Kalamazoo’s Plank Track
Bicycle Racing in the 1890s
During the spring of 1896 a great bicycle craze was sweeping the nation. Following the introduction of the modern new safety bicycle, “wheels” were taking the country by storm. Shiny new models could be had at nearly every kind of store imaginable — sporting goods stores, hardware stores, bookstores, even music stores. The Kalamazoo Cycle Company alone boasted “4 Large Bicycle Stores” on North Rose Street. Clothing merchants stocked up on all the latest spring fashions specifically designed for the “wheel crowd.” Cycling clubs were organized, bicycle repair shops began to appear, and bicycle racing became a spectator sport phenomenon.
“Who Wins?” Illustration by C. Broughton. Harpers Weekly, May 1896
Kalamazoo Telegraph, 20 May 1896
A year earlier, baseball was all the rage. In response, local supporters had developed a new park and baseball field especially for Kalamazoo’s state league ball team on Kalamazoo’s northwest side. After leasing property from landowner Edward Hawley, a “first-class” playing field dubbed Recreation Park (not to be confused with the old fairgrounds on Portage Street, also called Recreation Park) was developed along the north side of North Street between Douglas and Woodward avenues.
The summer of 1895 saw near daily baseball games on the new field, but oh what changes a year does bring. Unable to maintain adequate financial support, the Michigan State League collapsed after the end of the 1895 season and the grandstand at the new North Street ballpark fell silent. For the 1896 season, America’s game would take a temporary back seat as the bicycle races were coming to town.
“Recreation Park Board Track”
Recreation Park saw new life in 1896 when the Kalamazoo Plank Track Association was formed and construction of a massive new quarter-mile plank track specifically designed for bicycle racing was planned. The track itself, said to be the first of its kind in Michigan, was a bowl-shaped quarter mile course with lengthwise wooden planks and steeply banked curves. 100,000 feet of lumber arrived on the grounds in early April as construction work on the track began.
One of the largest grandstands in the state would provide comfortable seating for 8,000 spectators. A bandstand was erected in the infield portion of the track where musicians could perform during the races. A wooden fence topped with barbed wire enclosed the racecourse to discourage those who might try to “steal into the grounds,” and electric lights (still quite a novelty at the time) were installed to illuminate the track during evening events.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 May 1896. (Kalamazoo Public Library). Inset: John Lawson “The Terrible Swede” (Wikimedia Commons)
For the Sunday, May 17, grand opening celebration, Thomas Preston Brooke, one of the country’s leading band directors, brought his famous Chicago Marine Band to Kalamazoo for a pair of concert performances at the new track, one in the afternoon, and another “under the lights” in the evening. Later that week, hundreds of cyclists staged a grand morning bicycle parade through the city as a prelude to two days of afternoon and evening cycling events at the plank track. Several state records were broken, while diamonds, medals, bicycle accessories, and other valuable prizes were awarded to the top contenders.
Kalamazoo Gazette, 17 September 1950. Kalamazoo Public Library
In mid-July, Kalamazoo had the honor of hosting the Michigan State Meet bicycle races on the new track. The weather was fine as some 4,000 spectators cheered the racers on. A marching band kept the crowd entertained by parading around the track between heats. Both professional and amateur riders competed in numerous challenging events, including the Quarter-Mile and Half-Mile Michigan Championships. The
Gazette called it “the greatest state meet ever held.”
Schinneer will issue an open challenge for a race, either in competition or a match, from 100 miles up, and has already issued a specific challenge to C.W. Miller, winner of the six days’ race. He hopes to bring off this race by July 4.”
Sporting Life, 23 April 1898
Races at the Kalamazoo plank track continued for a couple of years with many of the nation’s best riders setting yet more event records. By 1898, however, the novelty of bicycle racing had begun to wear off. On the Fourth of July that year, celebrity racers John “The Terrible Swede” Lawson and Fred Schinneer squared off before a rather small holiday crowd for a grueling ten-hour, 200-mile bicycle race. That would be the final event at Kalamazoo’s plank track.
With a lease about to expire and a “track that [had] been anything but remunerative” (
Telegraph), general manager Charles Clarage left the organization citing “business demands” and the park was closed. On Thursday, 21 July 1898, a quarter million feet of “good pine lumber” from the buildings, track, grandstands, and fences went up for auction. By month’s end, all traces of Recreation Park had been cleared away.
Location of Recreation Park c.1890. Map of Kalamazoo City, WM. C. Sauer, C. E. . Kalamazoo Public Library
The property saw occasional use thereafter as a circus showground, but the empty lots were eventually consumed by urban development. A quiet residential neighborhood along Hawley Street now marks the spot where thousands once gathered to enjoy refreshments and watch the “wheelmen” (and women) in action on the Kalamazoo plank track.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, July 2020. Revised and updated January 2023.
“Race track site”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 August 1894, p.1. “Speedy wheelers”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 25 July 1895, p.1. “A bicycle track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 November 1895, p.1. “Will have a track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 February 1896, p.1. “Michigan Cycle Club”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 March 1896, p.1. “Club rooms”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 March 1896, p.1. “Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 April 1896, p.5. “Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 11 April 1896, p.5. “Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 April 1896, p.5. “The plank track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 April 1896, p.1. “Chicago Marine Band”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 23 April 1896, p.8. “Off of the track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 28 April 1896, p.1. “Who wins?”
Illustration by C. Broughton.
Harper’s Weekly. May 1896, p.377. “A great meet”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 May 1896, p.8. “The new bicycle track”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 7 May 1896, p.5. “The bike boys”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 May 1896, p.1. “Building a band stand”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 14 May 1896, p.1. “T.P. Brooke, the most popular bandmaster”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 May 1896, p.7. “The race boys”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 19 May 1896, p.1. “The races today”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 May 1896, p.1. “The day of the opening”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph. 20 May 1896, p.1. “Speedy racers”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 May 1896, p.1. “The meet is over”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 22 May 1896, p.1. “A fast track”
Sporting Life. 30 May 1896, p.23. “Circuit chasers”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 June 1896, p.1. “Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 24 June 1896, p.5. “Lotz the winner”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 July 1896, p.1. “They went like the wind”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 16 July 1896, p.1. “A world’s record lowered”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 July 1896, p.1. “The cycle races”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 30 May 1897, p.1. “The state circuit”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 8 September 1897, p.8. “Fast ones coming”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 October 1897, p.1. “World’s records”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 5 October 1897, p.1. “Jottings”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 13 April 1898, p.5. “Western racing team”
Sporting Life. 23 April 1898, p.17. “A great spill day”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 June 1898, p.1. “A ten hour race”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 1 July 1898, p.1. “A great big purse”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 3 July 1898, p.1. “Pulled his cork – Schinneer runs away with John Lawson”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph. 5 July 1898, p.6. “Plank track – proprietors are talking about tearing it up”
Kalamazoo Saturday Telegraph. 9 July 1898, p.1. “Charles Clarage…”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph. 12 July 1898, p.6. “Auction sale”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 July 1898, p.7. “Auction sale”
Kalamazoo Daily Telegraph. 18 July 1898, p.5. “Auction sale”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 20 July 1898, p.7. “Plank track in Kalamazoo once lured famed bicycle racers”
Kalamazoo Gazette. 17 September 1950, p.7. “Progress and flight: an interpretation of the American cycle craze of the 1890s”
Journal of Social History. Vol. 5, No. 2 (Winter, 1971-1972), pp. 235-257.
1890 Map of Kalamazoo City (Pages 44 and 45) from “Illustrated Atlas of Kalamazoo County, Michigan”
Published by WM. C. Sauer, C. E. , Detroit.