Charlie, our Partnership & Business Development intern from Butler University, shares the rich history of our building at 29th and the Canal.
The turn of the twentieth century was a very significant period for technological advancements in the US. As society decided to push away from the horse and buggy as our main form of transportation, new ways of getting from place to place were being rapidly developed. Beginning in the 1880s, the bicycle first made its appearance in the US and took the country by storm, starting a three-decade bicycle craze that provided Americans an affordable way to move around. Around the same time that the bicycle was getting popular, J. Frank and Charles Duryea designed and built the first successful American gas automobile in 1893. With the bicycle and the automobile making travel much faster, convenient, and accessible for Americans, there was a rush by many different companies to manufacture and sell these highly sought after modes of transportation.
Of these companies, two of them once occupied buildings that once stood on our property at 29th and the canal and had a major impact on the legacy of our building. First, the Mohawk Cycle Company was a bicycle and automobile manufacturer that operated in our building just after the turn of the century. Following directly after Mohawk was Empire Motor Car Company, which produced different models of automobiles from the late 1900s up until the 1920s. Both of these companies offered unique products that not only shaped the industry, but in turn shaped the development of Indianapolis into what it is today.
Mohawk Cycle Company
One of the first companies that we know occupied our space was the Mohawk Cycle Company. The company was founded by Lewis M. Rumsey sometime in the 1890s, with Horace Hewitt serving as the general manager and secretary. Mohawk’s main product was their Rumsey bicycles, but they eventually went on to manufacture both motorcycles and automobiles.
Once it had transitioned into making cars alongside bikes in early 1903, Mohawk developed and manufactured two models of cars, each model offering separate unique features. The first car model was called the “runabout,” which was a two-passenger car that had a single-cylinder, seven-horsepower engine that could travel at 4-30 mph on good roads. The second, more impressive model was labeled the “tonneau,” which had a two-cylinder, eighteen-horsepower engine, up to five-passenger capacity, and could go 6-45 mph on good roads.
Mohawk manufactured and sold their vehicles for only a brief period from 1903-1905. Of their accomplishments, perhaps Mohawk’s greatest achievement was the creation of twin automobiles that were manufactured for Carl Fisher and Earl Kiser. Carl Fisher was an entrepreneur and the lead visionary behind the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Earl Kiser was one of America’s first professional race car drivers.
The cars made for Fisher and Kiser at Mohawk’s facility were said to be the fastest cars in the country (at the time), as reported by the Indianapolis Star in 1903. Each 3,000lbs car had ninety horsepower and was said to be able to get up to 90-100mph if the roads were clear and the conditions were right. What made the twin automobiles so unique was that the mechanics at Mohawk were able to eliminate essentially all vibration caused by the car. By limiting the vibration, the energy used by vibration could be directed into speed, which allowed the cars to travel at the high speeds that they did. To make these two cars even more impressive is that they were the first race cars that could not only go super fast, but they were also capable of being used by the everyday driver, which was unheard of up until this point. The creation of these cars at 29th and the canal signaled a turning point in automobile history, showing that cars could have more uses and a wide range of speeds.
Empire Motor Car Company
Once it became apparent that Mohawk wasn’t going to last much longer, Carl Fisher, James Allison, Robert Hassler, and Arthur Newby decided to buy it out and incorporate it as the Empire Motor Car Company for $100,000 on April 22nd, 1909. The business plan for Empire was focused around the initial goal to produce a low-cost, four-cylinder powered car that could compete with other manufacturers in Indianapolis. After much development, the resulting automobile was a twenty-horsepower car named The Little Aristocrat. Debuting in late 1909 or early 1910, The Little Aristocrat had a variety of features that included a water cooling system, dual ignition, and four-sided platform springs to make driving more comfortable. Much like Mohawk, there were two models of the Little Aristocrat, with the ‘A’ model costing $800 and the ‘B’ model costing $850. Unfortunately for Empire, it was destined to fail from the get-go as all the founders were spread very thin with other business interests. Regardless of its lack of success, Empire and its founders were one of the first to address the need for a sweet spot between luxury and functionality within the new and rapidly growing automobile industry.
Empire is a unique company for not only the cars that it made but also for the men that owned it. Three out of the four founders of Empire (Fisher, Allison, and Newby) were not only business owners, but they also were the visionaries and creators of the Indianapolis 500. What makes the Empire so special is that it was in operation in our building during the time that its owners were working to create the very first Indy 500 race that took place in 1911. That being said, it is distinctly possible that the planning for the very first race took place on the same property where we operate today. We get goosebumps when thinking that one of the most defining things about Indianapolis started where we work every day. With so many different cars being designed and built by a growing number of manufacturers, the men saw an opportunity to bring the people of Indianapolis together over a new and growing pastime. With the country transfixed by cars that were getting faster and faster, the construction of the first speedway by Fisher, Allison, and Newby (and Frank Wheeler, the fourth founder of IMS) gave the sport the stage that it needed to grow, ultimately putting Indianapolis on the map as the Racing Capital of the World.
Since we came to occupy the space back in December of 2018, we have had to do a lot of work to make it our home. As we have gone through the process of adding our chapter to the building’s historic past, it’s been a very cool experience to learn of the unique history of our facility and how it relates to bikes, cars, and ultimately the creation of the Indianapolis 500. It’s a rewarding experience to know that we are upholding the legacy of Mohawk with our focus on bicycles, all while pursuing our goal of making Indianapolis a better place like the founders of Empire and IMS were. Knowing this, we are more connected than ever to Indianapolis and look forward to doing what we love in a space that had so much influence on how our city evolved over the decades.