Years ago, Calaveras Road was relocated to its present site. The renamed Old Calaveras Road is also a fun climb. Downing Road connects the two. But otherwise, Downing Road has little significance. It is only significant for visitors of the local park, for the very few local residents and for cyclists. And what is the significance of its name, Downing? Who gave their name to this place at that time?
This history of this corner of the San Francisco Bay area is one of local native Americans (Ohlone tribe), conquest by Spanish missionaries and eventual conquest by the westward migration of European-Americans following the gold rush. In the hills west of what is now Milpitas, local ranchers and farmers often rented the land to immigrants for Portugal. There are families of Portuguese descent all over this area – I know some of them. But most of the roads have either Spanish or English-sounding names because it was the wealthy who owned the land and named the roads. And one such wealthy rancher was William Downing.
William Fresh Downing
William Fresh Downing, originally from Missouri, came to this area from Elko, Nevada, where he raised cattle. My guess is that he was an established cattle rancher in Missouri and well into his late twenties before he move west with his family – probably the early 1870s. Although the Transcontinental Railroad had been completed in 1869, the Downings who headed west in the 1870s were still likely to have traveled by wagon train. As with those who went thirty years earlier, looking for gold in California, they picked up the Santa Fe Trail in St. Joseph, Missouri. Eventually, they would follow the California Trail (roughly I-80, today). It was an arduous journey taking three months across the great American plains and Rocky Mountains. Oxen were invariably chosen with which to make the journey, and the month of May the time to start. Then the buffalo grass was sufficiently started to support the cattle, which were herded at night in turns by members of the party.
|Source: National Geographic|
And I’ll also guess that once he established himself in Nevada, that his younger brothers headed west and spent a year or two working William’s ranch in Nevada before continuing on to California. He stayed there until 1881 before moving his family to the Rancho Tularcitos property in Milpitas. He is buried in Irvington Memorial Cemetery in Fremont, CA. If that were the whole story, it wouldn’t be significant to me as an amateur historian or as a cyclist.
Absolom R Downing
William Downing was the second of nine children of Absalom and Susan (Fresh) Downing. The third son, Absolom R. (consistently, I see his name spelled differently than his father’s) and his wife, Jennie (Cook) Downing are buried in Pleasanton Memorial Gardens Cemetery – a.k.a., Pioneer Cemetery just up from Richert’s Lumber on Sunol Boulevard, near my house.
I believe the fifth brother, Nathan H., contracted spinal meningitis and lost his hearing at a young age. Because of that he didn’t attend school but nonetheless ran a local newspaper until coming to California in February, 1886, when he briefly took charge of the Livermore Review. At age 40, that would make him the last of the brothers to go west. In 1888 he purchased the Santa Clara Journal and turned it into a thriving paper.
T. B. Downing
I was a bit more intrigued by the sixth, Thomas Benton Downing. In 1879, Thomas moved to California, living for a number of years on a large ranch near Pleasanton (where I live). Three of his children were baptized at the old Presbyterian Church – the one still standing on the corner of Neal and Second Street. In 1894, he came to Palo Alto, building what was then one of the largest and finest homes in the growing town, on the corner of Cowper Street and Forest Avenue. Thomas apparently was influential in something other than agriculture. He served on the School Board from 1893-1898 and again from 1900-1902. When the city charter was adopted he was elected to Palo Alto's first city council, from 1909-1913. Today, his house at 706 Cowper Street is on the National Register of Historic Places. Hmm, do I know someone on Cowper Street in Palo Alto? (Yes.)
Claude and Paul were among the very first students of Leland Stanford Junior University, having only been opened in 1891. They were classmates of future president Herbert Hoover, the man for which they named that big tower on campus.
The youngest brother, Lorenzo, was barely 18 when he ventured west from Missouri, through Nevada and ultimately to San Jose, CA. Like William, it appears that Lorenzo pursued an agricultural career. Perhaps, like William, he purchased land and rented it to others for farming and ranching. I know very little of his life, but his children left quite a legacy.
Lorenzo’s son Harding Kenneth Downing (almost every reference to him is “Hardy”) was born in 1877 and would go on to become a professional cyclist. Remember that we are still in the time of Mark Twain, who had just published “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The “bicycle” was not yet a word in our lexicon – the velocipede (affectionately called the boneshaker) had evolved in 1863 from its early invention around 1839. The first actual “race” was held in 1868 in Paris. Any semblance of popularity would wait for the high-wheel bicycle (a.k.a., penny-farthing or ordinary), invented in 1870 – with its metal wheels giving way to solid rubber tires. A dramatic rise in popularity came with the Starley Rover “safety” bicycle (two wheels of equal size) and pneumatic tires (invented by John Dunlop, an Irish veterinarian in 1885). In San Jose, the Garden City Cyclers (Garden City Wheelmen) club was founded in 1884. In the 1890s, Hardy Downing would ride with this club and make a living as a bike racer – a wheelman.
In cycling, this was the right time and the right place.
For context, it is hard to overstate the dramatic rise in popularity of cycling worldwide during the decade of the 1890s. In America, the “Golden Age” of the bicycle was happening. The automobile had only been invented recently, the Benz Patent-Motorwagen was born in 1886 and most people could not afford a car until Ford’s Model T in 1908. So the bicycle offered the freedom, the basic transportation and the speed for this window in history. And speed meant competition. While the bicycle was playing its part in breaking down gender, class and racial barriers, open road racing was evolving mainly in Western Europe. In America, short-distance speed records were more popular and especially on velodromes or board tracks (high-banked, short ovals made of hardwood planks or sometimes concrete). Almost all roads were still dirt for years to come. From about 1890 until World War I almost every major city had its own velodrome. It is hard to imagine today, but in America track racing was the number one spectator sport. Professional cyclists were paid more than any other athlete, including baseball ($30,000 per year compared to $5,000).
Unlike road racing, where spectators couldn’t see the whole competition – and more importantly, they couldn’t charge admission, track racing was a sports promoter’s dream. Events included short time trials, one-on-one duals and endurance races – peaking at the “six-day” format where racers would literally ride around the clock for six days straight. These races, which often attracted up to 100,000 spectators per week, were part races, part shows. Bands would play, betting was rampant and, to keep the intensity up, promoters would offer cash premiums to the leader at various times during the race. This event model was so potentially profitable that promoters would contract riders all over the world in pursuit of racing talent for marketing purposes. Not surprisingly, these same promoters would also handle boxing matches.
But I am slightly ahead of myself. Hardy Downing was at the right place at the right time. San Jose was one of the premier cities in the world for track racing. San Jose built its first velodrome in 1892 and would quickly add two more, had 28 bike shops and nine bicycle clubs before 1900. Competition was fierce, too; Otto Ziegler, aka "the Little Demon from San Jose," won the U.S. national track championship in 1894. Of course, the talent was world-class but regional advantage (flat roads in the valley, good weather year-round) helped. Hardy became one of the most famous racers of the era, traveling to the east coast (Newark, NJ, being the premier city on the east coast for cycling), Europe and Australia.
According to Peter Nye in his book, “Hearts of Lions”:
Hardy traveled wherever cycling took him. He used to say that he settled in Salt Lake City because he was snowed in there once after a race. In 1913 Downing retired from cycling and got into boxing promotion with his brother-in-law, Big Jack Price. In 1915 he opened the boxing gym where Jack Dempsey got his start in professional boxing.
On the first page of photos in Dempsey's autobiography, Dempsey is standing in the boxing ring of Downing's gym. Downing's fights were known for their action. "No fight, no pay" was his motto. After 1930 he sold his boxing interests and managed an apartment house.
Downing was well known in Salt Lake City, newspaper reporters used to write about his fondness for deer hunting, and his belief that left hands won fights and right hands signed checks. When illness overtook him in 1960 at eighty-two, Jack Dempsey went to Salt Lake City to visit him in the hospital before he died.
Five years younger than Hardy, Lewis Richard Downing (Lace) was born in 1882. Lace was also a successful racer and would win many races but never quite eclipse his older brother’s fame. A nice article in the San Francisco Call, Dec. 1899, introduced him to the cycling world:
San Jose, which has given to the cycle race path such illustrious names as Wilbur T. Edwards, Otto Ziegler, Floyd A. McFarland, Hardy Downing, John A. Alexander and Clarence Davis, has added another to the list of great performers. Lace Downing has developed within a few short weeks and is pronounced the peer of any amateur on the coast. Upon his first appearance, recently, he swept the boards, winning the three races which made up the card. Since then, he has defeated E. F. Russ and George P. Fuller, considered to be the fastest amateur on the coast.
Young Downing has had the opportunity of training on the fast track of the Garden City Cyclers, supplemented by muscle-building work on the road. When his brother and the other crack professionals in the McFarland party arrived here he enjoyed the benefits of their coaching and also the use of their motor-driven pacing machine. This brought out the ability of the young wheelman and placed him at the head of the lists.
The youngest of the cycling brothers, Burton Cecil Downing, was born in 1885. Burton was almost born too late for the first bicycle boom in America. He was at his peak between 1901 and 1905, but remained an amateur which gave him access to national and international amateur competitions at the expense of the types of contracts Hardy enjoyed. Burton held many records over his career including the motor-paced 5-mile record of 8:48 in 1901 (34mph!).
History remembers him for something that went relatively unnoticed – both in the following decades and even during the event itself. Burton Downing won six medals in the 1904 Olympics: two gold, three silver and one bronze. For this, he was inducted into the Cycling Hall of Fame in 1998. He was the most decorated Olympic cyclist until 2008 when Bradley Wiggins eclipsed that number. Why was this not a big deal back then?
The 1904 Olympics were held in St. Louis, Missouri – the Games of the III Olympiad. However, the early Olympics were not the marquee event that they are today. In fact, it was a bit of a side-show added to the St. Louis World’s Fair that summer. The racing was held on a cinder track of what is now Francis Field at Washington University. 18 cyclists representing just one nation (United States) participated. From newspaper accounts, the spectator count was probably lower than the participant count. Nonetheless, the races were conducted under the auspices of the National Cycling Association and Burton Downing became the U.S. Amateur National Champion in the 25-mile and 2-mile distances. As a footnote, that was the only year that Olympic events were recorded in non-metric units. Technically, the races were open to contestants from other countries. There were also events held for professionals.
The trip to St. Louis was part of a longer one which took Downing to the Newark, N.J., area where he settled. He joined a construction firm, the Spearin Co., and soon became the president of it. He was later president of the New York Contracting Dock Builders Association. Burton died at the young age of 43 in Red Bank, N.J., about an hour south of Newark. Newark, New Jersey.
St. Louis is 176 miles from another Newark – Newark, Missouri – where his grandfather was buried and his uncle was still living at the time of the 1904 Olympics. I can’t help but wonder if Burton even knew. As I write this on my laptop and store it in the cloud, it is difficult to comprehend the time of my grandfather in the early part of the previous century. And I suppose it was the same for Burton Downing.
The Previous Century
Take yourself back to the childhood setting of Mark Twain. The lazy river, sweltering summer heat, bare feet, no cars, no bicycles, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, Indians, schoolmarms and a vast unsettled frontier. Samuel Clemens was born in Hannibal, Missouri, two weeks after Halley’s Comet arrived in 1835. Just up the Mississippi River from Hannibal is a little tributary called the South Fabius River and if you follow that about 50 miles upstream you’ll find a tiny village called Newark. And that is where our story began. Newark, Missouri (sidebar).
James Fresh was probably the first permanent settler in Knox County. In 1833, he came here from Maryland with his wife and children and three slaves, brothers Abe, Dan and Dave. He selected a site for a home and without acquiring title to the land (i.e., they were squatters), built a cabin with his slaves. In the spring of 1834 Fresh built a saw mill and grist mill a mile west of where the village of Newark now stands.
Missouri had only become a state in 1821, after being part of the Louisiana Purchase. So-called “Indian Territory” was west of the state line, but apparently there were no skirmishes in the early days of Newark. Kansas City was still the Wild West as gold had not yet been discovered in California.
Absalom Downing of Newark
In 1834, James Fresh’s fourth child, Susan, became a widow at the ripe old age of 17 with two babies to care for. In 1836, she got re-married to a man named Absalom Downing. Absalom’s great grandfather was one of three brothers who came to America in Colonial times and settled in Virginia. The grandfather, William, was born and raised in Virginia then became one of the first settlers in Garrard County, Kentucky. The father, John, was eight years old when they left Virginia, and he too left to settle near Hannibal with his wife and ten children. Whether or not he floated on the Mississippi on a raft, history did not record.
The Downing family was from England but of Irish descent. Apparently, Protestant Downings in Ireland are scarce. If you are interested, I believe the majority of the Irish who came to America in the 1700s were protestant and from the North of Ireland, also known as Ulster. My research suggests that our Downings are from either County Antrim or Derry (Londonderry). This line of Downings are not related to Sir Charles, for which Downing Street in London is named.
The Downing ancestors in America created a legacy of pioneering and so it was for Absalom’s sons. Which brings us back to William Fresh Downing settling on former Ohlone land with a view of San Francisco Bay. I doubt that his nephews ever rode their bikes on that dirt road to his house, but it would be poetic. Where two centuries later I was at the right place at the right time to avoid a family of turkeys.
- Newark, NJ, is probably the most famous “Newark”. It was founded in 1666 by Puritans and named "New Ark" for "New Ark of the Covenant."
- Newark, OH, was named after Newark, NJ.
- Newark, IL, is located 60 miles southwest of Chicago along State Route 71. I’m not sure why it was named Newark.
- Newark, IN, was founded in the 1850s by settlers from Newark, Ohio, hence the name.
- Several Newarks were located in Des Moines. One was in Bertram Township, another was sometimes known as Wortport and sometimes Newark. It was named after the New Jersey community. There was also a Newark in Marion County and one in Summit County. The Newark established in Webster County was founded in 1873 by John Teters who had come from Newark, Ohio, again named for Ohio.
- Newark, KS, was named for Newark, Ohio, and formed out of Neodesha Township in April 1871. (Seriously, Ohio again?)
- Newark, MD, is located along the old colonial stagecoach route between Cape Charles, VA, and Philadelphia. Some think it was probably named by a homesick Englishman, but there is also the theory that it came from the shape of an ancient country house shaped like an "ark," thus Newark.
- Newark, MO, is reportedly named after Newark, NJ. In 1836, the year that Newark, NJ, was incorporated, the streets of Newark, MO, were laid out, and in 1872, the town was incorporated.
- Newark, NY, is located along the Erie Canal, 29 miles southeast of Rochester and a short 15-mile drive from Lake Ontario. Was it named for Ohio? Just kidding; I don’t actually know.
Ancestry.com and familysearch.com – sources for much of the family history
“Hearts of Lions”, Peter Nye
Pen Pictures From The Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated. - Edited by H. S. Foote.- Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1888. Pg. 280-281 Transcribed by Kathy Sedler Proofread by Betty Vickroy
Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association