Wednesday, November 04, 2015


A 1915 program for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, showing the Tower of Jewels, set with 102,000 'novagems' of Czech crystal, lit by 50 arc lamps.  Behind is the Rainbow Scintillator, the first use of searchlights for entertainment, as a cadre of Marines swung multi-colored lights in coordinated patterns at night.  Spectacle!
100 years ago, San Francisco was a new city. As with most cities, it was built atop older cities, and the terrific shaking and subsequent fire of 1906 was, while dramatic, merely the latest in a string of disastrous fires destroying the city, ever since the the former Spanish Mission outpost became a burgeoning port servicing the Gold Rush of 1849 (which is when my own family arrived).  The city was built not only over the ashes of its former self, but also the very ships which delivered thousands to the maw of Gold Fever.  Entire crews jumped ship to try their luck at mining, and the harbor grew a forest of masts from abandoned ships, an ironic contrast to the recently deforested hills and islands around the Bay.  Today, every new hi-rise downtown schedules a few months for archeologists to clear out the Clipper ship carcasses used as landfill for what was to become our downtown.
The PPIE almost finished - note no Golden Gate Bridge - that didn't go up for another 20 years. The bottom left of the photo shows The Zone, and clearly shows the scale of the open-topped Race for Life motordrome - huge!  The Tower of Jewels is at the top left...
The '06 Quake was different from previous disasters, as the city had an opportunity to establish building codes for earthquake safety, and reinvent itself as it saw fit.  My great-grandfather was a developer on the Van Ness corridor, the new artery from the Bay to City Hall, and built a few of the impressive reinforced-concrete auto dealerships which still stand, although few still sell cars.  Our family legacy included the first Ford dealership on the west coast, a lovely 4-storey concrete building with floor-to-ceiling industrial glazing, which I longed to inhabit in my post-college days.  But that's another tale.
The PPIE from the other direction, showing the color-coordinated exteriors of the buildings, a pink faux travertine made of a new plaster/marble mix.  Bernard Maybecks' Palace of Fine Arts is at right, and the only building still standing from the PPIE.
2015 is the Centennial year for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), and lots of attention has been focused on the Expo in local museums and books.  The enormous Exposition was built over the Harbor View neighborhood (now called the Marina), which was a squatter's tent camp on swampy marshland, just past the grazing pastures of Cow Hollow.  City fathers - notably our incredibly corrupt mayor 'Sunny Jim' Rolph - devised the genius plan to fortify the soil of Harbor View, and build an Expo on the site to celebrate the 1913 opening of the Panama Canal. Of course the Expo really celebrated San Francisco itself, and developers subsequently got rich on the land beneath the Expo, after it was torn down in 1916.  Hence the Marina district today, which swells with a tech-yuppie influx and is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in town, regardless of its vulnerability to future earthquakes, due to its landfill foundation.
The start of it all - a postcard showing Joe Hall circulating on a 1913 Excelsior 7C-based board tracker, at the 90degree mark in the Race for Life at the 1915 PPIE
While researching an article for The Automobile magazine on two auto races at the PPIE ('Race Around the Rainbow Scintillator', which I'll publish on in December), I came across Laura Ackley's excellent book 'Jewel City', which contains a postcard of Joe Hill circulating a Wall of Death on an Excelsior racer  - which was news to me!  Here was photographic evidence of a a very early Wall right in my home town, in the middle of the PPIE.  Time to hit the library...
The exterior of the Race for Life concession in the middle of The Zone at the PPIE - quite a thrill for $0.10.  Note the plaster racers at the top of the facade, and the mural showing the cars at vertical.  One of the racers stands outside.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
Outside the central fantasy village of the PPIE - the 'Jewel City' of travertine and sparkling lights - was a funfair called The Zone, with dozens of concessions, rides, and attractions.  Within The Zone was the Race for Life, which according to fairground plans was a 40' diameter wooden 'two stage' bowl track, over which both cars and motorcycles sped.  Photographs show the wooden walls banking in 4 stages, the two widest sections at 78degrees an a fully vertical 90degrees, just below the spectator railing. While the Excelsior postcard is colorized and shows little detail, a never-published photo shows an Indian racer near the top of the Wall...the photo had been mis-labeled as a 'bicycle going at 90 degrees', and hadn't yet been digitized in their archives.  No wonder the image hadn't been discovered by the 'Net hounds; it pays to do a little footwork, and there are enormous photo archives at libraries and universities worldwide, waiting to be scanned.
A lovely c.1914 Indian board track racer with all chain drive, a 3-speed gearbox, and no starter pedals, here with its rider, and what looks like a 1913 Stutz 'white squadron' racer on a turntable outside the Race for Life concession. 
San Francisco Public Library archives also revealed the facade of the Race for Life, and a rough scale drawing of the layout.  Two postcards gave examples of the motorcycles used - an Excelsior ridden by Joe Hall, and an Indian, both ca.1914 machines, and both full-on board track racers.  The cars used appear to be c.1913/14 Stutz racers, and advertisements painted around the entry claimed the vehicles hit '100mph! Time it!'...which was of course nearly impossible with a stopwatch. There's no doubt the vehicles used in the Race for Life were capable of such speeds, being 'last year's racers', even though ~30mph is enough to keep a vehicle perpendicular.  Still, the thrill a genuine racing car or motorcycle speeding just beneath your feet feels like 'the ton' even today!  And counts for the enduring appeal of Walls worldwide.
From the grand plan of the PPIE, giving the scale of the Race for Life within The Zone at the PPIE.  The track looks to be 40' diameter, with a canvas roof in case of rain.  (Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library)
The Wall of Death phenomenon is an outgrowth of board tracks used by bicycles, motorcycles, and cars, although it was cyclists who started canting their tracks to increasingly steep angles in the 1890s, as tracks went indoors to smaller venues, and banking was required.  Truly vertical bicycle tracks appeared by around 1900 - these were no longer for competition, and were strictly fairground attractions.  Fairground motordromes with cars and motorcycles appeared around 1910, and their tracks grew increasingly steep, with vehicles circulating at 60-70degree banking as a kind of miniature board track race, with coordinated tricks and choreographed 'races'.  1915 is generally cited as the origin date for a truly vertical, motorized Wall of Death, as such an attraction opened on Coney Island that year.
Likely the very same Indian racer as seen above, in circulation.  A lovely shot from 1915...
But not much happens on Coney Island in February, in fact the boardwalk and funfair are seasonal, opening in Spring, while over in California we enjoy mild weather and year-round the Race for Life, which opened on February 20th.  It seems likely the Race for Life predates the Coney Island attraction, and the documentation I've found from PPIE archives is more extensive than any other Wall of Death evidence from the era.  The Race for Life could well predate the Wall of Death, and be the true origin of today's legacy of excellent, traveling Walls, which still thrill spectators at shows around the world.
Inside the Palace of Machinery; a display of Excelsior bicycles and motorcycles...which must have had something to do with the Excelsior later seen on the Race of Life!
It wasn't just what was inside the fair, but who came.  This is Effie Hotchkiss and her mother Avis, who rode their 3-speed Harley-Davidson Model 11-F across the USA to see the PPIE, the first women to cross the country on a motorcycle.
Another of the motorcycles at the PPIE - a Dayton outfit.Subscribe here to in your email!


Girard Fox said...

This is very interesting new information, and certainly provides a strong
challenge to the (until now!) common belief that the first 90 degree vertically-
walled "Silodrome" premiered on Surf Avenue in Coney Island!

Please keep (us) informed with any new details that your research may uncover!
Excellent sleuthing work!
Thank you,
Girard Fox

Shoshone said...

Thanks for the excellent post. The DeYoung in Golden Gate Park has an exhibition on PPIE which I will attend soon. My grandfather attended the Exhibition in '15 and the Golden Gate Exposition in'39, along with my father. The Ferry Building is dressed up a bit as it was in '15, so see it while you can.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I've visited 12 Walls during the last 5 years, the first year of which was spent building a Wall up for events.
To the best of my knowledge Germany has only 3 Walls left and a new one is being built. France has 1 or 2 left. The UK has 6 of which 4 are known to travel and Holland has 2.

To fine tune my riding skills I now need continuous access to a Wall. My big dream is to find a derelict Wall in a barn together with it's Indian. This whole thing has haunted me for well over 40 years but it's only since my 'wake up call' 6 or so years ago that I got a break to do something about it.

Any help in finding a Wall, authentic plans to build an exact replica from or actually anything Wall related would be much appreciated.

Kind regards,

Stephen Windle

Anonymous said...

Dear Paul,
I have been fascinated with your recent Blog article about the origins of the 'Race for Life'/ 'Wall-of-Death' at San Francisco's PPIE. My partner in crime & motorcycle madness, Tim Warner and I are in the beginning stages of producing a return of a Wall-of-Death to Coney Island for one mid-Summer weekend in 2016. This, of course, would make it the 101st anniversary of the original Coney Island attraction.

We are working in cahoots with Dick Zigun, The "Mayor" of Coney Island, whom runs the
'Sideshows by the Seashore' attraction, produces the 'Mermaid Parade' & 'Rumblers' hotrod show, among other things. We are currently involved in the process of securing a location at Coney that will give us enough space to build the Wall, as well as enough extra space
to facilitate plentiful motorcycle parking.

Other than the Wall-of-Death itself.....we are still at a conceptual stage of planning the event. We envision a vintage motorcycle ride of some sort.....perhaps snaking past points of historical interest, that ultimately ends at Coney Island. We are considering a number of added attractions once at Coney....."Judging" for oldest, longest-distance ridden, etc., as well as (hopefully) a connection to the Sideshow "Freak" performance of some kind. (We were hoping that Joe Coleman was still "blowing himself-up"....but apparently he doesn't do that anymore!)

After reading your groundbreaking article about the 1915 PPIE, 'Race for Life', it occurred to me that WE as American motorcycle-history enthusiasts.....and MORE importantly, as RIDERS...need to give this phenomenon of vertical wall riding its due acknowledgement,
by celebrating its long history in our country! Suddenly, it seems important to celebrate this on a BICOASTAL level! What do you think?

Thanks for your time!
Girard (& Tim)

Anonymous said...

Somehow just saw this and I'm glad I did. You know I'm enamored with bikes from the '30s but this was golden. At first I thought I liked it so much because our house was right next to the P. of Fine Arts and because of the SF connection. But in the end I realize this was golden because it was simply super fascinating. Thanks again Pablo. - JZ

Anonymous said...

I have an article comimg out soon about who i believe is America's first wall of death riders Reckless Ross Millman who statted his Mzotorcycle stunt career in 1907 and use to perform at the Pike, Ross and Red Armstrong were the first or close to it Wall of Death riders in the US ,Ross set up his wsll of death at the Pike and was there for many years, great article paul, Scott

Anonymous said...

Not sure what you're talking about when you say that the Race For Life show at the 1915 Pan American Exhibition was the first motrodrome? The Luna Park (Coney Island) drome debuted in 1911, 4-years earlier. -David Gaylin

The Vintagent said...

Hi David - read carefully - I said the Race for Life appears to be the first vertical-wall motordrome, i.e. The first Wall of Death. The 1911 Coney Island 'drome had sloping walls, not vertical. Some might say it's a moot point, but nobody builds sloping wooden Walls of Death - when the first vertical wall 'drome was invented, that changed the game forever...

Anonymous said...

Further to your piece on the first Wall of Death, a motordrome with perfectly vertical walls was predicted in the December 17, 1913 issue of the New York Clipper but the first mention that one was actually being built appears in the February 28, 1914 issue of Billboard magazine in which it is stated that two men, E. W. Weaver and W. O. Brown of Atlanta, Georgia,were building one with walls 14-feet in height. Of course they may have gotten the idea from someone else but I can find no documentation. All this and more will be in my book to be released by Arcadia Publishing in late-summer, 2017. -David Gaylin