Saint Paul, MN

The Bicycle Scorcher Menace of the 1890s

Matt Reicher

ST. PAUL, MN - The safety bicycle revolutionized bicycling in Minnesota (and beyond) in the mid-1880s. More and more people began riding, and the bicycle’s popularity grew exponentially. Despite this, little was done to accommodate the new mode of transportation. Ever-increasing numbers of bicyclists, called “wheelmen,” rode on sidewalks packed with pedestrians. Frequent collisions made travel unsafe and led city officials to pass an ordinance that forced riders off of city sidewalks and onto the street.

St. Paul’s first bicycling ordinance was signed into city law on December 12, 1892. In an effort to protect pedestrians these leaders chose to legislate where, when, and how bicyclists could ride. The new rules enforced speed limits, forced “wheelmen” off of many city sidewalks, and required they ring warning bells or blow whistles to alert pedestrians.

Those who didn't follow the rules were subject to fines ranging between $1 and $50.

The majority of “wheelmen” followed the ordinance to the letter. They loved the independence bicycling gave them, and while they weren't necessarily in favor of inhibiting travel through legislation, believed public safety was important. However, one group of bicyclists, referred to as "scorchers," disregarded many of the bicycling rules put in place. Those young (predominantly) men rode well above the set speed limit and showed a brazen disregard for the safety of others.

In St. Paul “scorching” was prevalent at any of a number of streets with downhill slopes in or into downtown. Any place that offered a flat road on a hill was seemingly at risk of being overrun.

Public opinion of “scorchers” was very low. They were "hump-backed bulging eyed creature(s)" who turned "an instrument of health and pleasure" into a dangerous weapon. The “scorchers” perceived blatant indifference for public safety caused an uproar. "Wheelmen" that followed the rules felt these few reckless riders gave the majority of bicyclists a bad name.

They were considered a menace that needed to be stopped.

Police officers set up the equivalent of speed traps and timed bicyclists as they made their way from one point to another. If they went too fast, or rode by in an unsafe manner, officers chased down the offending “scorcher” and took them to jail. Eventually cities created formal “Bicycle Squads” of officers. Their job was to chase down “scorchers” on their bicycles and arrest them. Interestingly, the public sentiment of these special squads soon seemed to be no better than the opinion of the “scorchers” themselves.

City officials continued to update the bicycle ordinance, making it more difficult for law-abiding "wheelmen" to ride. In response, and probably in an effort to distance themselves from dangerous riders, local riding organizations came forward and offered their assistance against the “scorchers”. They recommended the mayor deputize a number of their top riders to be part of a group of “specials” tasked with stopping “scorchers” in the streets.

In 1896 the conversation turned toward the continued building of bicycle paths for the "wheelmen." They were frequently used and seemed to create a safer environment for travel in the city. In a short time, reported accidents caused by "scorchers" dropped significantly as the paths kept riders separated from pedestrians. Police officers that patrolled the paths continued to arrest those who rode unsafely.

After the turn of the century the conversation about bicycles shifted significantly. In 1901 the talk moved away from bicyclists that “scorched” to those that had taken up riding for the first time. “Wheelmen” felt those incredibly slow riders, with their “‘shivery handlebars’ and (an) uncertain direction” as they wobbled down bike paths, were as bad as any “scorcher.” While the consensus was that “scorchers” still rode too fast, at least they were experienced enough to handle their bicycles. They called for a happy medium of experienced riders and moderate speed.

Around the same time, the automobile started to become more popular, and eventually began to overtake the bicycle as the prevalent mode of travel and leisure in the area. Bicycle “scorchers” were soon a thing of the past, replaced by the “auto.” “Scorchers” continued to wreak havoc on city streets, they just did so while in a motorized vehicle instead of on the seat of a bicycle.

Sources

  • “Bicycle Police Start,” St. Paul Daily Globe, September 21, 1898, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1898-09-21/ed-1/seq-2/.
  • “Caught in the Act,” St. Paul Daily Globe, April 9, 1897, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1897-04-09/ed-1/seq-7/.
  • “Cycle Notes,” St. Paul Daily Globe, June 27, 1898, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1898-06-27/ed-1/seq-5/.
  • “Cycling Regulations Needed,” St. Paul Daily Globe, May 24, 1896, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1896-05-24/ed-1/seq-4/.
  • “Eruption of Wheels,” St. Paul Daily Globe, March 10, 1896, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1896-03-10/ed-1/seq-4/.
  • Herlihy, David V. Bicycle: The History. New Haven: Yale University Press, ©2004.
  • Minnesota Encyclopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. "Bicycling Craze in Minnesota, 1890s." http://www.mnopedia.org/event/bicycling-craze-minnesota-1890s
  • “Monday Notations,” St. Paul Daily Globe, December 13, 1892, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1892-12-13/ed-1/seq-2/.
  • “Slow or Scorching,” St. Paul Daily Globe, May 23, 1900, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1900-05-23/ed-1/seq-6/.
  • “Summer Tours,” St. Paul Daily Globe, May 18, 1896, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1896-05-18/ed-1/seq-8/.
  • “Where the 'Autos' Scorch,” Minneapolis Journal, June 28, 1901, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045366/1901-06-28/ed-1/seq-2/.

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