New York Velodrome

by Cole Thompson

Bronx Velodrome, 1920's  On 225th Street near the Harlem River, roughly where the Target department store sits today, once stood one of the great Gotham sporting venues of the 1920′s, the New York Velodrome.

The date, May 30th, 1922, opening night at the quarter-million-dollar bike track built to hold 16,000 fans. Tonight the crowd has likely exceeded capacity.

Velodrome riders trainingThe rabid fans are out in force to witness a no holes barred cycling competition featuring true international stars and tonight they won’t be disappointed.

Competitive cycling first gained popularity in the 1880′s and 90′s and by the 1920′s the Velodrome was the hottest ticket in town.

Bronx Velodrome in 1920's

Essentially a huge wooden saucer, the Velodrome had steep banks designed to send racers flying past one another in a dizzy blur of spokes, sweat and pain. Gaining speed, riders would clash in violent collisions often slicking the track with their own blood.

 

Velodrome New York Evening Post, Jue 10, 1922

Velodrome riders training may 24,  1922

Notorious six-day races, free for all amateur events, sprints and motor-paced racing were the rage at similar arenas around the globe, but tonight, opening night, the Velodrome had a special surprise for everyone.

After several races, including a devastating upset for veteran favorite Percy Lawrence at the hands of Italian rider Georges Columbatto, the Bambino took to the track.

Babe Ruth, 1922 Starter pistol in hand, crowd going wild, Babe Ruth himself fired the shot that sent legs pumping in the sprint race featuring Orlando Piani posterrivals Ray Eaton, Alf  Goullet and Orlando Piani.
While a jazz band played in the background, Eaton, of East Orange, New Jersey captured best time in two out of three heats.

Designed primarily for cycling, the Velodrome was a true multi-purpose facility.   Used for a variety of sporting events,  the Velodrome was also host to  a World Welterweight title bout shrouded in controversy.

Jack Britton and Benny Leonard June 26, 1922

On June 26, 1922, for twelve fast and furious rounds, Jack Britton, aka “The Boxing Marvel,” (below right)  out boxed, crowded and even bloodied opponent Benny Leonard (below left). Boxer Jack Britton

Then in round thirteen, Leonard, a Jewish boxer dubbed “The Ghetto Wizard” for his Lower East Side neighborhood,  threw a blow to Britton’s midsection. Britton doubled over and fell to his knees.
Benny Leonard-1923While rising to one knee, Leonard swooped in and  stuck Britton with a light blow to the face. As famed sports writer Daymon Runyon looked on in disbelief, referee Pat Haley disqualified comeback kid Benny Leonard. For years it was rumored Leonard had bet heavily against himself and intentionally fouled his opponent in a last ditch effort to throw the fight.

For eight glorious years the Velodrome was the scene of awe and excitement, before a suspicious fire burned the fabled venue to the ground.

1921 Map showing Velodrome

In the early morning hours of August 4th, 1930 garage workers reported seeing smoke rising from the wooden structure. By the time fire units were dispatched, the smoldering fire had become a three-alarm inferno. Firemen helplessly pulled back and focused their attention on keeping the fire from spreading to the surrounding neighborhood.
By 4:00 am, flames could be seen as far away as Washington Heights. By dawn, the Velodrome was a smoldering ash heap, never to be rebuilt.

fire-headline

Velodrome programDespite the late hour, police would later learn that Velodrome supervisor Jack Neville and two other employees were in the facility when the fire broke out.
While an arson investigation never materialized, those close to the case couldn’t help but note the fire occurred just weeks after a competing Velodrome opened on nearby Coney Island.

Click here for more neighborhood history.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter J.Devito April 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Most people thought I was crazy when in my autobiograpy I mentioned the fact that
Id an uncle had taken me to the Velodrom in Inwood…this proves otherwise!!
Lived in the Fort George section of Washington Heights and we walked down Snake
Hill to the Velodrome to watch several races by Italian competitors…a wonderful day
and thank you for saving the memorabilia.

Kelly Hopkins June 26, 2009 at 8:04 am

My great grandfather was Percy Lawrence. I just found an old article about him my mother had and googled his name. Thank you for this page which is just another piece of my family history.

Cole Thompson June 26, 2009 at 8:06 am

Kelly,
Thanks for writing in. The velodrome post gets a lot of traffic from cyclists. A family connection…priceless. -Cole

O. L. Kraus August 3, 2009 at 4:01 pm

The velodrome, as I remember it was a much taller strucure, but still a wooden ‘O’. It could easily be seen from our bedroom window on Heath Ave. Iremeber being wakened in the wee hours by my father to see the entire stucture aflame. I was 4.

Mona August 10, 2009 at 8:55 pm

I was just given a picture of my grandfather racing at the velodrome – must have been around 1922. Does anyone know if there are any records left of racers? I would love to track down some more information and photos.

Cole Thompson August 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm

If you care to scan the photo and send it in, I’ll add it to the post. Have you tried running your grandfather’s name through the New York Time’s archive? Some of the events, lineups etc., were written up in old articles I’ve come across. I wish you luck in your quest. –Cole

Dawson June 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm

I noticed the reference to Snake Hill, is this Ft. George Hill by chance? Does anyone have any photos or history on the amusement Park that existed in the northern end of Highbridge Park?

Cole Thompson June 11, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I wrote something on the old amusement park a while back. Here’s the link http://myinwood.net/fort-george-amusement-park/ or click here to take a look.

Gary April 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

A new velodrome to be built at the Brooklyn Bridge Park! This is fantastic news.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/20/nyregion/40-million-pledged-for-brooklyn-bridge-park.html?_r=1

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