Canal Street was unusually quiet for a Thursday. Along the broad thoroughfare that divides the city between Downtown and Uptown, Old and New, American and Creole, only a few mule-drawn omnibuses ambled. The offices and fashionable shops were closed. But at the rail stop in the middle of the avenue a crowd had gathered, and a breathless chatter rose, peppered with a novel slang: “flyer,” “header,” “scorch,” “shadow steed”—and the names “Captain Hill” and “Charlie Guillotte.” The rumble and hiss of an approaching steam engine soon drowned their voices, and the crowd streamed into the seven cars of the special train.
It was Thanksgiving Day, 1887, and everyone on the train was headed the West End, an amusement retreat on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Jolting forward, the train traveled only a few blocks before coming again to a halt at Claiborne Avenue, another broad tree-lined boulevard. There, on the oak-shaded “neutral ground,” another crowd had gathered.
Men, women and children jostled elbow to elbow, standing on tiptoes and craning necks to get a look at the road that ran alongside the tracks. Fifteen gentlemen had assembled at the intersection dressed in short pants and close-fitting riding caps. Each rested his hand on the seat of a strange new contraption — a bicycle. The front wheels of these machines measured more than four feet high. The pedals were attached directly to the front crank. A small saddle was mounted near the top of the wheel on a steeply arched frame. A tiny wheel trailed behind. Riding these machines, these men were to dash up Canal Street and then the shell road along the New Basin Canal to the lake, a distance of five and a half miles. The train, keeping pace with the cyclists, would provide a moving grandstand for this new kind of spectacle.
By the late 19th century, New Orleans had a fever for sports. People flocked to boxing matches, swimming and foot races, and football and baseball games. The city’s new professional baseball team, the Pelicans, had won the Southern championship in their first season. Cycling races had been held at Audubon Park for the first time, and the official league meet in September had been a high event of the social season.
The Thanksgiving Day handicap was really a race between two men. A.M. Hill was the city’s long-standing champion. He was a transplant from Pennsylvania whose grand jewelry store stood on the corner of St. Charles and Canal. C.B. Guillotte was his closest rival. The native-born New Orleanian had been riding only one year but had already caught up to Hill’s competitive speed.
At the starting line, the train waited with Hill and Guillotte as the slower riders took their head starts. Finally it was down to the scratch men. The starting gun fired. The two men ran beside their wheels for a few steps, then leapt into the saddles and planted their feet on the pedals. The train rumbled forward and picked up speed, leaving Hill and Guillotte behind. The pavement gave way quickly to dirt as the train passed the other riders. From the windows of the seven cars the passengers howled, shouting the names of their favorite flyers. As the train made the turn toward the lake, Hill and Guillotte were close behind, crossing the bridge onto the shell road. Soon they were scorching the slower riders, overtaking them one by one. Squinting through the dust, crouched low over their wide racing handlebars, elbows splayed, legs gyrating, face muscles stretched in concentration, they flew at average speeds of twelve miles an hour — half again as fast as a trotting horse.
The train pulled ahead again, stopping at the bridge just before the finish line. The passengers streamed out of the cars to catch the finish. As the crowd cheered and shouted, Guillotte crossed first, just inches ahead of Hill.
The great era of high wheel racing in New Orleans had begun.
Lacar Musgrove has an MFA in creative writing and Master's degree in History from the University of New Orleans. Her story, "The Flyers of Eighty-Seven," published in Boneshaker Magazine (Issue Number 12), describes the rise of bicycle racing in New Orleans in the late Nineteenth Century. Her tour of early cycling club history in New Orleans, "Shadow Steeds of the Crescent City," can be found at neworleanshistorical.org.
Storyville is a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.
Produced by Laine Kaplan-Levenson.