Early 20th-century marathons found a starting line in Laurel [History Matters]
By By Kevin Leonard
Mar 24, 2013 | 6:00 AM
From 1909 until 1939, marathons were run from Laurel to Washington or Baltimore. After the first few marathons, they not only became AAU-sanctioned, but the race was one of the qualifying marathons for the U.S. Olympic team. There was one constant in all those years: The starting line was in front of the Laurel Hotel on the corner of Main Street and Washington Pike (Route 1southbound).
When the modern Olympic Games were started in 1896, the marathon was included. The following year, the Boston Marathon was inaugurated. Those two events triggered a worldwide interest in the marathon, leading to the international, big-money spectacles of today. As the popularity of marathons exploded, they became big business in the advertising world.
An enterprising publisher, Frank Munsey, took notice. Between 1900 and his death in 1925, Munsey bought, merged and sold at least a dozen newspapers. Among his holdings were the original Washington Times (no connection to the current) and the Baltimore News-American.
In 1905, the Munsey Building was built on E Street, N.W., in Washington for the Times staff. The building, near the National Theatre and a half-block off Pennsylvania Avenue, was demolished in 1980.
Munsey took advantage of his presence in both cities, and capitalized on the marathon craze by creating a competition between Washington and Baltimore. The event was sponsored, naturally, by his newspapers, and they churned out daily reports hyping the race. The finish line in Washington was, coincidentally, the Munsey Building. But where would it start? As it has so many times in its history, Laurel's mid-way point between the two cities made it important.
In the first race, on June 12, 1909, 76 runners toed the starting line in front of the Laurel Hotel. According to the Baltimore Sun, "The event had been eagerly looked for by the residents of Laurel and many people along the course, and most of them were on hand to get a look at the athletes." That Route 1 was largely a dirt road did not seem to be a problem.
The Washington Times published the route the runners would follow: "From Laurel Hotel, Laurel, Md., to Washington Pike, following this route past Contee, across the railroad tracks, past Beltsville, again crossing railroad; thence by College Park, Hyattsville, and Bladensburg to Bladensburg Road and Fifteenth Street to Maryland Avenue, Washington, by Stanton Square, around the Capitol building grounds on the B Street side to First Street, to Pennsylvania Avenue, when a romp to the finish, at Thirteenth Street (Munsey Building), will complete the journey of twenty miles."
Since 1896 the lengths of marathons varied, but it wasn't until 1924 that the worldwide standard of 26 miles, 385 yards was set.
Some runners had attendants who rode the course on bicycles, offeirng encouragement. The Times offered some sage advice: "Attendants are not compulsory, but it is advisable to look out for your friend."
The race was only marred by one accident: "When near Riverdale, J. Herbert Williams was all in and he took the bicycle of his attendant. Weak and wobbly, he rode along with little control of the machine. Soon he struck Howard C. Bucher … Bucher was bowled to the earth and suffered a number of contusions and severe shock."
In the first race, the Washington team beat the runners from Baltimore.
The second race, in 1910, was also won by the Washington team. This time the Baltimore Sun had a more partisan, local slant on the results: "James D. Mahoney, Washington, is the winner of the inter-city Marathon race of 1910. The race was exciting from start to finish, and at the end Daniel Miller, of the St. Andrew's Public Athletic League, Baltimore, actually crossed the line a few seconds after the winner."
The Laurel marathons became very popular. The 1911 race produced much more publicity than the inaugural race two years earlier. Training schedules and qualifying races were all breathlessly reported. On April 19, Bob Thayer's Sporting Gossip column in the Times reported that "the two defeats Baltimore has suffered in the past has aroused the Marylanders to such an extent that the athletic promoters have got practically all of the hill and dale men in that city to enter the coming event."
The runners from Washington were defeated by the Baltimore squad that year. Henry Elphinstone was the winner. Again the Sun took a partisan slant: "It was Baltimore all the way in from Laurel. Once Elphinstone settled into his stride, he began plowing through the novices like a liner through a school of porpoises."
The Times almost ran out of ink congratulating itself. Headlines ran the day after the race: "Times-News Intercity Marathon Is Voted A Distinct Success On All Sides"; "The Times-News Marathon Proves Glorious Success"; "Runners Well Pleased With Management of Contest"; "Popularity of Race Established."
The paper's coverage continued with "At Laurel, practically the whole town was out to see the runners get on their way."
In 1912, it was decided to start alternating the finish line between Washington and Baltimore. Coincidentally, just in time for the race, Munsey's new building in Baltimore opened for the staff of the News-American, providing a convenient finish line there. The Munsey Building in Baltimore still sits today on the corner of Calvert and Fayette Streets.
The Laurel-to-Baltimore route was described this way in the Times: "Beginning at the Laurel Hotel, the roads are in splendid condition …. These ideal road conditions continue for nearly twelve miles, and only when Elkridge is reached, will the athletes have to exercise keen judgment. … About one and one-half miles from Elkridge … the roads are extremely bad, though the wet weather of the last few days had the roads at their worst … from Elkridge the roads begin to improve, and … the city line finds macadamized roads in good condition. Upon reaching Columbia Avenue it would appear to be well to use the pavement, for the streets are cobble stoned and unfit for running at this stage of the great race. Opposite Carroll Park the pavements will again stand in good stead, and until Lexington Street is reached the runners will have pavement running. On Lexington and over the other streets to the finish are smooth paved and ideal for the finishing run."
At some point before the 1920s, Munsey's newspapers ceased their sponsorship. After that, the finish line in both cities would change from year to year.
Marathoner Frank Zuna was on the U.S. Olympic teams in 1920 and 1924. In the Baltimore Sun in 1970, he recalled running in the Laurel marathons to qualify for the Olympics: "… we rode to Laurel, got into our togs, and assembled at a white line painted across Washington Boulevard in front of the Laurel Hotel." Zuna's winning time in 1924 set a world record.
Apparently the popularity of the races, along with the number of fans following in cars, presented problems. As Zuna told the Sun after the race, "such slight interference from vehicles as occurred didn't bother me. …"
Records were found that indicate the race was run as late as 1939, but nothing after. It's assumed that the buildup before World War II was the reason for its demise.
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org.