DEVIL WAGONS AND THE MURDERDROME: Queen and Greenwood, Toronto
On hot summer nights in 1914 and 1915 thousands crowded into a wooden saucer at Greenwood and Queen to watch motorcycles race, and sometimes crash and burn only inches from the bleachers. People came here from all over Toronto for watch bicycle races, baseball, rugby, boxing and other sports too. But the “devil wagons”, motorcycles, thrilled fans sitting in Toronto’s own “Murderdrome”.
The crowd was drawn by the sport and the danger. Motorcycles and bicycles raced on circular or oval race courses made of wooden planks. When motorcycle raced on them they were called “motordromes”; when bicycles raced on them they were called “velodromes”. Cycling was thrilling too, but the crashes were rarely lethal.
In 1914 a hole gaped near Greenwood and Queen: an abandoned brick pit ideal for a sports stadium. It was unused, cheap, right on the streetcar lines and not far from downtown. No families lived right next door to object to the noise and gas fumes. Before 1914 this brickyard was Canada’s largest, but that year owner Joseph Russell subdivided his holdings. He developed housing on Stanton, Parkfield and Sawden and other nearby streets. Yet part of his quarry lay waiting for Floyd A. Macfarland.
MacFarlane was a star athlete, saloon owner, coach, manager and the biggest promoter of motordromes. He played rough, mean and dirty. The very worse side of Macfarland came out when he met and was defeated in Australia by his archrival, black American cyclist, Major Taylor. “Racist” hardly seems adequate to describe Macfarland.
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MacFarland opened a string of saucers across the US. In January 1914 he brokered a deal with Joseph Russell to open the Motordrome. The Motordrome Company won a five-year lease to the brickyard with an option to purchase. Toronto’s Motordrome was a joint enterprise with the Federals Baseball League, an American professional baseball league that operated from 1913 to 1915. The promoters planned on offering motorcycle and bicycle racing three times a week and 77 ball games a season.
Thousands poured through the entrance to the Motordrome at the north east corner of the quarry off of Greenwood Avenue and took their seats high on the bleachers overlooking the track or took more expensive seats on the flat area within the oval. These early tracks were built without any engineer involved or much concern for safety. At the top of the track only a wire fence separated the racers from spectators on bleachers. High cornering speeds and high g-forces spun men and equipment off the track into the crowd, with lethal splinters flying and motorcycle tires and parts. The bicycle track lay inside the motorcycle track. It had a 15 degree pitch and was 12 feet wide. The motorcycle track was pitched at 60 degrees and was 20 feet wide. It was a “wall“ or “the wall of death”.
One of the most deadly accidents occurred on September 8, 1912 at the Vailsburg Motordrome board track in Newark, New Jersey. Eddie Hasha’s Indian motorcycle spun out, crashed along 100 feet of railing, striking the heads of the spectators in the bleachers. Drivers Eddie “The Texas Cyclone” Hasha and John Albright were killed as well six fans, three of whom were young teenage boys. Mrs. Hasha and Mrs. Albright were watching the race.
See David L. Morrill’s, Motordrome Racing’s Darkest Days, Newark, NJ. & Ludlow, KY. – Episode #19 Deadly Dave’s Blog – Sharing the lost stories of early American motorcycling http://dlmracing.blogspot.ca/2013/11/motordrome-racings-darkest-days-newark.html
The Lagoon Motordrome in Ludlow, Kentucky, was across from the river from Cincinnati. There, on July 30, 1913, Oden Johnson was speeding high up on the track when he lost control and hit a light pole. His motorcycle burst into flames and sprayed burning gasoline over the stands. Johnson was killed instantly as well a fan, but eight more died of burns and injuries over the next few weeks.
Riders had little safety equipment only some leather: helmet, jackets and sometimes leather pants. Imagine how hard they were to tell apart: all wearing black leather. Although their number was on their jackets, spectators could not always tell who their hero was. Soon they wore coloured leathers to mark out each racer. They now buzzed like multi-coloured bumblebees around the saucer.
Promoter of the races was a guy named Al Kraemer (or Kreamer depending on who type-set the name back then). He got about ten riders in for the opening race and then proceeded to have them work like dogs for their prize money. Races were held two and three nights a week throughout the summer.
Some of the racers included Australian “Brownie” Carslake, also referred to as the “Viceroy of Velocity”, Lloyd “Clean Up” Leonard out of Cleveland, Stanley Joslin – the Texas Cowboy, and a guy name Henikman from Detroit.
The big three were Carslake, Leonard and Henikman but the promoter would try to bring in others to break up their domination. A French driver by the name of Henri Ayrault was one and had the distinction of being the first rider to have a spill at the Motordrome in July.
Brian Pratt, “THE TORONTO MOTORDROME – THE ONLY BOARD TRACK IN THE COMMONWEALTH?” Accessed Aug. 5, 2015 at http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/oldtimespeedway/message/3438
Maybe there were bad omens. There was a serious accident even before the Motordrome opened. Construction worker, Frank Banford, fell nearly 30 feet fracturing his skull. He died two weeks later in hospital. However thousands showed up for a preview to watch over 50 cyclists compete.
On Saturday, May 23, 1914, Toronto’s quarter-mile track opened with all 7,000 seats full and many more standing. 1,000 candlepower nitrogen bulbs lit the saucer. Races roared far into the summer nights, two to three nights a week all summer. Racers reached speeds of 80 mph over long distances, but thundered at over 90 mph in shorter races. Racers played rough and dirty elbowing and kneeing to get to the head of the pack.
Holiday Matinee Motordrome
The biggest week of the Motordrome season will be this weekly period at Saucer Park, Greenwood avenue. In addition to the regular race meets on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday nights, the management has made arrangements for the holding of a special matinee on Wednesday afternoon, the holiday. This will be the first opportunity to see the thrilling events by daylight.
At the request of the riders, a dozen emergency oil lamps have been suspended over the track, which will illuminate the steep course in case the regular lights fail, as was the case one week ago. The foul line has been painted white, to make it more visible to the riders when traveling at 75 to 85 miles per hour.
A number of “Motordrome parties” have been entertained at the local saucer during the past week or two, and the management desires it to be known that blocks of seats will be reserved at any time for a party. In future children will be admitted for half-price, and, as usual, Tuesday nights will be ladies’ nights, when the ladies will be admitted free if accompanied.
Toronto Sunday World, June 28, 1914
BICYCLE RIDERS TOOK TUMBLE AT MOTORDROME NO SERIOUS RESULTS, HOWEVER OCCURRED TO MAR BOB DIBBLE NIGHT.
“Bob Dibble Night” at the Motordrome Saturday evening was a huge success. The campion sculler of America became so interested in the stirring competitions that he pressed the button for several events after the start of his own sweepstakes. A crowd of 6,000 gave him a grand reception, and the riders performed their best for his benefit.
Considerable excitement was aroused when a bunch of bicycle riders tumbled into a pile in the sprint to the wire in the final heat of the two-mile handicap. Liddiard took a spectacular dive through the air and landed onto his head, but ws uninjured, although he was stunned. Taylor and Harris received several small cuts, but could have raced again the same night. Young L. Fry, with 390 yards handicap, won both his heat and the final. Before the start of the Dibble Sweepstakes, Mrs. Brownie Carslake, on behalf of the track riders, presented Dibble with a silver-mounted cane. The results were as follows:
Two-mile bicycle handicap – First heat, won by Bounsell; 2, J. Gross; 3, F. Martin. Time 3.57 1-5.
Second heat – Won by L. Fry; 2, Liddiard; 3, D. taylor. Time 3.54 4-5.
Bob Dibble Sweepstakes. First two-mile heat – Won by bob Barclay, Denver; 2, Carslake, Australia; 3, Joslin, Wilksbarre. Time, 1.23 3-5.
Second heat – Won by Leonard; 2, Henikman; 3, Carslake. Time, 3.35 4-5.
Three-mile free-for-all, first heat – Won by Leonard; 2, Don Barclay, Denver; 3, Joslin. Time, 2.01 4-5. Canadian record.
Second heat – Won by Carslake; 2, Bob Barclay; 3, Henikman. Time, 2.10 2-5.
Final heat – Won by Leonard; 2, Carslake; 3, Don Barclay. Time, 2.07 1-5.
Fifteen-mile open – Won by Henikman; 2. Joslin, 3: Don Barclay; 4. Bob Barclay. Time, 11.13 2-5.
Tuesday night’s leading attraction at the Motordrome is a fifteen mile handicap with Lloyd Leonard, the great Cleveland sprinter, on scratch. As usual, ladies will be admitted free on Tuesday night if accompanied.
Globe, July 27, 1914
There was to be an intimate connection between the wall of death at Motordromes and the circus and particularly sideshows. While the Motordrome hosted all kinds of events, when the Big Top came to town, the place was packed.
AT MOTORDROME SOMETIMES Erie and the Beavers will meet in the final game of the series this afternoon at 3 o’clock, at the Motordrome, and in an effort to win the odd game, Manager Ort of the locals will use Auld against the Yankees.
MOTORDROME All Feature Racemeet TONIGHT See Carslake and Leonard fight it out in $2,000 3-MILE SPRING Irish-Canadian Sweepstakes (15 miles or 60 laps). One-mile Bike Handicap. Also other events. Watch Boerstler of Pittsburgh and Doherty, Detroit, in sensational long grind. 3000 25c seats. LATEST WAR BULLETINS.
BASEBALL MOTORDROME TORONTO VS. ERIE TODAY AT 3 O’CLOCK. Take King, Parliament and Carlton cars to Greenwood Ave. Grandstand seats 50c, bleachers 25c, children under 12 years of age 15c.
Toronto World, Aug. 8, 1914
The Canadian Wheelmen’s Association began planning for a corps of bicyclists to act as scouts to patrol the Welland Canal. There were about 75 trained cyclists at the Motordrome where the CWA was to meet and organize the corps.
Toronto Star, August 16 1914
MOTORCYCLE RIDER THROWN OVER 100 FT.
Walker’s Spectacular Spill – AN Exciting Half-Hour Race – 75-Mile Event Saturday.
If the events at the Motordrome last night are any criterion, Saturday night’s 75-mile contest should be a hair-raiser. Everything happened last night that could happen on a Motordrome track except an explosion of some one’s gasoline tank. In spite of all the accidents and incidents Vernon Walker was the only rider at all injured, and his wounds are only superficial.
Walker might well have been killed. In fact, most people who saw him go down thought that he had been instantly killed. Walker happened with the most dangerous accident a race rider can have – a front tire blew out while he was riding at full speed at the top of the track. Over he went with a crash, and he and his wheel went sliding, rolling, and somersaulting down the steep incline to the infield. The rider brough up over a hundred feet from where he started out, and lay for an instant in a heap in the infield before he arose. His machine skidded along the track nearly a hundred and fifty yards before it stopped. The bump left Walker pretty sore and put him out of the five-mile final, which was just starting.
The five-mile race went to Jack Harding, the Birmingham wonder. He was second to Lloyd Leonard in a two-mile heat, ridden in1: 21 2-5 (four second under the Canadian record), and in the final stalled off the latter’s last-lap rush, and won by a whisker.
Toronto Star September 17 1914
To make money all year, the owners built a skating rink inside the wooden oval and guaranteed that it had no holes or cracks. They boasted that it was the best rink in Toronto. Live bands played music to skate to. One night 15 bands played everything from waltzes to the top hits of the day (presumably not at the same time). “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny”, “Chinatown, My Chinatown” and “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” kept skaters happy and the neighbourhood awake.
MISS WESTON IS CHAMPION
Won All Three Ladies’ Events at Motordrome Rink Races.
A wonderfully fast and graceful lady skater has been developed at the Motordrome Rink. She is Miss Ruby Weston. last night Miss Weston won the quarter-mile from 12 skaters, the half from 15, and the mile from 19. In the mile she fell and lost 50 yards, but gamely scrambled to her feet and set sail after the leaders. She overhauled them steadily and won with something to spare. Miss. S. Weston was second in the quarter and mile, while Miss I. Gordon was third in all three events. Miss G. Robinson was second in the half-mile. Miss Weston is ready to meet any lady skater in the city, and Mange Randall, of the Motordrome, will put up a cup for the events.
Toronto Star Jan 19 1915
JOE BARIBEAU, the Canadian champion motorcyclist, who will locate here in the spring, when the Hendee Manufacturing company establishes a Canadian branch here.
“Wild Joe Baribeau” was a famous motorcycle racer and a celebrity, considered the fastest in his time. Extremely talent and courgeous, he was also nicknamed:
“Daredevil Baribeau,” terror on wheels” and “the new speed god.” ( Joseph Baribeau – Class of 2010. Accessed Aug. 5, 2015. http://canmoto.ca/joseph-baribeau-class-of-2010/ )
He was born in 1889 in Kenora. When he was 21 he moved to Winnipeg and began his career racing motorcycles.
A month later, on Oct. 14, 1911 Joe set a world record by being the first to average 60 miles per hour over a distance of 100 miles. He had tried earlier in the summer but his engine seized, so he waited for cooler weather. His V-twin Indian was a pure racing machine, with no fenders, clutch, brakes or exhaust but with a rear rack that carried a large supply of oil to last the duration of the run. The oil reservoir was so heavy that it caused the bike to weave in the corners, and he stopped after one lap to lighten the load. Joe had to take a hand off the dropped bars to work a manual pump that injected extra oil into the engine.
Refuelling was done at close to 60 mph by Joe grabbing a can of gas from another motorcycle that ran on the track beside him. His helper was an immigrant from New Zealand named Bill Pelham, later a famous racer in his own right. It was late afternoon on a chilly autumn day, and Joe’s hands were practically frozen to the bars. He covered an extra two miles to be sure of the record and then had to be lifted off the bike, so exhausted he couldn’t speak.
(Class of 2010)
In 1912 Baribeau came to Toronto where Indian Motorcycle had a plant on Mercer Street.
Since he was a paid factory rider, Joe was listed as a professional in the newly created racing category of the Canadian Motorcycle Association. He competed at the newly built Toronto Motordrome board track, rode in hillclimbs and raced on mile and half-mile dirt tracks, winning the Ontario, Manitoba and Canadian championships.
(Class of 2010)
Joseph Baribeau died in Winnipeg, Manitoba on October 6, 1950. He was 61 and had run his own auto repair and service station since retiring from racing in 1915. Recently one of Baribeau’s granddaughters got in touch with me, a very pleasant surprise.
Behind the scenes the Motordrome was plagued with trouble from the beginning as management changed hands and the revenue sometimes only just covered the expenses. Californian Floyd A. Macfarland, the General Manger of the Cycle Racing Association, was the genius behind Toronto’s Motordrome. On April 18, 1915, Macfarland was in his Newark, N.J. saucer. Here, in 1912, a disastrous crashing killed fans and riders. The New York Times stamped the name “Murderdrome” on the saucers. And murder was there that April 2015 day. A peanut vendor decided to put up posters advertising his salty treats. He didn’t consult management. Macfarlane stalked over in a rage ordering his men staff to tear down the ads. The peanut man swung around with screwdriver in hand. He stabbed Macfarland in the ear. The screwdriver drove through bone into Macfarland’s brain, killing him.
Bookies did well with Woodbine racetrack just down the road and now the motorcycles. The fans threw bottles and trash at any racer they thought was fixing a race by holding back. Workers regularly dashed to clear broken glass. The only casualty during a race at Toronto’s Motordrome was a maintenance worker. According to management, he should be blamed for his own death as he could have dodged instead of darting.
Ernest Roberts, caretaker of the Motordrome, Greenwood avenue, died in St. Michael’s Hospital yesterday morning. Roberts was hit on May 22 by Sayer, a motor-paced rider from Bright Beach, while cleaning glass from the track. Manager Hughes stated that it was purely an accident. “If Roberts had stood still, nothing would have happened, as Sayer is one of the most expert handlers of a machine in America.”
Toronto World, June 3, 1915
The guiding hand was gone. More trouble followed as the motorcycle racers went on strike for higher pay and safer working conditions. Without the motorcyclists attendance and revenue dropped. The Federals Baseball League folded and there was no more pro ball at this saucer. Ticket sale flattened and fell. The largest market was teenage boys and young men. They now fighting and dying in Flanders Fields. The wooden track was already in need of major repair. Board tracks were cheap to construct, but the planks broke and rotted quickly. A series of managers could not stem the bleeding.
MOTORDROME ASSIGNS; ATTRACTIONS CONTINUE
LIABILITIES ESTIMATED AT $25,000 – AN ADJUSTMENT PROBABLE
The Motordrome Company, Limited, has made an assignment to George T. Clarkson, Assignee. A meeting of the creditors will be held this week. The liquidation proceedings will not interfere with the attraction contracted to be given during the Exhibition, an arrangement to this effect having been made between the company and the parties under contract.
The liabilities are estimated at $25,000. An official of the company stated to THE Globe last night hat, owing to some misunderstandings that hve cropped up since the Motordrome was opened, it was felt by the directors that placing of the affairs of the concern in charge of an assignee would result in amicable adjustment of the whole trouble.
The Motordrome, which is situated at Greenwood avenue and Queen street, and has been almost entirely for motorcycle speeding, cost $50,000. The new track was opened in the spring.
Globe, Aug. 31, 1915
By the fall of 1915 the Motordrome Company was bankrupt.
Some hoped that Lol Solman, the owner of Toronto’s professional baseball field, Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst, would step in and rescue the “Murderdrome”. Solman always had one finger on the public’s pulse. He did not take on the saucer’s liabilities and gruesome reputation.
When the UlBicycle racing continued on board tracks after Toronto’s Motordrome closed.
Later Alton Avenue would be built at the western side of the Motordrome site. The laneway entering the Motordrome would become Dorothy Street; Hiltz Avenue would be built on the site’s east side. Where the Motordrome sat there are two apartment buildings. Greenwood Court at 1328 to 1338 Queen Street East is a CMHC-owned building built after World War Two as housing for returning veterans. The northern building, 1615 Dundas Street East, is a Toronto Community Housing Project. The laneway that loops around this building virtually mimics the form of the Motordrome.
The Motordrome at Greenwood and Queen was the only one ever built outside the United States.
The devil wagons are gone from the saucer but motorcycles still entrance many of us. A century ago the Murderdrome rotted away. Now only circuses and sideshows offer spectators the thrill of motorcycles on a wall of death. Toronto’s only relic is a u-shaped lane around a housing project.
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