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Remember This? Velocipedes and bicycles

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the bicycle or its predecessor, the velocipede, were introduced to Ottawa.
Remember this bikes
Mabel Williams with Bicycle at 54 Main Street, Ottawa, residence of James Ballantyne, July 1898.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the bicycle or its predecessor, the velocipede, were introduced to Ottawa.

But, the first reference to a velocipede in the Ottawa Daily Citizen appeared in February 1862. However, instead of referring to a two-wheeled vehicle, it was the name of a horse that competed in the winter ice races held in Aylmer, Quebec. Out of a field of four, Velocipede, a brown colt owned by a Mr. Kenny, came in last in races held on in February 1862. If punters wondered what a velocipede was, they were certain it wasn’t a runner.

The velocipede was invented in Germany in 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. In its earliest form, it consisted of two wheels attached to a saddle. As there were no pedals, riders pushed themselves along with the feet. This design remained essentially unchanged for roughly fifty years, until Pierre Michaux or his employee Pierre Lallement (accounts vary) added pedals to the front wheel in 1863. This improved velocipede became all the rage in France among both men and women, with the craze spreading around the globe. In 1868, it was reported that so many people were using velocipedes on the Champs Élysées at night that police were requiring riders to attached lanterns to their machines owing to the number of accidents.

In mid-February 1869, the Citizen reported that velocipedes were about to be introduced into Toronto, and that a carriage builder had gone to New York to obtain a pattern to manufacture them. A few days later, the newspaper said that a velocipede had appeared on Toronto’s King Street and had caused much excitement… and laughter when the rider “came to grief.” Meanwhile in Montreal, velocipede “fever” had set in, with schools established to teach people how to ride them. It was also reported that France was apparently exporting the machines in huge numbers to North America. The Citizen opined that “surely, the world is suffering from velocipede on the brain.”

The newspaper was, however, dubious about how long the velocipede fad would last. In May 1869, it claimed that six months of velocipeding in the United States had “been sufficient to show that this mode of locomotion is practically worthless.” The Citizen also reported that in Harrisburg, New York the velocipede had found a new rival—stilts.

The problem appears to have been that velocipedes were very heavy and, while they performed well on prepared tracks, they were difficult to ride on ordinary roads. Riders quickly exhausted themselves. As well, with its pedals attached directly to the front wheel, a velocipede had a tendency to swerve every time one pushed down on a pedal. They were also uncomfortable to ride owing to their heavy iron frames and solid wheels. Uneven road surfaces were another problem. These were the days long before smooth, asphalted road surfaces. At best, city roads were cobbled or “macadamized,” in other words made up of layers of stones. Owing to its uncomfortable ride, the velocipede was sometimes referred to as “the boneshaker.”

While Toronto and Montreal might have led the pack when it came to velocipeding in Canada, Ottawa was not far behind. By late April 1869, velocipedes were sufficiently numerous on Ottawa’s relatively smooth wooden sidewalks, that the “new fangled equestrians” were a great nuisance to “dress trains,” baby perambulators, and pedestrians in general. So great was the problem, police were instructed to ticket offenders. However, at the police court held on 1 May 1869, the presiding magistrate dismissed charges on the grounds that there was no city by-law prohibiting velocipedes from city sidewalks. In Toronto, however, a similar case led to a $1 fine being levied.  

By the summer of 1869, velocipede races were seemingly commonplace in Ottawa. In August of that year, the St. George’s Picnic, held in McKay’s Grove near New Edinburgh, featured a velocipede race. A “handsome silver medal” was awarded to the winner.

As an interesting aside, an article that appeared in the Citizen in 1869 but attributed to the Pall Mall Gazette of London referred to a proposal to make what would likely have been the world’s first, dedicated, city bike lanes. The article said that “An enterprising individual in Berlin” had suggested that the city cover over the gutters on each side of its streets to be “the future velocipede high road of the city.” He also proposed a thousand tricycles with uniformed drivers could use these lanes to deliver parcels, letters, and passengers for a small fee—a sort of nineteenth-century cross between UPS and Uber.

The 1870s saw the appearance in Ottawa of the “high-wheeler” bicycle, also known as the “ordinary” or the “penny-farthing,” named after the two old British coins. The huge front wheel, which could have a diameter of four to five feet, was the “penny” and the small rear wheel, the “farthing.” The big front wheel apparently offered improved shock absorption. The bicycles were so high that a two-step stool was necessary to mount them.

In 1877, a Mr. Back, then 18-years-old, read about this latest technological marvel in American magazines and yearned to own one. Unable to afford the expensive machine that cost as much as a worker might earn in six months, the enterprising young man made his own machine using carriage wheels. The frame and handlebars he crafted from flat iron and pipe, while the pedals were fashioned from blocks of wood. Not surprisingly, the vehicle was heavy. But it rode well, and became the talk of the town. Back went on to sell four copies to other Ottawa residents. Years later when interviewed by the Ottawa Journal, Back, now a piano tuner at Orme’s Music Store on Sparks Street, said that he had recently seen one of his creations for sale in a second-hand shop.

In mid-August 1880, an advertisement submitted by A.E. Wilson appeared in the Citizen asking gentlemen who were interested in forming a bicycle club to meet at number 40 and a half Elgin Street, opposite the Russell House to look at price lists for machines. That evening, the men formed the Ottawa Bicycle Club. Members of the club apparently wore a distinctive uniform. Riding on Sundays got members in trouble with local churches that viewed biking on Sunday as a desecration of the Sabbath. The Club advised people to ride “as ostentatiously as possible” on Sundays.

Not surprisingly, the proliferation of velocipedes and high-wheeler bicycles led to accidents. In one possibly apocryphal story, Sir Hector Langevin, then Minister of Public Works, was run down by a high-wheeler. It was reported that because of this accident, an Order-in-Council was issued to bar high-wheelers from Parliament Hill. This ban apparently lasted for five years.

In 1884, a man on a bicycle was involved in a serious accident with a horse and buggy at the top of the hill on Albert Street. In a letter to the editor of the Citizen, an irate witness to the accident said that the horse had been spooked by the cyclist, causing the animal, vehicle and the two clergymen riders to capsize off the cliff and fall onto rocks ten feet below. While the horse was severely injured, the two men escaped with only bruises. The witness described the cyclist as being tall, with a light moustache, and wearing the uniform of the Ottawa Bicycle Club. He ended his letter by writing: “It is full time that a stop was put to allowing such machines to run on the streets and endanger the lives and limbs of the travelling public.” He was not alone in demanding such a ban. The Canadian Wheelmen’s Association, which was established in 1882 in St. Thomas, Ontario to promote biking, apparently spent considerable time and resources defending cyclists’ rights from attempts to legislate bicycles off of city streets. The Association had a branch in Ottawa and other major cities, and more than 650 members across the country in early 1885.

By the mid-1890s, the high-wheeler had been replaced by the more familiar “safety bicycle” or “low bicycle” that didn’t risk life or limb in case of a tumble. Like modern bicycles, safety bikes utilized a chain and had two wheels of the same size. Initially equipped with sold tires, inflatable pneumatic tires were introduced in 1892. Pneumatic tires provided a much more comfortable ride. The first bicycle so equipped in Ottawa was a “Humber” safety bicycle. Its pneumatic tires were described as “a large rubber hose,” and was quite the novelty. The bicycle cost $170 (more than $5,000 in today’s money) and was brought to the city by a syndicate made up of Messrs. W.B. Parr, D.F. Blyth, Stewart McClenaghan, and Dr. M.G. McElhinney. McElhinney was the first to ride it from downtown to the Electric Park on Bank Street, near Patterson’s Creek. Stewart McClenaghan ended up owning the bicycle. Dr. McElhinney must have been passionate about all things related to personal transportation. In 1902, he purchased the first automobile sold in Ottawa.

As bicycle cycle production ramped up and new manufacturers entered the market, the cost of safety bicycles declined. By 1896, the Humber was down in price to a much more affordable, though still expensive, $65. A biking craze ensued in North America and Europe among both men and women eager to adopt this effective, invigorating and liberating form of transportation.

Biking was quickly adopted by early feminists. In the United States, Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle had done more to emancipate women than anything else. “It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel–the picture of free, untrampled womanhood.” While female cyclists were initially hampered by the Victorian dress code that mandated long skirts, petticoats and corsets for women, the impracticality of this type of costume for cyclists led to pressure for more rational dress.

By May 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 bikers who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to drive. At that time, city streets in Ottawa were mostly made of crushed stone, wooden blocks, or cobbles. Even when well maintained, which they seldom were, such roads quickly became heavily rutted. Not surprisingly, Ottawa’s city fathers came under pressure to pave the streets.

At the end of August, 1895, Sparks Street was paved with asphalt from roughly where the National Arts Centre is today to Bank Street. The newly-paved street was inaugurated by bicycle races sponsored by Mayor Borthwick and City Council. Thousands of Ottawa residents turned out in the early evening to cheer on competitors in three races. The first was from the old Russell Hotel, which stood where the War Memorial is today, to Bank Street. It was won by T. Harvey of Hull with W. Besserer, in second place. Harvey also won the second race from the Russell to Bank Street and back, three yards ahead of A. Parr. In the third and final race, in which contestants had to had to go twice around the same course dismounting at each turn, Besserer emerged victorious beating out Harvey.

The introduction of the automobile at the beginning of the twentieth century put a brake on the bicycle mania of the 1890s. However, the bicycle’s utility as an effective mode of transportation and exercise meant that the vehicle has had enduring appeal. Today, the bicycle is popular as a fun, environmentally-friendly and healthy form of transportation and recreation suitable for people of all ages.

 

 

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