The Early History of Bicycling in St. Paul (1880 - 1902)

Matt Reicher
Dawson Bicycle GroupMNopedia

The bicycling movement came to the Midwest in the latter part of the 1870s. Bicycles with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel started showing up on the streets. Curious onlookers didn’t know what to think of the strange contraption, called an “ordinary” or penny-farthing.

In 1878 a local paper described them as “(t)hose things that they (people) ride and look into second-story windows with.” The bicycles were considered a “steel horse,” similar in function to an actual horse without the risk of being thrown off while riding. Cyclists, called wheelmen, also didn’t have to deal with feeding and cleaning up after their bicycles.

Bicycling in the 1880s was more about spectacle than actual ridership. The strange style and high cost of the “ordinary” kept people from buying them. Despite those things, people were indeed talking about the new bicycles. (Fictional) stories abounded of husbands bringing a bicycle home to their family. The few who figured out how to ride the new contraption inevitably fell. Those who rode bicycles had a hard time on the many unpaved roads in the city.

They fell off — or took “headers” — a lot.

Though it had not yet caught on with locals, events showcasing bicycling sprung up in the 1880s. Amateur races pitted wheelmen against each other in timed contests. Other competitions matched cyclists up against horses. People came out in droves to see acrobats, high wire acts, and trapeze artists perform while riding on an “ordinary.”

Because it was a new mode of transportation, conversations about cyclists’ rights in the city hadn’t yet begun. No one knew how the bicycle should fit in onto city streets. Riders weren’t pedestrians, but they also couldn’t be treated like the horses and carriages that made their way through downtown. In 1884, a cyclist sued a livery-man for damages to his bike after a collision in the streets. The jury, unable to determine which man had the right of way, could not reach an agreement.

Near the decade’s end, a change in bicycle style brought on an explosion of popularity in cycling that would carry on through the 1890s. The “ordinary” gave way to a bicycle with equal-sized tires called a “safety.” The new bike was easier to ride and cost less money. In a short time, it seemed everyone in the city was buying one. Ridership, in the hundreds a few years prior, soon climbed into the thousands.

Many of the roads beyond the core downtown areas remained unpaved. Riders, unable to pedal through the bumpy dirt streets, instead rode on the sidewalks. Some cyclists, called “scorchers,” rode too fast and ran into helpless pedestrians — in some cases causing significant injury. In 1891 St. Paul, like communities throughout the United States, tried to protect pedestrians by making it illegal to ride on the city’s sidewalks. Cyclists were forced to the streets whenever they were paved or risked being ticketed.

In December 1892, the St. Paul City Council drew up the city’s first bicycling ordinance. The first of the seven provisions called for wheelmen to stay off sidewalks in any part of the city with paved roads. The speed limit in the streets was eight mph, and whenever unpaved roads forced cyclists to the sidewalk, they were required to ride no faster than six mph.

Officials required sidewalk riders to carry a whistle or warning bell and sound it when they were within 50 ft of a pedestrian. Riders also had to have a lit lantern on the front of their bike when they rode at night.

The police stopped anyone who went over the speed limit and fined riders to try to get them to slow down. The fines were pretty small; usually, no more than $5 and on their own not enough to change rider behavior. Soon “scorchers” were being arrested for riding too fast.

Near the midpoint of the 1890s, there were between 12,000–15,000 riders in the city. The bicycle had “come to stay.” However, road conditions had not significantly improved over the same period. These conditions kept riders on the sidewalk and continued to cause injuries in the city.

Officials, concerned about pedestrian safety, forced riders to the streets. Sub-par road conditions made this a poor solution. Wheelmen offered an alternative. They called for separate paved bike paths throughout the metro for them to ride on. These paths would give cyclists the ability to travel throughout the city and keep them away from pedestrians.

Cyclists felt provisions at one time had been made throughout the city for the horse. Now that “the wheel had supplanted the horse,” provisions should be made for them as well. On February 26, 1896, 75 wheelmen representing Minneapolis and St. Paul met at the Ryan Hotel. They discussed cyclists’ rights and the building of bicycle paths. The money to build these paths would come from the wheelmen themselves. It would be raised from membership dues paid to the current, and the yet-to-be formed pro-cycling associations in the area.

Led by the Twin Cities Cycle Association, bike clubs soon popped up to collect dues to help with the cost of building paths. After some debate, the group decided that the first bicycle path in the two cities would meet at the Lake Street Bridge. St. Paul would build routes on Summit and Marshall Avenues, and Minneapolis would make one on Lake Street. A short time later, one was built between St. Paul and White Bear Lake. It eventually stretched to Wildwood Amusement Park in Mahtomedi.

The groups found riders were receptive to the path idea, and wheelmen throughout the cities were using them. Soon the Associations started considering paths to more remote locations, like Taylor's Falls and Lake Minnetonka. Things started slowly, with only 18 miles of trails built in St. Paul in the first year, but officials found injuries due to bicycle collisions dropped almost immediately.

At the turn of the century, communities throughout the state began to take over the maintenance of bicycle paths. In January of 1901, state officials appointed Sidepath Commissioners to regulate the upkeep of existing trails and oversee the construction of new ones.

By 1902 St. Paul boasted 115 miles of “smooth” bicycle paths for the wheelmen of the city.


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