FOR ROUGHLY TWO DECADES in the late 19th century, bicyclists shaped and reshaped American culture. They introduced an independent and dependable means of overland travel, propelled a campaign to improve the nation’s pitiful network of roads, swayed park planners, and even set into motion the modern engineering technology essential to the development of automobiles and airplanes.
Wheelmen and wheelwomen, as they were known, also assembled a substantial body of geographical literature, illustration, and photography. Their vivid descriptions of American places made them some of the country’s keenest observers of suburban and rural landscapes.
Take, for example, an account from one of America’s first bicycle tours, in 1879. Charles Pratt from the Boston Bicycle Club and Edward W. Pope and Winfield S. Slocum from the Massachusetts Bicycle Club journeyed from Watertown to Portland, Maine, returning to Boston by steamer on the fourth day. In New Hampshire, en route from Portsmouth to Dover, the trio became spellbound in the scenic valley of the Cocheco River, climbing gradually for several miles to a summit, where they could gaze back upon the ascent, captivated by a panorama of mountain, river, forest, fields, and villages. Today, cyclists who have experienced quiet, tree-sheltered, car-free rides in open countryside understand that a sense of place can linger for mile after mile.
Pratt, Pope, and Slocum rode high-wheel bicycles, which by then had been accepted as the archetype for human-propelled machines. These grand machines were fast and quiet, with front wheels that could approach 60 inches in diameter for tall men. The bicycles weighed as little as 30 to 40 pounds, depending on the type of wheel, and could average speeds of 17 miles per hour or more over extended travel. Industry watchers estimated that 50,000 high-wheel bicycles had rolled across English soil by 1878. In that year, American firms joined the English vanguard, led by Boston importer-turned-bicycle-manufacturer Albert Pope.
But for all their popularity, high-wheels were challenging to mount, limiting their marketability mostly to men athletic enough to master the machines and daring enough to risk injury. To appeal to women (hampered by dresses), as well as encourage sociable wheeling and serve the interests of delivery services, manufacturers began to market numerous designs for both single and tandem tricycles.
Although poor roads in the region would limit the reach of these early bicycles, American women would quickly see the appeal of these distinctive machines.
FLEDGLING BICYCLING JOURNALS depended on news snippets as much as on travel literature. Among them, The Cycle is especially important because it introduced a column titled “From a Feminine Point of View,” written — under the pseudonym Daisie — by Helen Drew Bassett, wife of Abbott Bassett, secretary-editor of the League of American Wheelmen.
Daisie’s columns are often insightful, particularly when she explains cycling’s exploratory impulses: “I think we all keep to the good roads too much. We don’t strike out into new territory, explore new fields of observation, try unfamiliar paths. I seldom go upon the road that I do not seek to find some new way to reach this or that point, and I have to thank this disposition for much that is rich in my experience.”
The Bassetts participated in a series of annual tricycle tours organized by women, who initially planned to exclude men. The fall trips took place along the northerly shore of Massachusetts, and descriptions appeared in the journals as well as local newspapers. Minna Caroline Smith, a staff writer for the journal Outing who was just beginning a career as an author of books for young people, planned the first tour, inviting women from Boston and its suburbs to join her at Malden Square on a Thursday morning in October 1885.
The group planned to travel by tricycle to Kettle Cove, a picturesque 17th-century fishing village in Gloucester that had been renamed Magnolia nine years before. Smith hoped to show female independence in an original way: an exclusive procession of women-propelled machines wheeling through suburban and rural communities to the astonishment of the uninitiated.
Although the women who replied were “wild to go,” most agreed to the trip only if accompanied by husbands, brothers, or friends. Relenting, Smith and her cohorts decreed that only men who escorted a lady might participate, paying for the privilege by serving as mechanics or by “arranging all the details and liquidating the bills.”
Eight women and nine men began that year’s 33-mile tour, christened the “North Shore Tricycle Run.” Traveling via an impressive display of tricycle and bicycle machinery, they reached Salem by midday, posing on the common for a photograph after dinner. Although a few riders returned to Boston that afternoon, including the Bassetts, most continued to Manchester-by-the-Sea to spend the night.
On Friday, the riders reached Kettle Cove by midmorning, stopping at Willow Cottage, an inn popular with artists, only to find it closed. But Gloucester and its seafood beckoned, 5 miles away, and there the riders recovered at the Pavilion Hotel before returning to Boston by afternoon train or evening steamship.
The North Shore tricyclists soon ventured over greater distances, lengthening their trips to four days and traveling beyond Gloucester into Rockport and Pigeon Cove, around Cape Ann, and as far north as Newburyport, roughly 40 miles from Boston.
Narratives of the trips by Smith and Daisie are artfully conceived demonstrations about the utility of bicycles or tricycles as vehicles for women’s independence. The writings are also poignant stories of female companionship forged by zeal, stamina, and distance. The articles express recurring themes: reverence for panoramas of meadow-winding roads and distant sea or the miles of sun-dappled shade created by arching trees above a path through Essex Woods, all garnished by seasonal foliage.
Daisie proclaims the advantages of the wheel over rail, boat, and carriage: “To experience is to know. The half cannot be told.” Readers also glimpse once-ordinary land features, including frequent roadside wells with pumps (as important to horses as to people), small market-farm plots of cabbages and rutabagas, a stone barn at Beaver Dam, and granite quarries in Rockport, which yielded stone for many of that era’s architectural landmarks.
ANOTHER ASPECT OF THE TOURS of the North Shore is especially important. On that first day in 1885, the cyclists who convened at Malden Square began the trip by wheeling through a portion of Middlesex Fells, a primeval region of broken-rock hills and woodlands. Decades before, as early as 1850, local citizens who roamed the Fells had begun seeking ways to protect the area, eventually forming the Middlesex Fells Association.
The cyclists also traveled through Lynn, where members of one of the region’s early hiking clubs, The Exploring Circle, had begun rambling through what is now Lynn Woods, documenting its flora and natural history at about the same time that residents of Medford, Malden, and Stoneham were discovering Middlesex Fells.
Minna Smith begins her story of the excursion with a plea to preserve Middlesex Fells. By doing so, she underscores the critical relationship between awareness of place, the strong sentiment of moral wrong at the possibility of losing a valued resource, and the means by which awareness of place becomes possible. Smith and her companions thus joined a growing body of men and women who roamed New England’s woods and mountains during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and who formed the roots of a conservation ethic that continues to shape the region today.
Robert L. McCullough is an associate professor of historic preservation at the University of Vermont. This article was adapted from his book “Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land,” to be published in October by the MIT Press. Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Reprinted with permission. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.