rider). The dangerous nature of these altitudinous bicycles (as well as Victorian mores) limited the activity largely to adventurous young men.
Indianapolis saw its first such bicycle in 1869 at a demonstration on the Circle. This bike, dubbed the “Ordinary” or the “Boneshaker,” was unwieldy to manage and arrived before the invention of rubber air-filled tires or shock absorbers. In 1886, Henry T. Hearsey, a bicycle manufacturer from Boston, opened a bicycle shop in the 100 block of North Pennsylvania Street. Hearsey is largely credited with bringing the “Safety” bicycle to Indy — a new model with two wheels of equal size and a lower frame, operated with pedals attached to the back wheel, gears and a chain. With a less-risky ride available, suddenly the doors of the sport were opened to more than just the wealthy… and more than just men.
The Indianapolis populace took to cycling quickly. At one point, there were nearly a hundred clubs supporting groups from nearly every level of society. Though initially considered a road menace, it was the cycling clubs who advocating for paved roads, separated lanes, and more sophisticated traffic regulations.
Enter, the Zig-Zaggers…
The Zig-Zag Cycling Club was founded in 1890 by enthusiast Arthur C. Newby. The club began with a dozen intrepid members. It functioned as an active division of the national League of American Wheelmen (LAW) from which the American Automobile Association (today’s AAA) was eventually spawned. The first club meeting was held at the Hay and Willits Bicycle Shop located on Washington Street, opposite the Statehouse. Within weeks, after the first few membership campaigns, the club was sufficiently large enough to take up quarters in a building at the northeast corner of Washington and Alabama Streets. Rapidly-expanding membership then necessitated a move to quarters in the Lorraine Hotel. By the end of the second year, membership growth required moves to locations at New York and Alabama Streets (a residential neighborhood where the club members’ enthusiasm for loud celebration was looked upon with disdain), and then a house at North and Pennsylvania Streets. Zig-Zaggers finally settled in a large brick house adjoining the old Empire Theater on Delaware Street.
LAW helped the Zig-zaggers sponsor numerous events, contests, and relay races. “Century Runs,” rides of 100 or more miles, were popular events during which riders would trek to Bloomington or Cambridge City and back in a day — or travel a circuit through Franklin to Westfield to Lebanon and back. Longer tours took skilled riders into Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois.
In such an event, the “slow boys” would start early. Faster riders would start later and ride swiftly to catch up. Of course, the peril to such fast-paced Sunday riders were the many horses and carriages on the roads, transporting folk to and from church on the Sabbath. And, the peril to horses and carriage riders were… the bikers.
On one occasion a startled horse backed a woman and two children into a ditch, then the horse sat down on the dashboard of the buggy. Several cyclists jumped to the rescue, fearing the horse finally would squat among the terrified occupants of the buggy.” – Indianapolis News, February 1931
At the club’s height, it had nearly 200 members. Amidst the serious businessmen and innovators who claimed membership in the Club, there were also a fair number of “young cut-ups.”
Among the great delights of the Zig-zaggers was a summer camp they maintained at Mount Nebo, now a part of Brendenwood, near Millersville. The members, most of them unmarried, would ride out in the evening and return to business in Indianapolis after breakfast the next morning… There are a hundred stories to be told of the Zig-zaggers — their troubles with rain and snow, their ordering fifty meals at Franklin when only six showed up to eat, the wrath of the restaurant proprietor, and the equal wrath of baggagermasters when storm-hound cyclists jammed his car with wheels.” — Indianapolis News, February 1931
As was made evident in several news reports of the day, the club members’ reputation for mischief at the Empire Theater, adjacent to their final clubhouse, was part of their undoing. Well, that and the application of the internal-combustion engine to the bicycle, resulting in the motorcycle. Then, soon after, when the engine was applied to 4-wheel carriages resulting in the motor car. As the national craze shifted from two-wheeled contraptions to four-, club members likewise shifted their passions.
The Zig-Zaggers disbanded in 1896.
Club founder, Arthur C. Newby, went on to build the ill-fated Newby Oval, a velodrome with a grandstand seating 20,000 spectators. The Oval opened in 1898 near 30th Street and Central Avenue. Though the concern would go belly-up along with the bike craze, it would serve as a precedent for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that Carl G. Fisher, James A. Allison, Newby, and Frank Wheeler would build in 1909 — all former Zig-Zaggers.
Thus, Indianapolis’s automotive heritage was established over a century ago, beginning with the bicycle.
Can’t get enough of the Zig-Zaggers? The Indiana State Library houses a collection of the organization’s records including club minutes (1895-1896), register of members, copy of the club’s proposed legislation on improving state roads, letters, two issues of Bicycle World (1897), clippings, and pictures.