Each time I pass the new construction site on the corner of Capitol Way and Carylon St., my mind is set adrift on times vanished. In my wildest dreams, the construction crew would have unearthed an old bicycle chain, a rusty frame, or, who knows, a real mummified cyclist! Why do I have these crazy thoughts? As some know, very near this spot is the historic site where Olympia’s wooden velodrome stood over a century ago. Before this current construction project began, I actually harbored dreams of what it would be like to rebuild the velodrome on its historic turf, but this new building now makes that a little harder to imagine… even for me.
The spot where the track stood was on land that had been used for early editions of the Thurston County Fair, as well as various other types of racing, including horse and foot races. As I understand the Fair’s history, there were no editions held on the grounds during the time that the track was in operation into the early 1900’s. Nonetheless, between about 1890 and at the most 1903, Olympia had its very own outdoor wooden bicycle track! The track was operated by W.A. VanEpps, a prominent local merchant, and, also, president of the Olympia Bicycle Club. The velodrome became such a popular attraction during it’s time of operation that it led to some major improvements in the roads of Olympia to make sure that bicycles and spectators could easily reach the track.
The Washington State Historical Society has two vintage photos of the track on it’s website, and I have seen them in various local history books. From those pictures, it appears to be a fairly small-sized, steeply banked track. The wooden-framed structure looks like it is decked with 1”x4” (-ish) boards, and judging by the size of the riders on the track, I’d guess that it was about 18-20 feet wide. I can only imagine that the wood used was Douglas Fir, or possibly cedar, given their local abundance. The infield looks rough and would hold no safety for any rider that entered it at speed. On one side of the track there was a covered grandstand with bleachers that on the day of the picture appears to be holding about 500 people. On the opposite side there is another set of uncovered bleachers which looks to hold approximately the same number of spectators watching the race and shading themselves from a strong sun with their umbrellas.
My guess is that these pictures were taken on the same day, given that the 4 riders on the track are in similar looking racing outfits, blurred though they may be. Whatever this particular race was, perhaps a championship, perhaps the inaugural race on the track, is unknown. The velodrome would have been the centerpiece of sporting entertainment here in Olympia, just as it was across the country and in Europe during the 1890s.
By 1903, however, local cycling fever must have died down, and in one article, the track itself was referred to as a “ill-fated venture.” In the same report, the velodrome was to be torn down and the wood itself used in the construction of the bleachers and grandstand for America’s newest sporting pastime: baseball! So, in a new form, the velodrome watched over these new sporting events. It stood on those grounds until 1920 when the grandstand was finally torn down and the area was developed for housing.
Who knows what dreams took flight on this now-gone track? Perhaps there was money won and money lost on these races? Maybe there were straw hats thrown in the air for a local favorite or a gasp at the line when the out-of-towner who spoiled a hometown victory? The cheers are all gone into the mist. What is left, though, are all of these questions and they weave cycling into our memories of Olympia as a young pioneer town. I hope, as you ride by this spot next time, you’ll hear the quiet cheers of a distant crowd excited by a spine-tingling race to the finish line.
References for this article can be found here: