CHAPTER 2


The Story of Bicycling in Canada

By William Humber

   A Nineteenth-Century Passion

"The first trail made in this continent by the rubber tire of a modern bicycle is accredited to A.J. Lane, one of the Montreal B. C. (Bicycle Club), who imported a 50-inch Coventry for his first ride July 1, 1874, while H. S. Tibbs, captain of the same club, took a 300-mile tour in England the same year. Importing a Challenge bicycle he took his first ride on it in Montreal, August 15, 1877 and he won a medal for 2 miles at the first bicycle race ever held in Canada, June 7, 1879. "Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg"It is always a wonder to us that the velocipede, which created such a fashionable fury in this country, only a few years ago, should have been entirely abandoned. We lately saw one solitary rider in this city. In Canada, where outdoor sports are so popular and so much in consonance with the hardihood of our young men, it seems to us that the velocipede ought to be brought into favour. For the purposes of locomotion, there is as much fun in it in summer as there is in the snowshoe in winter.December 9,1876 Canadian Illustrated News

Few images so sharply define and thus separate the nineteenth century from our experience as the high-wheel bicycle. It has become a kind of icon for a more antiquated way of living. The response of" moderns" is usually to wonder what kind of person would dare attempt either to mount or ride such a creature. In the days before Medicare, the risk to life and limb was real. "Get a bicycle," Mark Twain wrote, "you will not regret it if you live."
There is, of course, more to the origins of bicycling than the high-wheel, and its ascendancy does not even coincide with the mass craze for bicycling which shook the 1890s. It can be compared to Beatlemania or goldfish swallowing in its sudden and frenzied fever.
On the stained glass of a church at Stoke Poges, just south of Windsor, England, is the image of a naked cherub on a bicycle designed in 1642. These earliest of bicycles continued to be popular throughout the Regency period of early nineteenth- century England. They were hobbyhorses, made of two small wheels with an adjoining beam, and were propelled by one's feet in the manner of a contemporary small child on an oversized toy. Some of these contraptions were even outfitted with replicas of a horse's head. As late as 1819 blacksmiths attacked hobbyhorse riders on the pretext that the machines crippled their business.
By far the most severe problem was a popular belief that it was impossible to maintain one's balance with feet off the ground. Like the belief in a flat world, the notion seems absurd to us, but was terribly intimidating for people of that day.
In spite of this, as early as 1839 Scotsman Kirkpatrick MacMillan rode a two-wheeled bicycle by pumping a treadle with his two feet lifted off the ground. Nevertheless the notion persisted that such an activity was impossible. The ground was firm enough to support such a belief. The cost of maintaining a horse was astronomical to most, and throughout Canada the condition of roads was so bad that purchasers had to ensure that the beast could swim. In Ontario the establishment of the county roads system in 1866 at least implied that any improvement in transportation would be welcomed.
The first velocipedes built in North American appear to have been those of Pierre Lallement, a French emigre living in Hew Haven, Connecticut. He obtained a patent in 1866, but he could not sell the design commercially in the United States and so returned to Paris. Soon after his departure, however, the machine enjoyed a brief popularity.
The bicycling enthusiasm of 1869 was a bit of a false start. A sudden wave of euphoria greeted its appearance. In Canada riding schools were established and entrepreneurs wandered the countryside introducing small communities to the wheel's pleasure.
Halifax was similar to other places. Indoor bicycle riding was possible day and night at the City Market Building, the Variety Hall and the Colonial Market. Recognizing the value of bicycling as a means of counteracting a particular leisure time ill, the Sons of Temperance opened their own riding school.
Grand's Riding Academy opened in Toronto on Wellington Street in 1869, with spectators paying twenty-five cents to stand in the centre of the floor and watch the velocipedists circle on the exterior ring. St. George's Rink also debuted that spring, offering novices an opportunity to try their luck from 7 a. m. to 10 p. m. Another establishment, the Ontario Velocipede Rink, opened on April 17 in Toronto's Yorkville area, in a former skating arena.A show was available at the St. Lawrence Hall, where Professor Frank Marston demonstrated his skill at staying upright. For fifteen cents spectators were also entertained by the Queen's Own Rifles. That summer Marston took his wheels on a tour of Southern Ontario, helping introduce the sport to smaller communities.
A local paper reported: "The best velocipede riding ever done in Bowmanville was that by Professor Marston, at his exhibition in the Town Hall last night. He had perfect command of the machine and could go as he pleased — sideways, spring on the saddle with one foot, and drive with the other, remove the handle for guiding, and go without it, and while in that position, take off his coat and put it on again, and, in fact, could do what we would consider impossible, had we not seen it. On Friday evening another exhibition will be given in the hall, and will be worthy of patronage. Persons wishing to learn how to ride the bicycle, can do so either day or evening by applying to the professor. He has five machines in the hall and local riders create a good deal of merriment." The threshold of disbelief had been overcome.
In one sense these bicycles were like ours, insofar as the two wheels were generally of the same size. In virtually all other features they were terribly crude antecedents — often homemade.
Perry Doolittle rode a wooden tricycle on the streets of Toronto as a seven-year-old in 1868 and one year later rattled along on the wooden bone-shaker of the type seen in Bowmanville that summer. In 1876 he saw a picture in a popular magazine of an English bicycle displayed at Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition. This was his blueprint for designing his own wooden bicycle with an 18-inch back wheel and 48-inch front, made with buggy spokes and iron tires, and a gas pipe for a backbone. In 1879 he built a new machine with imported English rubber tires, a musket barrel as backbone, and wire wheels. The contraption was 12 pounds lighter than the traditional 60-pound English variety.
Likewise, Jim Scarff of Woodstock rode his homemade velocipede into Stratford in the early spring of 1869. Scarff, who had immigrated to Canada with his parents in the 1850s and who later went off to the California gold rush, was president of the Canadian baseball champion "Young Canadians" of Woodstock. No shrinking violet, he wheeled about Stratford's town hall and so impressed Dr. W.N. Robertson that the prominent physician bought one for his professional calls.
This was the age of the inventive industrialist, combining private enterprise and public spirit. Thus it was that two Stratford citizens, Michael and John Goodwin, followed Scarff's lead and began building" substantial constructed conveyances made of the best malleable iron." D.M. White of the Albion Hotel bought their first product.
Shortly thereafter, two buggy and farm equipment makers, John and Alex Miller, opened a velocipede riding and instruction school, and by Victoria Day 1869 bicycle races were part of the holiday sports program. However, these were uncomfortable, heavy bicycles which transferred every shock to the hapless rider. As the decade concluded, so too did the fad. But if North Americans remained somewhat turned off, the same could not be said for the British and French, who continued their experimentation. Inventiveness was the order of the day. By 1873 Thomas Humber's company in England had a well-distributed catalogue from which others might, in the manner of Perry Doolittle, "borrow" ideas. Although it was the high-wheeler which would dominate the next ten years, developments were proceeding towards the contemporary bicycle. Lawson's bicyclette of 1879 was the first employing chain drive. The Kangaroo bicycle of 1884 relied on a smaller front wheel, with a short chain, using a step-up ratio gearing system to compensate for the decrease in diameter of the front wheel. The Humber bicycle of 1884 had direct steering. The Beeston Humber Tandem Safety of 1885 was the first of that two-person type. The introduction of John Dunlop's air tires in 1888 followed advice to the elder Dunlop that he introduce his son to cycling for health reasons. The Scottish inventor was actually borrowing from a patent registered in 1845 by R.W. Thomson.
The modern bicycle, as we know it, owes its primary genesis to John Stanley's Rover, produced in 1883 in England. While the front wheel was still slightly larger than the rear, its tubular frame was diamond shaped, with front and rear forks to embrace the wheels.
Cranks and pedals were on a separate axle and energy was transferred to the rear wheel by means of a single driving chain.
The 1890 Humber Safety, with diamond frame, was barely distinguishable from the modern machine in appearance. In the 1890s the hub and derailleur speed gears were popularized and the Edwardian bicycle of the early 1900 s, with its' 300 parts, corresponded in technology to the modern cycle.
It would be inappropriate to pass too quickly over the life of the high-wheeler. After all, its rise corresponded to the bicycle's acceptance in the right social circles. The high- wheeler met two needs. It lifted the individual above the poor roads, littered with dirt and pesky manure flies, and it allowed the rider to go faster than his smaller bicycle companion in those pre-gearing days.
North Americans were introduced to the high-wheel at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A renewed enthusiasm gripped the land. The Boston Bicycle Club was formed on February 11, 1878, and shortly thereafter Canada's first club was formed in Montreal. In 1880 a group of five Americans, led by Frank Weston, one of the sport's first promoters, toured England, while at home the League of American Wheelmen was formed. Its 1881 membership showed 27 Canadians.
That same year the Montreal cyclists joined with the Montreal Snowshoe Club and Montreal Lacrosse Club to form the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. Out of this association would come Canada's Olympic organization, as well as the Canadian Hockey Association, and of importance to cyclists, the Canadian Wheelmen's Association. Because the cyclists dominated the association in these days, all other sporting clubs sponsored by the organization became known as the Winged Wheelers. It was thus a cycling- imbued emblem that quarterback Warren Stevens wore in 1931 when he revolutionized Canadian football with the introduction of the forward pass.The social status of bicyclists reflected economic reality. A $300 bicycle was equal to half of a working person's yearly wage. Psychologically the appearance of the bicyclist whizzing along above the madding crowd reinforced his own social image. Unimpressed farmers often retaliated by giving wrong directions to their urban cousins.
It is safe to say that never again would bicycling be such a public phenomenon as it was in the days of the high-wheelers. Cyclists were a novelty, and as such, the stock of newspaper reports, club activities and large-scale banquets. Subscription books and popular magazines gave them individual prominence. In a sense, the mass appeal of bicycling in the 1890 s and its later development in the twentieth century cost the sport its individual peculiarity. Cyclists became a kind of background noise or appearance in the landscape.
Although there were more of them, their public role was curiously diminished.
Accounts of the 1880s suggest a level of formality to cycling activity, but also the first inkling of the personal independence which would come to define the next century. They were among the first tourists, and the guidebooks listed popular hotels and good trails for the cyclist. James Brierley recalled an evening ride from Aylmer to St. Thomas in 1881 when the notion of an association was first broached with Cliff Keeneleyside of London. " One of us said, 'Let us join the League of American Wheelmen.' The other replied, 'Why not form one of our own?"' A meeting was held in Toronto with aldermen Bostwick and McBride of Toronto, Horace Tibbs of Montreal, Bill Payne from London, and W.D. Mothersill of Ottawa. Mothersill was first president of the Ottawa Bicycle Club, formed on August 4, 1882. An assistant engineer with the Department of Railways and Canals, he imported English bicycles such as the D.H. F. Premier, with a 60-inch front wheel, direct driven by the cyclist.
Bicycling, untrue to its later proleterian image, was truly plebian in character —right down to the nifty dark-blue patrol jackets and grey helmets worn by the 20 Ottawa members in 1883.
Dominion Day (July 1) 1881 marked the first organizational meeting in London, and the first annual meet of the Canadian Wheelmen's Association was dutifully held there on July 1, 1882. H.H. Hepinstall of St. Thomas lost the racing title at London's Crystal Palace track on account of a bent pedal. Willie Ross won and was surrounded by reporters, including his brother Philip of the Toronto Mail and Louis Rubinstein of the Montreal Gazette. Rubenstein was a member of an old, established Jewish family in Montreal. An enthusiastic cyclist, his greatest sporting renown was as a figure skater. In 1890 he attended the unofficial world's championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Czarist state was a hot bed of antisemitism and the secret police threatened him with a prison sentence if he remained in their country. The British ambassador finally intervened, and Rubenstein went on to win the title. He was to be a prominent figure in the Wheelmen's Association, and from 1910 to 1927 served as its president — the longest term in the organization's history.
Bicycling had a truly national following. By 1883 Winnipeg had its own club, formed to combat restrictive bylaws which prevented the wheel's use in the city, and by the end of the decade Calgary and Victoria had followed. Yet for all its egalitarian promise, the bicycle was essentially an upper-middle-class recreation. The Territorial Bicycle Club of Regina included in its membership the Assistant Indian Commissioner Foiget and a portly Supreme Court judge.
Only with the mass production of the safety bicycle in the last half of the century did the wheel's use expand to a larger social stratum.
Though the 1890s were a period of chronic depression in America, with falling farm prices and unemployment, the bicycle industry flourished. Not only were more people able to afford them at the lower end of the price scale, but women had become a surprisingly avid audience. Writing in Massey's Magazine in 1896, Grace Denison wrote, " Only some 6 or7 years ago there were no lady cyclists in Canada. Can you fancy it, my sisters? In one short demi decade we have learned a new enthusiasm, gone through the battle of the bloomer, taken into our life a new pleasure. . . "
Canadian-born Marie Dressler, along with her stage friend Lillian Russell, would cycle under the leaves of New York's Central Park to the home of a well-known judge, where the shades were drawn and cigarettes shared. The bicycle emerged in the 1890s as the very symbol of change, both technological and social. One clergyman could only note with alarm, "The road of the cyclists leads to a place where there is no mud on the streets because of its high temperature." The tearing apart of an old way of life and the building of a new one coalesced in the 1890s around the bicycle. It was a machine incapable of carrying such weight for long, but in the decade leading up to the twentieth century, it played its role to perfection.


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