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History of cycling reveals sharing roads not a new challenge

A Ladies North Shore Tricycle Tour stopped in Salem in October 1885. Mary Sargent Hopkins, tour leader, is fifth from the left.
A Ladies North Shore Tricycle Tour stopped in Salem in October 1885. Mary Sargent Hopkins, tour leader, is fifth from the left.(Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum)

A city cyclist is charged with riding recklessly. Or a teenage cyclist — pedaling within the rules of the road — is struck while trying to avoid a large vehicle operated by a driver who had no inclination to make room.

These examples, however, were not plucked from recent headlines. The stories are actually from the late 1800s, before the advent of the automobile, according to Lorenz Finison, author of “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society.”

Finison, who will give a talk at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Gloucester’s Cultural Center at Rocky Neck, said cyclists in Greater Boston in the late 1800s faced many of the same obstacles as cyclists today. Police would regularly apprehend “scorchers” pedaling at “breakneck speed” around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.

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The Boston Journal’s account of an 1897 accident involving 15-year-old Sylvester Parham of West Medford on the Harvard Bridge in Cambridge reported that “a big two-horse team was occupying a greater part of the road, and as usual, the driver, never having heard or not caring for the rules to allow passing on the left,” forced the teenage bicyclist to veer off course, where he was struck by an electric streetcar. Parham was badly injured, but survived.

These days, cars, trucks, SUVs, and motorcycles are trying to share the same roads as cyclists. On Sept. 5, bicyclist Mohamed “Moe” Zeidan, 29, of Somerville, was killed in a collision with a motorcycle at the junction of Route 16 and Interstate 93.

“The Boston Journal’s description, with few changes, could have been written today with an automobile in place of the big two-horse wagon,” said Finison, a principal in the public health consulting firm SigmaWorks, and a founding member of Cycling Through History, the Massachusetts African American History Bicycling Network.

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Finison’s discussion, held in conjunction with the Rapha Super Cross Gloucester cyclocross race at Stage Fort Park Saturday and Sunday, spotlights Boston’s bicycling heyday and the role the North Shore played. The race is the largest on the competitive calendar in the region.

“While not pure advocacy, events like the Gran Prix of Beverly [which was held in July] and the Rapha Super Cross Gloucester bring bicycles into the consciousness of noncyclists,” said Paul Boudreau of Beverly, director of the Rapha Super Cross. “Any time you can change the mind-set of the general non-bike-riding public to see cyclists as living, breathing people and not just objects in the road, you’ve gone a long way to increase awareness.”

Finison’s book focuses on the role of bicycles and tricycles in post-Civil War Boston, including a number of leading characters with North Shore roots. They included Chelsea native Abbot Bassett, the longtime secretary of the League of American Wheelmen and editor of the LAW Bulletin; Henry Ar Foon, also of Chelsea, president of the Winnisimmet Cycle Club and the sole Chinese-American that Finison uncovered in his research; and Lynn native Mary Sargent Hopkins, publisher of Wheelwoman magazine and leader of the North Shore Ladies Tricycle Tours.

Bassett, a cycling advocate for more than 40 years, in 1883 “set out on the first recorded 100-mile bike ride, meandering on an adult tricycle along the North Shore to Ipswich and back home,” wrote Ipswich town historian Gordon Harris in his article, “Ipswich and the Golden Age of Cycling.” Then, according to Finison, “In the fall of 1885, Minna Caroline Smith, a young student of English and history at the Harvard Annex, issued an invitation to a ‘ladies’ tricycling tour to Cape Ann,’ stretching along the shoreline northeast of Boston toward Gloucester.”

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Sargent Hopkins participated in that inaugural ride, and though the North Shore Ladies Tricycle Tours were originally intended to provide women with a sense of independence, men were begrudgingly allowed to join.

“The North Shore Ladies Tricycle Tours took place in the years 1885 to 1888,” said Finison. “Those were certainly seminal years in many ways, because they featured tricycling, and tricycles were the gateway to safety bicycles, because of their experimentation with a chain drive.”

The bicycle itself was being transformed from the heavy, unwieldy “bone-shakers” to the lightweight but imposing big-wheel bikes, and ultimately the “safety bicycle” that looks remarkably similar to today’s basic two-wheeler.

Nearly 30 years after the end of the Civil War, the League of American Wheelmen — led by a bloc of southern states — voted in 1894 to impose a color barrier, over the objections of delegations from Massachusetts and other northern states. One of the leading protagonists of Finison’s book is Kittie Knox, a biracial seamstress from Boston with exceptional riding skills.

Knox, as a licensed member of the league, defied the color barrier to compete in a national event at Asbury Park, N.J., in the summer of 1985, and in a 100-mile ride in the Newburyport area that fall.

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“Certainly, the Newburyport Turnpike, which is now Route 1, was a very popular bicycling route,” said Finison.

But the cycling clubs — which at the time also were social groups — went the way of the horse and buggy as automobiles began rolling out of Detroit in 1908.

“What happened? The Model T and the Model A happened,” said Harris, an avid cyclist. “That was the end of the golden era of cycling. Even the bicycle shops that popped up, including one in Ipswich called Currier’s Bike Shop in 1909, quickly turned over to automobile shops.”

Cycling — as a movement — would remain essentially dormant for the next 60 years.

“By the time I grew up, and I’m 65, bicycles had become a toy,” said Harris.

There was an increase in cycling during World War II, but that was not by choice.

“In the war period itself, there was a lot more cycling because of the restrictions on the purchase and use of automobiles, and gas rationing,” Finison said. “Then, after the war, there were organizations like the American Youth Hostels that had many bicycling and camping tours that went on through the 1950s and early ’60s. But then, [cycling] started to come up again in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly after Earth Day. Earth Day was a huge motivator for adults to get cycling again.”

The resurgence meant narrow roads — originally built as carriage paths — became more crowded.

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“Now, it’s a little problematic,” said Harris, a member of the North Shore Cyclists club, which organizes daily rides for all levels in many locations, from Wakefield to Amesbury. “We have too many cars and too many bicyclists, all trying to squeeze on the same roads. It’s really a war, a psychological war. I don’t ride as much around here. It’s just gotten a little too crazy around here to feel safe.”

North Shore Cyclists president Jeffrey Cox agreed, noting that the club’s Blazing Saddles Century — a 100-mile ride each summer — leaves from Triton Regional High School in Newbury but heads north, into New Hampshire.

“We would do more of the Boston/Newburyport rides, but frankly it’s quite dangerous to ride from Newburyport into Boston,” he said. “Can you imagine riding through Everett on Route 99?”

Related:

EDITORIAL: Bicyclists need their own rules


Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.
net.