Boston: Birthplace of American Bicycling

After all those years of being labeled the worst bicycling city in America by Bicycling Magazine, it is hard to remember that Boston was once – and hopefully will again become – the hub of American bicycling. 

The modern bicycle, with two wheels turned by a pedal, was invented in Paris in 1863 by a mechanic named Pierre Lallement based on earlier but pedal-less “velocipedes.”  Lallement, however, left Paris for the United States in 1865 where the 22 year-old settled in Connecticut and built a prototype of his design, filing the first and only patent for the pedal-driven bicycle in 1866.

Unable to make a living off his idea, Lallement returned to France, where he discovered that the Olivier brothers and Pierre Michaux had built on his innovation to start successful bicycling manufacturing businesses.  After some dispute, Lallement came back to the US for a while and sold his patent.  Some of the European bikes were imported to the U.S. and on August 17, 1868 an “immense crowd” gathered on the Boston Common to watch an acrobatic troupe give the country’s first publicized outdoor bicycling demonstration.

European bicycles quickly evolved into the “Ordinary” cycles with increasingly large front wheels that allowed for much greater speed. These more advanced “high wheelers” began appearing in the United States in the 1870’s and sparked a cycling boom, with Boston in the lead.  In 1879, forty socially prominent men rode their high wheeler bikes on a two-day, 100-mile “Wheels Around The Hub” adventure.  In 1879 Harvard was the first American college and Boston one of the first US cities to have bicycle clubs.  The Boston Bicycle Club was one of 40 clubs that jointly founded the League of American Wheelmen (fore-runner to today’s League of American Bicyclists) in Newport, Rhode Island on May 31, 1880.

In 1878, after having bought the rights to Lallement’s patent, Massachusetts-based industrialist Albert A. Pope launched the Columbia Manufacturing company (which survived in Westfield, MA into the 1990s).  Combining aggressive purchasing of patents, technical innovation (such as the use of ball bearings, hollow steel tubing, and interchanging parts), and incredibly active promotions, Pope emerged as the leading figure of the American bicycle industry, wielding enormous influence even after his focus switched to the emerging automobile industry after 1900.

Pope launched a weekly newspaper and two cycling magazines. In 1880 he helped establish the League of American Wheelmen to act as a central racing authority. When the League’s held its second annual meeting in Boston in 1881, thousands of spectators cheered as 800 members cycled down Commonwealth AvenueA year later, Pope’s “Expert Columbia” model became the first bicycle ridden across the U.S; the 3,700-mile, 103-day trip concluded in Boston.

Pope was quick to recognize the potential of the “safety bicycle,” so-called because of the increased stability provided by its equal sized wheels, air-filled tires, and use of a chain and gears to transfer power from the pedals to the rear wheel.  The safety bike  sparked a second American bicycle craze in the 1890s.   In 1895, for example, a bicycle festival in Boston’s Franklin Park attracted 25,000 pedalers.  

Pope developed a network of dealers throughout the country. He also was a chief supporter of successful efforts to promote bicycling, improve roads, and establish the rights of bicyclists, including the right to use all public roads and the right to take bicycles on railway carriages as ordinary baggage. Pope subsidized instruction in highway engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the early 20th century, the Boston area hosted bicycle exhibitions, road races, and racing tracks – including a huge outdoor track in Cambridge near today’s MIT campus that was used once to demonstrate the first Stanley Steamer automobiles. The Cyclorama Building at 539 Tremont Street was initially constructed in 1884 to hold Philippoteaux’s “Battle of Gettysburg” painting, but during the 1890s it also held bicycle races.

It was the national network of bicycle enthusiasts who first created the effective demand to improved road conditions – a reform that ironically laid the foundation for the successful growth of the automobile industry. The automobile industry also gained from the technological advances, manufacturing skills, and large numbers of innovative mechanics who started in the bicycle trade. Ball bearings, for example, were developed as a method of reducing wear on bicycle axles. Even the airplane can be seen as a bicycle beneficiary since the Wright brothers started as bike mechanics.

As the new century unfolded, however, the focus of technological innovation and the interest of the well-to-do switched from bicycles to the more powerful automobile.  There were small revivals of cycling during the poverty of the Depression and the gas rationing of WWII.  Unlike Europe, where two World Wars kept infrastructure rough and poverty widespread, bicycles ceased to be a major tool of everyday activity in the United States.

The tide began to turn, albeit slowly, when Dr. Paul Dudley White, a Boston cardiologist who was the personal physician to President Dwight D. Eisenhower began promoting the health benefits of cycling.  Under his inspiration, the Boston region’s first multi-use walking and bicycle path was constructed around the lower Charles River basin in 1975.  (Dr. White’s custom Schwinn bicycle now hangs in the Museum of Science.)

As the current environmental movement emerged in the 1960s, and partly sparked by the oil embargos of 1967 and 1973, annual national bicycle sales in the US were double what they were in previous years, creating a “bicycle boom” that led to renewed recreational and advocacy organization. The Charles River Wheelmen, founded in 1966, grew to become the major bicycling club in the Boston area.  And the Boston Area Bicycling Coalition (forerunner of today’s Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, or MassBike) was founded in 1977.  Hub On Wheels, the city-wide Boston bicycle festival, was founded in 2005.

Information culled from:

Bicycling: The History by David V. Herlihy, Yale U. Press, 2005;

Colonel Albert Pope and His American Dream Machines: The Life and Times of a Bicycle Tycoon Turned Automotive Pioneer by Stephen B. Goddard, McFarland & Company, 2008

“Mass Moments” < http://massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=259>, ©2009 Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Boston’s Bicycle Plan, City of Boston (2000) & Hub On Wheels brochures;

Some Local Landmarks:

 

Albert Pope’s Boston home, on 374 Commonwealth Ave near Massachusetts Avenue, now houses the Boston Harvard Club. His 1878 office was located at 45 High Street in downtown Boston, a location now used by the MBTA to administer another type of less-polluting transportation. By 1897, he had moved to 221 Columbus Ave. in the South End, adjacent to today’s Southwest Corridor Bicycle Path, and switched his attention to the emerging automobile industry.

The section of the Southwest Corridor Bike Path just past the Ruggles Street Police Headquarters building has been named the Pierre Lallement Bike Path because it passes by 1274 Tremont Street, the place of Lallement’s death in 1891.

This country’s first bicycle club, the Boston Bicycle Club, had an elegant “club house” headquarters at 87 Boylston St. in Copley Square.   Later, in 1885, the Massachusetts Bicycling Club, closely associated with Pope, built a magnificent clubhouse on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth streets.

Forest Hills Cemetery contains the graves of Albert Pope and Charles E. Pratt, Pope’s patent lawyer and editor of the American Bicyclist, 1879. Pierre Lallement is buried in Mt. Benedict Cemetery in West Roxbury.

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