The Trials & Tribulations of the Turn-of-the-Century Cyclists
by Joe Ward — Semi-Official Club Historian
Back in 1897 a top-of-the-line bicycle cost $100 in Louisville — the equivalent of about $5,200 now, going by the average wage then and now. People bought them, but there was a little controversy about it. The big dealers were struggling that summer to keep from cutting prices, a difficult thing to do because many lesser purveyors were being forced to lower them. A Courier-Journal reporter gave an opinion in July of that year that $100 had been fair in previous years because bikes were improved each year. But he said improvements had become quite minuscule, and the continued high cost hard to justify. “Now,” he said, “perfection has almost been reached.” He was close to correct. Except for the invention of the derailleur, bikes changed little from then until the 1980s.
“Roadsters” that year weighed 23 to 24 pounds. The Dursley Peterson — an odd, triangulated affair with a saddle slung like a hammock — was said to weigh 11. Hundred-dollar bikes were “top grade” machines, though, and the shops sold many more for $40 to $75, according to a July 1 article.
People rode Ramblers, Monarchs, Tribunes, Henley-Clevelands, Lovel Diamonds, Falcons, Majestics, Imperials, Waverlys, Outings, Stearns Yellow Fellows, Barnes White Flyers, and Aquilas, to name a few. Aquilas were made at a factory at 9th and Jefferson that went bankrupt Sept. 1.
Important people rode bikes and participated in bicycle affairs. Indianapolis hoped to attract the annual meet of the League of American Wheelmen in 1898, and its mayor, postmaster and superior court judge went to the 1897 meet in Phildelphia to lobby. Sterling Elliott, a former LAW president, spoke around the country that fall, recruiting membership, declaring that “if every wheelman in the country was a member of the league we would hold the balance of power, so that even the president of the United States could be elected or defeated by the united forces of bicycle riders.”
Louisville had all kinds of clubs — which will be the subject of a future column — and they rode many places we are familiar with. The newpaper would report that the Magnolia club planned to ride to Jacobs Park — now Iroquois — and then to Fontaine Ferry Park, on a given day. Or that the Courier-Journal Wheel Club would ride “out the Shelbyville Road by Eastern Park [now Cherokee] and St. Matthews, back by the Reservoir, on its weekly run.”
The Kentucky Division of the League had an annual century run from Louisville to Bardstown and back, by way of Mt. Washington and Bloomfield. Participants from across the state also would participate in annual rides on what they called the “original century course of America.” I gather from the old Southern Cycler magazine that it actually was the first course over which anybody in the United States ever rode 100 miles within 24 hours. That happened in 1880. In the late ’90s, Newt G. Crawford would lead the rides over that course. He was the “Kentucky State Centurian,” an office conferred by the Century Road Club of America.
The original century course took Shelbyville Road from Louisville to Bridgeport, Ky. — which was “five miles this side of Frankfort” — and back. Riders would leave Louisville at 5 a.m., hit Bridgeport at 10:30, turn around, and arrive back in Louisville — presumably after a stop somewhere for a noon meal they called “dinner” — at 5:30 p.m.
Though there wasn’t as much traffic in those days, riding must have been a bit tougher than now because roads were paved with gravel only if you were lucky, and even then there were a lot of mud holes. It was Runge heaven. People were constantly foraging out into the countryside and then writing letters to the newspaper describing routes and giving conditions for each stretch of road. Harry Dennis, a Louisville salesman, reported in August 1897, that he’d been on a two-week trip “awheel,” as they used to say, through parts of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana — 700 miles in all. He reported mostly good roads, except for a stretch between Louisville and Seymour, Ind., where backwater from recent heavy rains covered the road in spots. The paper said he was “obliged to undress and carry his wheel on his head for a considerable distance.”
There was a large exposition of some sort in Nashville, Tenn., that summer, and cyclists wrote the paper suggesting good routes to it. Readers subsequently complained about many of the suggestions. A.B. Wilson biked down by one route and returned by another in June. He reported to the paper that “the best way to go to the big show is to buy a ticket and take the train.”
Roads weren’t great in town, either. The paper complained about “Boulder Street,” a stretch of cobblestones on Broadway between First and Ninth streets. The Hell of The Ville, I guess. Unpaved streets, which residents would “sprinkle” to keep the dust down, apparently were worse. The paper complained in August that residents along two blocks of Oak between Brook and Preston seemed to be having a sprinkling contest, which turned the street into “a perfect loblolly.” Cyclists taking to the sidewalks had run down two or three children, and the residents apparently had the nerve to be upset about that. None was “seriously” hurt, the paper reported.
Charles P. Weaver, a Democrat, ran for mayor that year, and he sought the votes of the city’s 20,000 cyclists by promising to pave Broadway between First and Ninth with vitrified brick. He also promised to require that residents leave six feet of dry roadway on each side of the street. “I’m not opposed to street sprinkling, but strongly opposed to street flooding,” he said. He was elected, too.
Citizens took out an apparent prejudice against cyclists in a variety of ways. A person described as a “gay and festive hayseed,” marred an outing by the president of the Kentucky division that summer by strewing glass and tacks on the Madison Pike. A Judge Thompson in Louisville fined Curley Wallace — referred to in the story as a “humorist” — $30 for “sticking a hole” in Joe Durning’s tire at 18th and Walnut in August.
There was a story that June about a man in a buggy forcing cyclists off the Hamburg Pike near the back of Blackiston Mill, a practice referred to as “roadhogism.” The story said the miscreant “deliberately ran into a woman.” So a male rider gave him “two swift punches to the jaw and neck.”
We tend to think of those days before automobiles as bucolic, but apparently sharing the roads with horse-drawn vehicles was no picnic either. Edward L. Boole sued Hirsh Bros. & Co. that October after one of its buggies hit his bike on Chestnut near 11th. The paper said he had his “forehead split open several inches, nose broken, eyes injured, arm and hip bruised and life despaired of.” Even so, he was lucky compared to Mayme Stout, who was riding on the front of a steer-from-behind tandem on Southern Parkway one July night, when a surrey moved left to pass another vehicle and got her with a shaft. She died of internal injuries. The surrey driver, a black named Rabbi Myers, was charged with manslaughter and much vilified, but they let him out of jail the following April when Mayme’s family concluded it was not his fault. The paper never did say whose surrey it was.
But then, as now, it didn’t take traffic to do a person in. Dr. Ed Palmer had tripped himself up a couple of years earlier crossing the tracks on Third Street near what is now Eastern Parkway — that was before the grade separation — and died when his head hit a curbstone. Charles W. Marshall, “a well-known hat clerk,” died on Southern Parkway a month after Mayme did. He “struck a small boulder,” the paper said and “fell on his head.” He died five hours later. He was 38, and had a wife and five children. No helmets in those days, I guess.
Cyclists used to get around the worst stretches of country road by getting on a train, and trains seem to have been plentiful in the late 19th century. But some of the railroads levied a heavy surcharge for taking bicycles on board, and cyclists resented it bitterly. A Louisville group headed for the Kentucky Division’s annual meet in Cynthiana in 1897 encountered heavy rain at Versailles, and proposed taking the train on to Lexington where they’d stop for the night. The fare on the Southern Railroad was 36 cents. But it was another 25 cents for each bike. And as they stood there considering, a salesman took two 75-pound trunks on free. They rode on through the rain and mud rather than knuckle under to slimeball railroads. The next year’s session of the legislature passed a “baggage bill,” making bikes free baggage. Gov. William O. Bradley, Kentucky’s first Republican governor, vetoed it.
Despite such trials and tribulations, though, cyclists were sure in those days that they were onto the wave of the future, and their optimism was unbounded. The Courier ran a story in July about a deep sea diver who took a bicycle down to try it out on the ocean floor. It was satisfactory, but he thought a tricycle might be better. The story finished this way:
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last updated: 12 March 2001