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Chicago aims to be a world-class cycling city (you know, like it was in the 1890s)

Thirty miles of protected bike lanes have been opened in Chicago, part of a planned, 645-mile network of joined-up on-street bikeways. This is impressive, but it’s not new. Chicago was once certifiably bicycle-mad. For a few brief years in the 1890s, a bicycle-friendly administration bent over backwards for bicycle riders. The streets were thronged with cyclists and the greater Chicago area was home to an expanding and creative bunch of bicycle manufacturing companies (one of them, founded by a German immigrant, would become America’s biggest bike company by the 1920s). While New York had the world-class Coney Island Cycle Path, from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to the popular resort at Coney Island, Chicago didn’t need cycle-only “side-paths”, it had 40 miles of wide boulevards, which bicyclists had almost to themselves: the well-surfaced boulevards were for “pleasure vehicles” only, horse-drawn wagons were only allowed on dirt roads, and streetcar trolleys were also kept away from the boulevards.


In 1898, a year after the middle class “bicycle craze” had burned itself out, the number of cyclists was still on the increase. 10,700 men and women rode bicycles to work in downtown Chicago, double the number that had done so in 1896 at the height of the boom, partly because bicycles started to become cheaper..

Part of the reason for the success of the bicycle in Chicago – then and now – was and is a bicycle-friendly mayor. Today’s Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, building on the foundations of his predecessor Richard Daley, recently unveiled the Chicago’s Streets For Cycling 2020 project. In a foreword to this plan, the mayor wrote:

“Bicycling is an integral part of Chicago’s transportation system. Every day, thousands of people bike on our streets, whether it is to ride to work, to the store, or for recreation…My vision is to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the United States…Over the next few years, we will build more protected bike lanes than any other city in the country, redesign intersections to ensure they are safer for bicyclists, and improve hundreds of miles of residential streets for bicyclists, pedestrians, and the people that live on them.”

CarterHarrisonposter200This vision has echoes in the vote-catching bicycle-friendly policies of Carter H. Harrison, Jr., who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1897 on a pro-bicycle ticket. His campaign circulated posters and lapel badges with the slogan ‘Not the Champion Cyclist, but the Cyclists’ Champion.’

Fearsomely organised, mostly middle class, with campaign dollars to spend and thousands of block votes to cast on the most bicycle-friendly candidates, the cyclists of Chicago were a force to be reckoned with. In 1896 the Chicago Times Herald wrote that cyclists were active and persistent lobbyists for smooth surfaces on which to ride:

“The cycling organizations of Chicago…are sending out letters to the various candidates for the legislature…for the purpose of ascertaining their sentiments on the question of Good Roads…Nearly all candidates for office are in favor of good roads nowadays, when the wheelmen constitute such a considerable factor in the voting strength of the cities.”

Harrison shrewdly used the influence and the block vote of the wheelmen to win office. Up against the athletic John M. Harlan, an American footballer, Harrison took to the wheel, racking up a number of century rides and, on campaign posters pasted up all over the city, had himself photographed astride a bicycle with “scorcher handlebars of the scorchiest type.”

“I now had a brilliant thought,” wrote Harrison in his 1930s autobiography:

“…why not utilize my cycling record as an offset to the Harlan football boasting? My brother-in-law, Heaton Owsley, with his twin brother, Harry B., were owners of the St. Nicholas Manufacturing Company, makers of the Hibbard bicycle. I had joined the Century Road Club, was entitled to wear its badge with eighteen pendant bars each engraved with the date of the particular run it represented. It made a brave show. Shortly after the nominations I had the Owsley brothers send a brand-new wheel with scorcher handlebars of the scorchiest type to the Morrison photograph gallery in West Madison Street, rather famous at the time for its photographs of the theatrical world. I then betook myself to the gallery with my riding togs to be photographed head-on, body bend double over the scorcher bars, an attitude that always gave a fiendish expression even to the mildest of faces! What with the rakish cap, the old gray sweater and the string of eighteen pendant bars, I looked like a professional; a picture which I knew would carry weight with the vast army of Chicago wheelmen.”

After winning the election, Mayor Harrison repaid the wheelmen by killing off a streetcar track down the centre of Jackson Street (“Jackson Street Must Be Boulevarded!” petitioned the cyclists, covering the city with yellow ribbons emblazoned with the slogan) and creating a bike path from Edgewater to Evanston along the north-south Sheridan Road. The upscale Edgewater neighbourhood was home to the city’s Saddle and Cycle Club, opened in May 1895, an upper middle class retreat for equestrians and cyclists. The Chicago Tribune counted forty-eight cycling clubs in 1892, with six thousand members. Many of these clubs built and owned their own buildings, some with bicycle valets and indoor gymnasiums. The Old Park Cycling Club spent $50,000 on its headquarters, a tidy sum, all raised from the deep pockets of its members. In 1895 there were less clubs – thirty-three – but four thousand more members than three years previously.

Edith Ogden Harrison, Chicago’s first lady in 1897, would later write approvingly of these pre-automobile days:

“Especially during the lovely summer evenings, before every Astor Street home on our block, one could see the trim bicycles awaiting the cessation of an early dinner for the owners inside the houses, for it was a foregone conclusion that everyone took a ride after dinner in the cool of the evening…Almost at its very appearance, the riders numbered in the hundreds. Schools opened to teach its riding, and the traffic in this really expensive sport became a thing of wonder.”

The New York Evening Post reported that, in 1896, “in Chicago they ride so universally on Sundays that the theatres, which formerly gave successful performances on that day, have discontinued them.”

americatrusschicagoChicago was a bicycling city in more ways than one. In the 1890s, according to the Chicago Journal, the city and environs were home to perhaps as many as eighty-eight bicycle and component manufacturers. The Chicago Bicycle Directory of 1898 claimed that two-thirds of America’s bicycles and accessories were manufactured within 150 miles of the city. Many of the manufacturers clustered around Chicago’s central business district, the Loop, and especially on a stretch of Wabash Avenue that became known as Bicycle Row. One of the firms on Bicycle Row was Hill Cycle Manufacturing, founded in 1893. The company – which built Fowler bicycles – hired a young German immigrant called Ignaz Schwinn. He worked for Hill for two years before leaving in 1895 to co-found Arnold, Schwinn & Co., which, by the 1920s, had grown into America’s leading bike company (its growth was fuelled by buying up the bicycle businesses which failed when bicycle prices fell through the floor in 1898-1899).

An 1898 bicycle route map of Chicago shows an extensive network of “good cycling roads” (in red) linking in to the Loop and reaching far out into the suburbs.


"The Biggest People on the Road!": PUCK May 1896

Chicago’s 40-miles of wide boulevards were free from streetcar trolleys and “teamster” horse-drawn wagons. The smoothly-surfaced boulevards (so surfaced for cyclists, a bone of contention with non-cyclist rate payers) were for “pleasure vehicles” only. The teamsters were relegated to dirt roads, and the streetcars – seen in the chaotic Edison video below – tended to be on streets other than the boulevards, and in the mid-1890s some ringed the Loop on elevated tracks.

Elevated tracks were mooted for bicycles, too. The League of American Wheelman’s weekly journal of 7th January 1898 reported there were ambitious plans for a scenic lakeside wooden bike path in the sky:

“Plans for the cycleway or elevated bicycle path which Chicago capitalists propose to erect along the north shore shows an ornamental structure which is calculated not to mar the surrounding scenery. The promotors…are of the opinion that the popular demand for such a roadway will overcome the prejudice against elevated structures. It is proposed to build eight miles of road for the first experiment, and the success will determine the extensions. In general the plan is to have the structure sixteen feel above the level of the streets.”

Such an elevated bike path was built in Los Angeles but I can find no evidence that this proposed one was built in Chicago. By 1898 the middle class bicycle craze was over and wheels were being ridden by workers, who would be unwilling to pay a toll of 10 cents to use fancy aerial bike paths. (Today’s Bloomingdale elevated linear park and trail, running through the heart of Chicago, is a former railway).

A forerunner of the vehicles which would soon kill off cycling in Chicago was housed in a neglected corner of the Transportation Building at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the 600-acre world fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

Alongside a great many bicycles and boats – and steam locomotives – there was a little-noticed “gasoline buggy” from Germany, the only internal-combustion vehicle on display at the fair. Newspaper reporters largely ignored the 1889 Daimler “horseless carriage” and it didn’t even get its own entry in the exhibition catalogue. Two out-of-town visitors to the expo who did notice the primitive motorcar would go on to reshape America. One was the bicycle mechanic Charles Duryea and the other was Detroit’s most famous cyclist, Henry Ford. In September 1893 Duryea built America’s first home-grown automobile, and three years later Ford would build his petroleum-powered Quadricycle. Within 20 years of these two cyclists visiting the Columbian Exposition, one of them had succeeded in taking automobiles to a mass audience and they had displaced bicycles from Chicago, and from other American cities.

Now, the bicycle is making a comeback and Chicago is leading the way. Again.

3 thoughts on “Chicago aims to be a world-class cycling city (you know, like it was in the 1890s)

  1. Pingback: Go Chicago! “@BicyclesOnly: Awesome post about the days when cyclists ruled Chicago, via @carltonreid.#bikenyc!” | - Exercising for fun and fitness in the New York City area by Anthony Olszewski

  2. Pingback: A manger full of virtually wise man-free Christmas Eve links for those who survived the weekend « BikingInLA

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