Local History at its Best: Boston and the Cycle

Duncan R. Jamieson
History Department, Ashland University

Lorenz J. Finison
Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880–1900: A story of race, sport and society
312 pages, paperback, ill.
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press 2014
ISBN 978-1-62534-074-0

Lorenz J. Finison, a social psychologist, long-time bicycle rider and activist, has studied the bicycle in and around Boston, Massachusetts. First in Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 and then in Boston’s Twentieth-Century Bicycling Renaissance, he provides a detailed look at the intersection of the bicycle with American society, especially as it relates to race, class and gender. For the most part, the first generation of cyclists had both the disposable income and the time to cycle in a society where the vast majority worked long hours six days a week for barely enough money to cover necessities. Social convention, combined with medical opinion, restricted most women to genteel activities which limited their involvement with the bicycle. The tricycle, however, proved to be an acceptable alternative for those with the disposable income. In the early days both bicycles and tricycles were status symbols for the privileged.

Though born in Dayton, Ohio, Finison came to the Boston area for high school and became a dedicated New Englander. He would agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes who coined the phrase “hub of the universe” (or solar system) in an 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, envisioning Boston as the center of intellectual and commercial life. A member of the Charles River Wheelers, Mass-Bike, and the Boston Cyclists Union, Finison is a founding board member of Cycling Through History: The African American Heritage Bike Route. Together, his two books on Boston and cycling provide a detailed examination of the people and events central to Boston’s cycling history which, when projected across the United States, help readers understand the wheel’s rise and fall within American society.

Local history analyzes people and events and how they shaped their community. The best local history uses this microcosm to examine the larger environment, offering insight to guide scholars as well as the general public. Over the last several years academics from several disciplines have turned their focus to the lowly bicycle, sometimes including the tricycle, and how two and three wheels have changed human society and the nature of transportation over the last one hundred fifty years.

On the American side of the pond, the interest in the bicycle has ebbed and flowed, creating a similar pattern for the number of books on bicycling. A huge interest in all things cycle related declined precipitously at the end of the nineteenth century. While people continued to ride and to write, the numbers of both cycles and cycling related books did not equal the earlier decades. Then the interest began to rise as the baby boomers came of age in the 1960s and 70s.  With an increasing concern for nature and the environment, they turned to the bicycle for escape, transportation and exercise. This naturally led an increasing number of researchers to examine the impact of the wheel on American society.

The ordinary, of high wheel, bicycle burst on the American scene after England brought them to Philadelphia in 1876 as a part of their exhibition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Colonel A. A. Pope went to England that fall to import high wheelers to sell before he began manufacturing them in Hartford, Connecticut. While mostly ridden by athletically inclined young men, women also rode and raced high wheelers. Not until several years later when the diamond frame safety bicycle, so named because its chain rear wheel drive and equal sized wheels kept the rider closer to the ground and dramatically reduced the chances of a header (flying over the handlebars) did bicycling become more acceptable for women. In keeping with the separate spheres for men and women, in 1879 Charles Pratt, president of the Boston Cycle Club and later Pope’s factotum, organized The Wheel Around the Hub, a two-day bicycle tour around Boston for men only. Pratt sent invitations to clubs as far away as New Jersey and Washington, D. C. At the sound of the captain’s bugle around forty middle-class men in club uniforms mounted their silent steeds and rode off in formation, to the delight of spectators and passersby. Accompanying the cyclists was their baggage wagon and a carriage for those in need of assistance. The tour provided organized rest stops, catered meals and overnight accommodations. Relaxed and refreshed, the gentlemen completed their loop around Boston the next day. The Wheel Around The Hub continued off and on until fading in the 1930s, only to be followed by a reenactment in 1965. Renamed the Hub on Wheels, a similar style ride began in 2005 with the Boston’s mayor among its many supporters.

Focusing on different locales in Boston and its environs, Finison addresses the issue of multimodal roadways within urban transportation, and how the cyclist impacts issues of urban renewal and planning, gender, race, class and gentrification.

Except for the bugler this established a pattern that can be seen throughout the United States to this day. Clubs organize rides, generally with lengths varying from ten to one hundred miles. The registration fee brings a course map, pavement arrows, food and bathroom stops, and perhaps a T-shirt advertising the sponsoring club. Though no longer as common, some rides continue the mass start. Spectators and passersby still watch the riders go past and children will often put out a hand for a high five. Though no longer exclusively white and male, women and cyclists of color remain underrepresented.

Boston’s Cycling Craze provides an intimate look at the individuals, both those well known and those more anonymous, who played central roles in Boston’s cycling community. Cycling enthusiasts know Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878-1932), the son of slaves who grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, to become a national and international cycling champion, crowned “the world’s fastest human.” He became the second black world champion athlete (the first was bantamweight boxer George Dixon in 1892). Though best known as a track sprinter, Taylor competed in road as well as six-day races. He was a member of Boston’s 1897 Pursuit team, the first integrated professional sports team in the United States. Through it all, he suffered continuous racial discrimination as well as physical abuse and illegal tactics to thwart his success. Finison also provides cameo coverage of the leading white racers, including A. A. Zimmerman, the McDuffee brothers, Eddie, Joseph and Peter, the three Butler brothers, Nat, Frank and Tom, W. A. Porter, W. G. French and the African American, John Bowser.

Organized in 1880 at Newport, Rhode Island, Charles Pratt founded The League of American Wheelmen (LAW), the United States’ first national cycling organization. While known for its sponsored tours, the Good Roads Movement and list of approved lodgings for traveling cyclists, it also sanctioned cycle races. Initially, the League did not discriminate against African Americans; in the 1890s, however, as American society introduced increasingly stricter customs and laws regulating interactions between whites and African Americans, the League followed suit. In 1894 Southern members proposed a constitutional amendment denying African Americans membership. Though opposed by Massachusetts members, led by their state chapter president, Arthur Bassett, the amendment passed over their objection.  Bostonian Kitty Knox (1872-1900) was a bi-racial member who had joined LAW two years earlier. She went to the annual meet in Asbury Park, New Jersey, with the Massachusetts contingent.  When she arrived newspapers across the country reported, incorrectly, that LAW “ousted” her. While she was denied service at Asbury Park restaurants and hotels, despite an 1884 New Jersey civil rights law, she managed to room and boarded privately. She participated in several rides, setting the pace for at least one mixed gender event.

The cycling “boom” of the mid 1890s ended in large measure due to overproduction, which slashed prices on the glut of new machines while providing too many used wheels at bargain basement prices. Thus ended the allure and status of cycling. Finison concludes his book with the 1900 death of Kitty Knox. The final chapter, “Wheeling Home,” reviews the later lives of the principal players and Boston’s continuing, though diminished, interest in cycling.

Lorenz J. Finison
Boston’s Twentieth-Century Bicycling Renaissance: Cultural Change on Two Wheels
304 pages, paperback, ill.
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press 2019
ISBN 978-1-62534-411-3

Finison’s Boston’s Twentieth-Century Cycling Renaissance continues the analysis of cycling in Beantown and how these regional activities reflect American issues, drawing a clear distinction between the United States and Western European societies. After the turn of the century decline, Boston and environs saw growth for bicycle usage in the 1940s which then slumped until the 1970s when baby boomers and the environmental movement generated renewed interest. Whether or not this surge will persevere through the twenty-first century remains to be seen, but growing numbers of people utilize the bicycle for commuting, running errands, and travel. Racing, on and off road, is a part of Boston’s cycling scene, as was the Boston–Montreal–Boston, a 1200-kilometer randonnée patterned after the more famous Paris–Brest–Paris ride.

In the early decades of the twentieth century the automobile made a dramatic and largely unforeseen change in American society. As Carlton Reid explores in Roads Were Not Built for Cars, until the early 1900s the high road belonged equally to all comers. For centuries pedestrians, horseback riders, wagons, buggies, and coaches shared the space with minimal conflict. Though local authorities put restrictions on the bicycle and tricycle, they were still accommodated. However, because of the roads’ execrable conditions, cyclists lobbied for smooth side paths where they could ride. Some built by local governments and some by the cyclists themselves, these side paths blossomed throughout the United States. Then came the automobile which within a generation virtually drove all other users to the fringes of America’s highways. In the United States the multimodal high road which had existed for hundreds of years succumbed to the automobile in the 1920s, to the extent that Americans believed “roads were built for cars.” Once the automobile took control of the highway, side paths disappeared as road building equipment paved and widened the roadways for them. Though well-paved by the 1930s, as Finison accurately concludes, good roads do not necessarily equal good transportation.

Between the world wars hosteling came to the United States, and bike trains took people from the crowded cities for relaxing rides in the sparsely populated hinterlands. While the bike trains disappeared during World War II, the sad reality is the automobile and its champions had coopted the entire transportation infrastructure, denying the cyclists a place at the planning table. The same debates over separate bicycle paths versus multimodal roadways continued. While cyclists enjoy the safety and tranquility of riding without motor traffic, they fear the consequences when forced to share the road in places without bicycle paths or designated bicycle lanes. Two prominent Bay State public figures promoted the construction of bicycle paths. Cardiologist, Dr. Paul Dudley White, in addition to founding the American Heart Association and serving as President Dwight Eisenhower’s personal physician, was an avid cyclist. He along with Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke encouraged the building of more bicycle paths and the establishment of protected bicycle lanes. Included here are discussions of bicycles on the Boston Common and other parks and the Rails to Trails network which converts abandoned railroad right of ways to non-motorized trails.

Finison’s interest in including virtually all the people, government agencies, organizations and clubs that encouraged and lobbied for bicycling may become tedious for some readers, but it details how the bicycle interacts with both the economy and society. Focusing on different locales in Boston and its environs, Finison addresses the issue of multimodal roadways within urban transportation, and how the cyclist impacts issues of urban renewal and planning, gender, race, class and gentrification. A related concern involves mass transit, in Boston the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, popularly known as the “T.” Clearly a part of a multimodal transportation system, a question to be considered is whether cyclists can take their wheels on the T? Many busses have bike racks mounted on their front bumpers to address this issue. These are some of the matters raised by Finison’s local history. He uses Boston and its environs as a microcosm of the cycling experience throughout the United States.

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2020

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