Women in Transportation History: Elsa von Blumen, Cycling Champion and Walking Competitor

During the 1880s, Elsa von Blumen firmly established herself as a formidable contender in both walking and cycling competitions throughout the United States. Von Blumen, who was originally known as Caroline “Carrie” Kiner, was born to Prussian immigrants on October 6, 1859, and grew up in Oswego County, New York.

As a child, Carrie was diagnosed by the family doctor with early-stage symptoms of consumption. (This infectious bacterial disease, which attacks a person’s lungs, is now classified as tuberculosis.) Carrie was determined to actively battle this disease and not let it get the better of her. Consequently, she rejected the customary treatment of extended bed rest in favor of a strict and sustained daily regimen of long-distance to improve her health. This self-imposed exercise program served Carrie in good stead, not only in terms of winning the war against consumption but also because it prepared her for a sports career in which she could effectively leverage both her fighting spirit and hard-earned physical endurance.

This career first took shape in 1879, when Carrie adopted the name Elsa von Blumen and began participating as a competitive walker in pedestrian races. These races had grown in nationwide popularity by that time, and von Blumen was among the women widely known as “pedestriennes” who were increasingly making their mark on the sport.  

Von Blumen quickly proved her skills and stamina in that sport while taking part in indoor races in her home state. In her first 100-mile (160.9-kilometer) race, she defeated a male competitor who was likewise from central New York. Von Blumen subsequently won a 100-mile (160.9-kilometer) race held in Martin Hall in the state capital of Albany, and was congratulated by Governor Lucius Robinson of the Empire State for her accomplishment.

In 1881, however, von Blumen walked away from her stint as a pedestrienne so that she could pursue another competitive endeavor likewise ideal for somebody in top physical condition and with a wealth of pluck and panache: cycling races. One of her more memorable and even legendary events as a cyclist took place early on, when she took part in a race against a horse on May 24, 1881, at Driving Park in Rochester, New York.

A large crowd gathered at that racetrack to watch von Blumen pedal her high-wheel bicycle in a match-up against a mare named Hattie R. The person riding that horse was Belle Walters. This  contest involved von Blumen pedaling for one mile (1.6 kilometers) while Walter rode on horseback for 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) during each of the three heats. As the winner of two of those heats, von Blumen finished as the undisputed victor in that competition between cycling and trotting. “The affair was a very enjoyable one,” reported the Brooklyn Union a few days later. “Miss von Blumen is a very graceful rider and received applause every time she rolled her [bicycle] in front of the grand stand.”

By the following year, von Blumen was being widely hailed as the country’s female cycling champion. In the course of the decade, she rode bicycles to further fame in a variety of races. The venues for those competitions include not only New York but also Chicago and — during a Mardi Gras celebration, no less – New Orleans. Another one of von Blumen’s tough-to-forget cycling races was held in 1886 at Convention Hall in Rochester. Von Blumen pedaled a total of 367 miles (590.6 kilometers) in 51 hours at that time and, without any need of alternating with another cyclist in a relay-style approach, singlehandedly beat a pair of men who took turns riding around the track in the race

Throughout all of these triumphs and the favorable publicity she earned, von Blumen remained mindful of her pioneering status as a female cyclist and what that potentially meant for other women in search of role models. She underscored all of this in an article appearing in Bicycling World magazine in 1881.

Von Blumen asserted in that article, “In presenting myself to the public in my bicycle exercises, I feel I am not only offering the most novel and fascinating entertainment now before the people, but am demonstrating the great need of American young ladies, especially, of physical culture and bodily exercise.” Von Blumen further noted, “Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.”

Von Blumen passed away at her home in Rochester on June 3, 1935. She was 75. “Queen of Wheel Dies,” proclaimed the headline for her obituary that appeared a few days later in the Pennsylvania-based York Dispatch.

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on Elsa von Blumen, please check out https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/sports/2014/11/06/elsa-von-blumen-rocjocks/18562637/ and https://m-bike.org/2018/01/26/elsa-von-blumen-detroits-first-indoor-bicycle-track/#more-8153

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