The following is an excerpt from Hearts of Lions: The History of American Bicycle Racing by Peter Joffre Nye (Nebraska, 2020).
Chapter 4: John M. Chapman, Czar of Cycling
Tis on Market Street away from all the cornﬁelds—ANONYMOUS
Mistress Mihlon draws the amber clear and cool,
Oftentimes I think I’d like to have a schooner,
And receive my lessons there in Nature’s school.
There is not one thing that’s missing in the picture,
Her smiling face makes everything complete,
And makes me long to see her in the doorway,
Or standing by the bar, her boys to greet.
When Brigham Young led his small band of Mormon pioneers into a flat river valley near Utah’s Great Salt Lake in July 1847, he knew he had found what he was looking for. To the east were the peaks of the Wasatch Range, reaching 8,000 feet toward the sky. To the west, more mountains—the Oquirrh, topping out at almost 11,000 feet. On the northwest side of the valley stretched the Great Salt Lake. “This,” Young said to his people, “is the place.”
The Mormons laid out a town there in the valley, built a fort and houses, explored the valley and the mountains, irrigated the land, and planted crops. More Mormons moved into the area, and in three years there were five thousand of them. By 1868 the town was Salt Lake City, and the city became a mining center. As more settlers and more businesses came into the valley, so did railroads (the golden spike joining lines from the east and west was driven not far away at Promontory Point in 1869) and railroad builders. Young’s brother-in-law, architect Truman O. Angell, decided that the wonders of Utah needed a showcase. The one he built in downtown Salt Lake City became the fabulous resort known as the Salt Palace, which opened in 1899.
It was indeed a palace—a glistening pleasure dome composed of rock salt from the lakeshore. Slabs and blocks of salt provided the building materials for the structure. Salt-encrusted wood was used for exterior wall panels and molding. Salt was mixed with plaster for the wainscoting. The exterior lights were set in sparkling crystal-covered bells covering the palace towers. An electric star topped the dome. At night, the Salt Palace twinkled in the dark like an enormous jewel.
The interior of the dome was not salted, yet it was as spectacular as the rest of the Palace. Each of its sixteen panels was painted in iridescent colors to display the name of a western state. One was Utah, which had been a state for only three years when the Salt Palace opened.
Besides exhibits of Utah’s copper, gold, zinc, and other mineral resources and displays of agricultural industry, the Salt Palace offered on the grounds an outdoor wooden velodrome one-eighth of a mile around, where races were held twice a week. Sellout crowds of five thousand were common; the ninety thousand people of Salt Lake City included a high proportion of fans.
Fifty years after Young and his followers arrived in the valley, Salt Lake City had become one of the stops on the bicycle racing circuit. For the riders, the city meant speed: its thin air at almost 4,400 feet let them ride faster. For the fans, speed records became expected. For the sport in general, Salt Lake City meant something more. For if it was the place for Young and his Mormon followers to found a city, it also turned out to be the place for one itinerant racer to learn the promoting business, which launched the sport into its golden era.
That racer was John M. Chapman, who became what the New York Times described as the “undisputed czar” of the sport. “More than any other man,” the Times said, “he was responsible for the growth of the sport as a popular attraction in this country.”
Today, among all the figures in American sports, Chapman is one of the most overlooked. In many ways, he was the quintessential Horatio Alger character—from a humble background he earned great fortune. He was even born in a log cabin with a dirt floor, in College Park, just south of Atlanta. His father was celebrated throughout Georgia for the excellent brandy he distilled from peaches grown on his farm. In 1894, at the age of sixteen, young John bought a bicycle, which began his involvement in the sport that would be his life.
Two years later, he started racing in Atlanta. He showed promise in his first year, and the next year found him also competing on the Southern Circuit in Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. By the end of the season, he was a regional star, with an income of $800—impressive at the time.
Chapman was good, but not in the same class as another Georgian—Bobby Walthour. They were the same age and competed against each other often. Walthour, a few inches taller than Chapman, was five feet eleven, and won so many races that newspaper accounts indicate he was as well known in Georgia as legendary Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
Walthour and Chapman competed on the track, and, as it turned out, in romance. Chapman fell in love with a petite redhead named Blanche Bailey. She accompanied him to races and cheered. Somewhere along the way she and Walthour met. In 1898 Walthour’s competition with Chapman gained another dimension. On a soft summer night when the moon was full Bobby and Blanche eloped on a tandem bicycle.
The next day an Atlanta newspaper carried a picture of the couple riding their tandem, Cupid perched on the handlebars. Accompanying the artwork was a verse that went:
He was a champion scorcher
She was a lady true;
They sped away at the close of the day
On a bicycle built for two
Walthour’s descendants, and a number of contemporary newspaper accounts, say that the elopement inspired the popular song “Daisy, Daisy,” sometimes known as “Bicycle Built for Two.” It’s a pleasant romantic notion, but records at the Library of Congress show the song was copyrighted in 1892, when Bobby was thirteen and Blanche ten.
The elopement caused a rift between Walthour and Chapman. Chapman left the South to compete on tracks from New York to Michigan to British Columbia, then to San Francisco. Finally, in 1899, he arrived in Salt Lake City, where he lived for most of the next eight years.
At the Salt Palace velodrome, Chapman had his best racing years. The local press dubbed him the Georgia Cyclone. Thistle Bicycles hired him to ride their brand with Thistle emblazoned across his jersey front. He befriended a Swedish immigrant named Iver Lawson, a tad under six feet—taller and twenty pounds heftier than Chapman. The Swede had a contract to ride Cleveland Bicycles. He was struggling to speak better English, and Chapman offered pointers. They traveled together to Australia to take advantage of races in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. In 1901 in Salt Lake City they teamed up and set the world tandem five-mile record of 9 minutes, 44 seconds, topping 30 mph; it stood for more than fifty years. The year-round schedule, however, overwhelmed Chapman. Midway through the 1902 season he retired.
Chapman accepted the job as manager of the Salt Palace velodrome. He knew how to set up race programs involving amateurs and pros, arrange merchandise for amateurs and purses to entice pros, and publicize events for spectators to buy tickets and watch. He became so confident that at the end of the 1903 season he left the Salt Palace and invested savings in another track in the Salt Air Amusement Park on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. The enterprise flopped in 1904, and Chapman went broke. Out of money and a job, he headed to Gold-field, Nevada, to look for gold. There he met another prospector, a former cowpuncher and marshal from the Lone Star State named George Lewis “Tex” Rickard.
Rickard—whose sharply defined nose and chin gave him the visage of a banker or Shakespearean actor—had already struck it rich in the Klondike gold rush in northwest Canada’s Yukon Territory. With that money, he had set up a saloon and gambling hall that made him even richer, only to lose everything on a bad bet. He swung an axe as a lumberjack long enough to earn the funds he needed to open another saloon in Alaska, even more profitable than the first—until he lost that as well in worthless gold claims. Rickard had won and lost enough money to make Chapman’s losses seem like small change. The two became friends. Eventually they agreed the gold rush had ended. Rickard invested what cash he had left in another gambling house, the Northern Bar saloon and casino, in Goldfield; Chapman returned to Salt Lake City where he landed employment as manager of Hogel’s Saloon. Another twelve years were to pass before the two prospectors met again at the other end of the country, to strike it rich at the top of American sports.