The History of Speed Skating
Women speed skater, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1910.
Woodward, Colston, Martin, Cioni, Kinney and Clarkson get ready to go at the 1916 Professional Racing Tour. (82.25.39)
While perhaps thousands of young men skated well at the turn of the century, only some excelled at speed skating. These men often turned professional as a way to earn a comfortable living in a sport they loved. The economic gains for turning professional were lucrative with purses up to $2,000 per championship. Young skaters often joined professional touring troupes. These troupes toured the United States giving exhibitions and racing against local challengers. Races varied in length from sprints to marathons.
Professional speed skating reigned as one of the most popular spectator sports in the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century. The public swarmed to see the professional tours and competitions. Attendance often reached well above 14,000. Sporting pages of all metropolitan dailies carried accounts of meets, as well as information on skaters.
The Professional Speed Roller Skating Races held at the Jai Alai Rink in St. Louis from January 15 to February 17, 1911 were marred by heated rivalries between the skaters that threatened the sport. The skaters were divided into two factions headed by Harley Davidson of Minnesota and Rodney Peters of St. Louis. During the first part of the meet letters of complaint about fellow competitors were received from both camps. In addition, Davidson and his group felt that the officials were giving unfair support to Peter's group from St. Louis. In frustration, Davidson pulled out of the races before the third week. In reaction to this behavior, several rink managers who were present to book races left without booking any professional races for the following year.
As many of the professional skaters retired to focus on rink management or exhibition skating in the 1920s, the sport of professional speed roller skating declined. By the end of the 1930s, professional racing lost its popularity to amateur skating competitions and the new sport of roller derby.