Was the Wall of Death invented in San Francisco in 1914?  That’s the claim made in several press clippings from the scrapbooks of pioneering board track veteran Erle ‘Red’ Armstrong.   News stories from 1914 and later stake the claim that Armstrong invented the vertical wall of death attraction, after many years of riding on slant-wall motordromes and racing on banked wooden board tracks in the ‘Noughts and ‘Teens.   Photographs of his vaudeville attraction ‘Whirl of Death’, set up at the Empire Theater in San Francisco, confirm a 1914 date, and make a previously unknown connection with the ‘Race for Life’, the combined slant-wall/vertical-wall motordrome consctructed at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.  Photographs dug up at the San Francisco Public Library archives reveal details of the Race for Life, and finally we know the story of who set up and rode that motordrome – Erle ‘Red’ Armstrong and his partner, ‘Reckless’ Vernon.

The entrance to the Whirl of Death in a carnival tent setting, on tour somewhere in the West in 1914. [A Century of Motorcycling]
Erle Armstrong was born in 1888 in Moria, Illinois, but moved to Colorado with his family ten years later, where his father was a mining engineer in Denver.  Erle had flaming red hair (hence his lifelong nickname) and a strong physique, and took up bicycle racing in 1904 at age 16: he soon became the Colorado State Champion.  By 1905 Erle made his living as a delivery boy for a Denver dry goods store, using an E.R. Thomas motorcycle: he was the sole source of income for his family as his father had died earlier that year. Regardless, Erle doubled down on racing, and shifted to motorcycles, using his own single-cylinder Orient as his mount.  With a natural feel for pulling the best from his motorcycles, Armstrong’s Orient brought him records for the 5, 10, and 25-mile races in his very first event.  He was soon racing in the nearby states of Wyoming and Kansas, and traveling a circuit between those three states and earning a name for himself, and the notice of manufacturers.

Erle ‘Red’ Armstrong with a factory racing Indian 8-Valve board track machine, the most technically sophisticated American motorcycle when it was introduced in 1911. This example is rare in having front suspension, and as the photo was taken at the Dodge City board track, presumably it was set up for one of the 200-mile races held there. Note also the cushions strapped to the tank, to stop busting the rider’s chin over bumps and give some support when in full crouch. [Indian publicity photo]
By 1907 Armstrong was working for the Denver Indian dealer, and became the Rocky Mountain State motorcycle champion, a title he retained through 1909.  He raced Indian singles and V-twins, and Excelsior singles too, and opened Armstrong Motor Sales in 1910, selling Thor, Wagner, and Minneapolis motorcycles [read our story on the Minneapolis here].  In 1911 he sold his dealership – it took time from his racing – and moved to California, where he raced on board and dirt tracks.  He rode mostly Indians and Excelsiors at events as far-flung as Chicago, Dodge City, Oakland, Denver, and Atlanta, as well as at his home Los Angeles turf.   In 1913 Armstrong appears racing Excelsior V-twins on the boards, taking wins and being featured in Excelsior advertising, at the moment Ignaz Schwinn pumped money into his recently acquired (1911) motorcycle brand to push sales. After WW1 he joined Indian full-time and moved to Springfield, and managed the factory racing team

A 1914 press publicity photo of the actual Whirl of Death, built of cedar planks and steel bands, with Erle Armstrong and his partner ‘Reckless’ Vernon.  Shown clearly are their specially adapted Excelsior board track racing motorcycles with rigid forks, tiny fuel tanks, and no brakes: the sheen of their satin carnival costumes is clear even in this mediocre reproduction. [Clymer Publications]
In 1914 Erle Armstrong supplemented his racing career in the winter months with touring a carnival act of his invention and construction: a vertical-walled motordrome built of wooden slats held in place with steel bands, 19′ in diameter and 12′ high.  The act was called the Whirl of Death, and it toured throughout the West, inside theaters and under canvas tents.  According to Armstrong’s biographer Butch Baer (a family friend), he built three motorcycles to run on his Wall, and as oil was not allowed in theaters due to fire regulations, he modified his machines to run for 2 minutes each without oil(!).  Baer claims there was never a serious accident in any of Armstrong’s tours, a remarkable record given the inherent danger of the act.

A view of the Empress Theater on Market St in San Francisco, after it was purchased by the Loews entertainment chain. The building no longer exists. [San Francisco Public Library]
According to a later press report on the ‘cylinder of death’:

“A wooden cylinder with spruce slats three inches apart, 19 feet in diameter, and 12 feet high, two 61 cubic inch ‘ported’ motorcycles, and two daredevil riders attired in spangled costume, were the ingredients of one of the most hair raising vaudeville acts ever to tour the old time ‘three a day’ circuit.  Conceived in the brain of ‘Red’ Armstrong who was also one of the performers, this act toured the top billing of the country in company with such greats of the theater as Eddie Cantor, and Weber and Fields.”

“The act consisted of riding the inside of the cylinder – with two riders going in opposite directions – blindfolded! Traffic was controlled by a ‘ringmaster’ who sounded a shrill blast on a whistle if the top man approached the open apex of the cylinder, and two blast if he came too low.  This early day ‘sonar’ system worked out fine until one night in ‘Frisco when the whistle failed!  Red remembers riding right out of the top of the contrivance, and soaring off into the wings in an unscheduled exit!  He was right back in the next performance despite a somewhat damaged big toe – his only souvenir of the accident.”

The original Race for Life in 1914: a more solidly constructed motordrome than the presumably earlier Whirl of Death, combining a slant-wall section with a narrow vertical at the top. [A Century of Motorcycling]
Armstrong’s Whirl of Death took up residence in San Francisco in 1914 at the Empress Theater at 965 Market St.  He seems to have liked San Francisco, where he seems to have lived for two years with his wife Maude.  He took a day job as service manager for Hap Alzina’s Indian dealership, while still hitting the boards in both the racing and vaudeville scenes from 1914 through 1916.  It was a golden era for ‘Red’, and he became one of the winningest board track racers in the country.  According to Indian ads, Armstrong held more track records than any other rider, for example at the new Tacoma 2-mile board track (the first of that length – there was a lot of wood in Washington) where he on the inaugural 300-mile race, breaking speed records for 100, 200, and 300 miles.  In the winters of 1914 and ’15, when racing was dormant, he toured his Whirl of Death.

Construction details of the 1914 version of the Race For Life, with Erle Armstrong’s notations (“note steepness” on the banking angles and very narrow 90deg section at the top. This version of the Race For Life appears to be a smaller diameter than the enormous motordrome set up at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. [A Century of Motorcycling]
At some point in 1914, it appears Armstrong changed both the construction and name of his attraction, to the Race For Life, if the date notations from his scrapbooks are accurate.  Armstrong’s photos suggest he built a far more elaborate motordrome in 1914, with far more robust construction and a mix of banking angles, from 45deg to a fully vertical 90deg section.  The large banked sections might seem retrograde after the radical  vertical Whirl of Death carnival act, but the Whirl was too fragile to accommodate automobiles, and cars running banked motordromes were very popular since 1909 in Coney Island.  The 1914 ‘taken in the morning’ photo above from the Race For Life includes a racing car with a boat-tail rear end, and a ramp for its entry, so clearly Armstrong was expanding his act for a greater draw.   Now that we know the Race For Life and Whirl of Death were both touring attractions in 1914, it should be possible to dig deeper on the subject and find period press confirming the dates and locations Armstrong toured – watch this space.

An aerial view of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition, showing the still-extant Palace of Fine Arts buildings by Bernard Maybeck on the right side. All the other buildings for the PPIE were demolished or moved in 1916, and the neighborhood developed as the Marina District, then as now a haven for young, upscale couples. Not shown in this retouched photo are the Zone and racetracks on the far left of this view.  The neighborhood above the PPIE (in gray) is Pacific Heights. [Wikipedia]
In 1914, Armstrong applied to install his Race For Life at an upcoming world’s fair in San Francisco, which was in the planning stages. San Francisco was in the middle of a building boom at the time, after recovering from the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906.  To proclaim to the world that ‘San Francisco is back’, a consortium of politicians and developers combined civic pride with blatant self-interest, and contrived to convert a large tract of swampy bayside land known as Harbor View into a major development opportunity. Harbor View sat on the north side of town between the Presidio military base and the city’s shipping piers (Fort Mason and Fisherman’s Wharf), which was then occupied by hundreds of working people displaced by the ’06 earthquake, living in shacks and tents on the grazing land of local ranchers.   The pretext for developing Harbor View, and ultimately reaping enormous wealth, was the creation a world’s fair ostensibly celebrating the 1913 opening of the Panama Canal.

The PPIE was conceived as the Jewel City, illuminated by rainbow-colored searchlights operated by Marines (the Rainbow Scintillator), and lighting through gem-like lenses of Czech glass. This souvenir booklet of the PPIE shows the impact and scale of the exhibition. [San Francisco Public Library]
It was called the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), a pearl in a long chain of grand industrial expositions originating in 1798 in revolutionary France, that grew in popularity and scale in the 1800s, culminating in the first truly international and expansively conceived Great Exhibition in 1851 of London at Crystal Palace, an enormous steel-and-glass structure built for the occasion.   Such fairs are still popular today – the most recent was in Milan in 2015, that focussed on food production.

The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck, and is the only PPIE building still on-site from 1915, although it has been extensively re-engineered, three times, to stabilize what was intended as temporary construction. It was simply too beautiful to destroy! [Wikipedia]
Creation of the PPIE was a major undertaking, regardless the grand halls were constructed of temporary materials, mostly wood and plaster.  The 635 acres of land were purchased by the City (for a little over $1M), which then had the job of stabilizing the sandy tidal wetlands and beaches.  The PPIE was planned like a small city in itself – the Jewel City-  as a mix of high-style Beaux Arts architecture for great halls celebrating the arts, sciences, and manufacturing, and a large central fun fair called the Zone.  The color palette of plasters used in construction were carefully regulated, and even the sand used on its broad avenues were brought in from Monterey Bay and oven-roasted to the correct shade of tan!

The entrance to the Race For Life attraction at the PPIE: the noise alone must have lured customers! [San Francisco Public Library]
The Zone was planned as a mix of food halls and entertainments, enticing entrepreneurial vaudevillians and carnies from across the USA to dream up for-pay spectacles.  It was expected the PPIE would be hugely popular, despite the fact that much Europe was at war by the time the fair was open.  Regardless, 18 Million people eventually purchased tickets and strolled the grounds.  One carnie didn’t have to go far to set up his attraction: Erle Armstrong was approved for his exciting, headliner act, and installed the Race For Life at the PPIE.  The PPIE version of his motordrome was an even larger and more robustly constructed attraction, with four banked sections allowing for an easy transition for cars and motorcycles entering the ‘drome.  A wide 78deg banked section was topped by a much taller 90deg section, measuring about 6′ high, with a 1’ deep lip allowing the audience to literally stand on top of the riders and look directly below.  The taller vertical section was wide enough for a car (or two), and Armstrong included a 1914 Stutz GP car in his act, as well as several racing Indians and Excelsiors, one of which was adapted to carry his wife Maude on the handlebars.

Erle ‘Red’ Armstrong riding his board track Indian on the vertical section of the Race for Life in 1915. [San Francisco Public Library]
We documented the Race for Life story here on The Vintagent in 2017, but Erle Armstrong’s story was the missing piece of the puzzle. I speculated in the article that the 1915 photos of the Race for Life might be the first properly documented Wall of Death, but a recent purchase of ‘A Century of Motorcycling, Vol I and II’ (self-published by Butch and Tom Baer in 2006, no ISBN) included the terrific 1914 photos included above, and the news that Erle Armstrong also created the Race for Life, and was considered at the time to be the inventor of the vertical-wall motordrome, now known as the Wall of Death.

‘Red’ Armstrong and ‘Fearless’ Vernon ‘racing’ on the vertical section of the very large Race for Life attraction in 1915. The attraction had a canvas roof that could be closed in case of rain. [A Century of Motorcycling]
It makes sense: who but a hardened board track racer would have the experience of banked wall riding, the machinery capable of riding fully vertical, and the bravery required to do it first?

The site plan of The Zone showing the layout of the Race for Life: 40′ in diameter with a canvas roof. [San Francisco Public Library]
Game for a ride: Maude Armstrong rode on the handlebars of husband Erle’s Race for Life board track racer. This photo was her entry pass to the PPIE. [A Century of Motorcycling]
There’s a very good biography of Erle ‘Red’ Armstrong here on Archive Moto, and plenty of mentions of his racing in Stephen Wright’s American Racer books, as well as in Dom Emde’s excellent new book The Speed Kings: the Rise and Fall of Motordrome Racing, as well the aforementioned A Century of Motorcycling, by Butch and Tom Baer, which might prove difficult to find!  Other photos and information used in this article are from the San Francisco Public Library.

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