“Weather Prophet Pague, Governor Geer, & Portland’s first Bicycle Paths”
I’d like to thank Professor Jennifer Dill & the Center for Transportation Studies here at PSU, my friends at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Jonathan Maus of BikePortland, and all of you for joining me here. Thanks for coming.
My talk represents a work-in-progress, and I hope at the end you’ll share comments and questions. My email is on the slide and I’ll show it at the end again.
“Geer has a wheel. Governor-elect learned to ride in two lessons. He will bike from his home to the State Capital during half the year.”
Governor Geer was the first in an series of illustrious politicians for whom the bicycle was an important part of their image & self-definition, their activities, and their policies. The context of bicycling a century ago was a little different than it is today, of course. At that time the bicycle was leading edge technology! Even so, Governor Geer deserves to be better known. Together with “Weather Prophet Pague,” he was part of the first Golden Age of Portland Bicycling.
At a time when Portland seeks to gain Platinum-level recognition as a Bicycle Friendly Community, we can look back at a few of the ingredients and people in Portland’s first golden age of bicycling.
In 1851, 8 years before Oregon became a state, Theodore Geer was born in the Waldo Hills east of Salem & south of Silverton. His family’s farm was established in 1847 and remains there today. Homer Davenport, Silverton’s favorite son, and important political cartoonist in NYC, was in his extended family. Geer went to school in Salem, Willamette University, and for a decade after the Civil War & his parent’s separation lived in Eastern Oregon. In 1877 he bought land near his family’s farm and started farming himself. In 1880 he was elected to the House. In 1891 he was Speaker of the House, and in 1898 was elected the 10th Governor of Oregon.
He is probably best remembered for signing into law the “Oregon System” of Initiative & Referendum in 1902. If you voted for measure 49, you can thank him.
[Correction - Initiative & Referendum together was the first amendment to the Oregon Constitution of 1857. This required that they pass the legislature two times, first in 1899 and again in 1901. Then, on June 2, 1902, Oregon voters ratified the amendment, 62,024 - 5,668. The Governor's signature was never required. Interestingly, William S. U'Ren, the "father" of the Oregon System, wrote about its origin for Joseph Gaston's 1911 book, Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders (vol 1, pp.565-566), and he doesn't mention Geer. Nevertheless, I believe Geer supported Initiative & Referendum.]
Geer was a Republican. “Republican” was not always a dirty word. You all know this, of course; still, it’s important to remember that long before Tom McCall & Mark Hatfield, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, as was Theodore Roosevelt. The early 20th century brought the great switcheroo and the political parties realigned. Progressivism became rather more Democratic than Republican.
In his Inaugural Address, Geer highlighted several planks of a progressive program. The plank I want to highlight here is on road infrastructure.
Few questions demand more serious consideration at your hands than the enactment of some system that will give our people better roads. ….we will always have bad roads until we overcome them by systematic legislation. This we have never had, not has any serious attempt ever been made in that direction.
Our present road laws… amount to a mere travesty on the object for which they were intended. They are the result of haphazard, patchwork legislation from session to session, usually amendatory of previous acts that were themselves mere apologies for existing conditions…
He goes on to say that the “present system” needs to be “wholly revolutionized” and that a central authority needs to supervise the collection & spending on roads. The system is broke, a “dismal failure,” and must be changed.
In May, 1898, here in Portland, city road activists observed:
The present method of securing street improvement in Portland is by petition of a majority of property owners along a street, the expense of the improvement being assessed at an equal rate per foot frontage. The repair of streets is made also by the property owners, on an order issued by the city council.
In practice it is found that a street must become almost impassible before such an order can be secured.
A year and a half later, in December 1899, Senator Simeon Edward Josephi (whom we’ll meet again later) says to a packed courtroom
I am here with the others of Central East Portland to aid in removing an intolerable condition. It is amazing that East Morrison street should have remained closed up for the past year, dangerous to the public…I understand that the recent proceeding to get it repaired failed because the property owners refused to repair the roadway…
Apparently some things hardly change. Just like today, there was a problem funding & building roadway infrastructure. Road poll taxes, requiring either labor or a flat fee, were regressive. Construction activities were held up by uncooperative property owners and uncoordinated between municipalities & areas.
So what did the roads look like?
When I say “roadway,” many of us still probably think of cars. But of course around 1900 cars were still pretty exotic. The first automobile came to Portland in 1899. By one account in 1905 there were 218 of them in Oregon, and 40 in Portland; another account suggests that in 1906 the Portland Auto Club had 40 members, and residents of Portland owned 242 total autos in the city.
For comparison, around 1900 there were about 10,000 bicycles in Multnomah County, and a total population of about 103,000. So almost 10% of citizens used bikes fairly regularly. That’s against two-tenths of a percent for autos.
We have to remember that the roadways were built for livestock, horses, carts, and buggies. Farmers usually were responsible for repairing the sections that fronted their property. In the summer the roads were dusty, in winter thick with several inches of gloppy mud and standing water – and “fertilized,” we might say, with animal droppings. They were stinky when wet and not very pleasant. This image is from downtown Salem, very near the Capitol Building in 1909 – and it’s still not paved.
Early Road Sharing – 1885
In the mid 1880s, “sharing the road” started being institutionalized. At least as early as 1885, Oregon Statute recognized the right of bicyclists to the road, and merely required
That it shall be the duty of any person or persons running or propelling a bicycle…over the public highways or streets in this State, to bring the said bicycle…to a stop when within one hundred yards of any person or persons going in the opposite direction with a team or teams, and remain stationary until said team or teams have passed by.
Five years earlier, in 1880, a group of bicyclists in Newport, Rhode Island formed The League of American Wheelmen. The first Oregonians joined the national group in 1886, and a decade later, in 1896, sufficient numbers had joined to warrant creating the “Oregon Division” of the League of American Wheelman.
There were other bicycle clubs and entities with bike clubs as well. The Oregon Road Club, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club, the Portland Athletic Club, the First Regiment Athletic Association, the Portland Speed Association, the Zig-Zag Cycle Club, and the United Wheelman’s Association (aka United Wheeling Association).
The fact that bike riders desired, formed, and joined bicycle clubs suggests that social formation and the development of distinctive bicycle culture was important to them. Let’s look at some of it.
Though the “penny farthing” or “high wheel” is the picture we have of the old-timey bicycle, its riders probably shared more with bmx, cyclo-cross, or extreme mountain bikers. The penny farthing was a bike for the young, the adventuresome, and the risk-and thrill-seeking. Technologically, in the early 1890s the transition to the safety bicycle, the form of the bike we know today with two equal-sized wheels and a diamond frame, made bicycling easier and more available. The inflated, pneumatic tire also helped cushion bumps the hard rubber tires transmitted directly on the “boneshaker.” These were fixies. The coaster brake & free-wheel enters only very late in the decade of the 90s, and most of the time we are dealing essentially with fixies. The 3-speed doesn’t happen until 1903.
By 1899 when this ad was published – I’ll have more to say about Fred Merrill later -, it was not wildly implausible to show this old fellow talking about going buggy-free – just as today more and more people are talking about going car-free. Note also that he talks about getting a bike for Sarah. This could be a daughter or a wife. The important thing is that the bike implied a freedom to travel for women. This, and bloomers, were important ingredients in turn-of-the-century feminism and the movement for women’s suffrage.
Indeed, in August of 1897, a newspaper writer says – more than a little rhapsodically:
The Portland “summer girl” is bred to her wheel, as a trooper is bred to his horse. From dawn till dark she lives in the saddle.
Whatever be her errand, she mounts her wheel and rides easily to her destination, dismounts…performs whatever duty happens to be hers, and bowls home again, serene, tranquil, content.
And more soberly:
Since bicycles came to Portland, not to play with, but as useful and valued servants, they have become a part of the daily life of many women.
But with more people riding there was more conflict.
Portland restricted riding on the sidewalk to certain hours and times of the year. As early as 1893 a Portland City Ordinance required ringing a bell at intersections. In May 1897, City Council passed a measure to permit bicyclists to use the sidewalks only during the rainy months of November through April. During the summer, they must use the street. When on the sidewalks riders had to dismount within 30 feet of pedestrians.
To help develop sharing & civility, the United Wheeling Association handed out “Rules of the Road” pamphlets, which said “Don’t Scorch,” “Keep on the Right,” and “Ring your bell and pass on the left.”
A May 1899 article headlined “Barbarians on a Bicycle” castigated scorchers and asked the bicycle clubs to rein them in:
But there are a few notorious scorchers who shamefully abuse the public without any interference or even reprimand from the police.
Nobody need look to the police to interfere with these hoodlums, but a little effort on the part of the members of the Wheelmen’s Association, who expect their paths to be respected, would soon put a stop to these scorchers. These hoodlums, these barbarians on a bicycle… all are “backed like a camel”; they all have the same goose look; the same low brow…the same idiotic, open mouth, looking like a country churchyard, full of weather-stained tombstones upheaved by the frost….These froway, unkempt, reckless hoodlums on a bicycle will run down some old man, or woman, or child…and then in the outcry that will be made over a serious accident public indignation will take the form of an unreasoning but natural indifference to the legal rights of the wheelmen.
Note the request for self-policing. Enforcement was also problem, whether perceived or real.
In response, that June 1899 the police came up with an involuntary brake:
TERROR FOR SCORCHERS
East Side Policeman’s Simple but Effective Invention
The scorchers of Portland must beware. An East Side policeman has a device…called “the scorchers terror.” …It consists of a flat piece of board with one end well perforated with sharp pointed shingle nails…the “terror” is applied to either front of rear wheel. Only one application is needed…The scorcher stops instantly. The device is a rather savage looking affair, but assurances are given that it is perfectly harmless, except when in action; then look out!
I don’t know how often it was in action.
For speeding that was welcome, there were also several parks with tracks and Bike Paths. The Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club operated one at the site of PGE Park, and the Portland Amateur Athletic Club operated one at NE 12th & Davis. There was the Mechanics Pavillion at 2nd and Clay, and another group operated Cycle Park in Sullivans Gulch. Below Dunthorpe, at the end of Macadam Avenue was the White House. Thousands of people attended bike races, parades, trick riding exhibitions, and bike shows. Young people went out riding at night regularly. One news account tells of a night parade on July 3, 1895 with 1,200 bicyclists! Pedalpalooza, Chunk 666, & Cyclo-cross all have parallels and even some direct ancestry from a century ago.
One of the wackiest bike leaders was Fred Merrill. Merrill was Portland’s largest bike dealer. He was quite possibly the largest dealer, west of the Mississippi. His showroom at this time was on SW 6th, just south of Burnside.
Citizens elected him to city council in 1899. He felt that vice – gambling, prostitution, even opium – ought to be regulated rather than outlawed. People were going to do it anyway, so why not license and manage it rather than play “whack-a-mole” and chase it fruitlessly and corruptly. Many of the city leaders were profiting from it covertly anyway. Merrill sat on City Council for six years, until 1905.
Governor Geer, as I mentioned, rode a lot. In his book Fifty Years in Oregon, Geer writes about going into Salem on his bike, getting the mail on his bike, and riding on May 1, 1900 to Champoeg for the Oregon Historical Society. George Himes also attended the meeting. He was the Director of the Oregon Historical Society and has a park on SW Terwillger named in his memory. Geer’s mission was to locate the site of the 1843 Champoeg meeting that authorized the formation of the Provisional Government in the Oregon Territory. Today a small white obelisk stone commemorates the site, and Champoeg Park has some nice multiuse paths, which bicyclists can use.
In addition to Governor Geer, another important personality is Bemer S. Pague. He was the Director of the Oregon Weather Service in Portland. The US Weather Bureau had been established in 1871 in Portland, and he joined it in 1888. Shortly thereafter he got the legislature to establish the Oregon Weather Service. Pague ran both the State and Federal services from the same office and became one of the country’s leading meteorologists. In his book Weather Forecasting & Weather Types on the North Pacific Slope and in articles, he championed the “Chinook Wind,” and through careful data on rainfall demonstrated that Oregon wasn’t as rainy as everyone thought. Later he was admitted to the bar in Portland & practiced law.
In the weather service, Pague had experience working with mechanical instruments. Things like wind, rain, and snow gauges; anemometers, aneroid barometers, barographs, hygrometers. Like the Wright Brothers, he was good with tricky mechanical gadgets. Even arms manufacturers, like Remington Arms, made bikes. It’s not surprising Pague was also into bicycles.
Pague was more than interested in bicycles. He was also the president of the United Wheelman’s Association. In May 1899, the paper notes that
Weather Prophet Pague made his debut as attorney in the municipal court yesterday afternoon, as assistant prosecutor in the case of the City of Portland vs. H. Bush, accused of driving his horse and buggy across the Vancouver bicycle path. Mr. Bush was not present, but his attorney was on hand to watch the corners and see that the prosecution did not have things all its own way.
Judge Hennessy went out to the site to see the buggy tracks, and afterwards found Bush guilty.
What is interesting to note here is the attractiveness of bike paths to the buggy driver. Bicyclists and bike clubs together led the funding, development, and building of the best roads. Bicyclists were leaders.
Many of you know have heard of the “Good Roads” movement. The League of American Wheelmen was the principal mover in the beginning. They published The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer in 1891. Its success led to the “Good Roads Magazine.”
In 1892 the National League of American Wheelmen proposed legislation for a Federal Highway Commission. It went nowhere, alas.
Here in Oregon, the League of American Wheelmen’s Oregon Division published the 1897 Good Roads Book, which listed about 60 routes from city to city in the state. It gave directions, general road conditions, and information on lodging. The League of American Wheelmen’s Oregon Division also published the 1895 map of the greater Portland area, which the BTA currently has for sale.
Alongside the League of American Wheelmen, an independent but parallel group, The Oregon Road Club, began working on the road effort. They formed in 1894 and held their first convention two years later in 1896. This led, in 1898 two years after the convention, to a proposed Highway Improvement Act.
The Oregon Road Club were not the only ones with a legislative agenda. For reasons I have not yet understood, but possibly related to the 1897 secession from the League of American Wheelmen widespread on the west coast, the Oregon Division of The League of American Wheelmen did not lead the legislative agenda here. But Bemer Pague and the United Wheelmen did, and their legislation was the one ultimately passed and signed.
The one connection was Dr. Simeon E. Josephi. We met him earlier at the Morrison road repair meeting. Dr. Josephi was a State Senator who sponsored bicycle legislation, the first Dean of the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU), and a key committee member of the League of American Wheelmen Oregon Division. I will need to understand the connection between Pague, Josephi, and the two different bicycle clubs. If any of you bike club historians can help on this, please email me!
But before bicyclists lobbied the legislature, they tried the city. In May of 1897, City Council defeated a proposal by the United Wheelmen to license bicycles and fund paths. So in time-honored Portland fashion, the Club tried Do-It-Yourself. Initially, the United Wheelmen took up a collection and built the first path on Vancouver Road. It went from the end of the Williams Avenue Plank Road at Portland Boulevard to Vancouver Road and the ferry crossing. In 1899 the Wheelmen concluded that while 800 had paid for it, 6000 were using it at one time or another. On nice weekends, several thousand rode it.
The United Wheelmen and other bicyclists also had a vision of a path out to Mt. Hood. This is from 1898. How great would that have been! It unfortunately did not get built – but parts of it we see here did. [I need to figure out how to show this slide.]
Hopefully you can see more detail here. I want to point out Base Line Road & Section Line Road in particular. We’ll see on another map that these were two paths that did get built.
Additionally, there was second self-funded a path out Macadam to the White House in 1896, but only a mile got built and an 1899 news article said “it began nowhere and ended nowhere.”
Ultimately, self-funding the bicycle paths was neither sufficient nor fair. More monies were necessary to expand the network, and many cyclists who were using the paths were not club members and paying the user fees. Cyclists and road advocates concluded that state action was necessary.
But large enough numbers of people still objected to comprehensive taxation for large scale infrastructure projects. Facing this resistance, bicycle owners carved out a smaller project: They would volunteer to be taxed in order to get better roads built for themselves & for pedestrians. Separate facilities was a compromise solution. Since funding roads for everyone, for the common good, encountered too much resistance, they did something mainly for themselves.
A February 1899 letter to the editor makes three arguments:
First, it is necessary outside of town to have a place where the wheelmen can be safe from the road hog; second, outside of the town the county roads are generally unfit for a bicycle; third, it is fair that all should pay for what all enjoy, and finally I take no stock in the wheelman who says that neither he nor his family has any use for a bicycle path. One Sunday spent in watching that little three-mile path to Vancouver is sufficient to meet that objection.
Governor Geer signed the bill in February 1899. As soon as the weather dried out, workers broke ground. Almost 10,000 tags were sold – again, 10% of the population. Multnomah County worked on paths at Willamette & Portland Boulevards, Baseline Road (Stark), Section Line Road (Division), and Milwaukie Avenue. North-South connections were built at 12-mile in Gresham and along 11th/12th by Ladd’s Addition to Milwaukie.
Though this map is and early AAA map from 1917, it shows most of the bicycle path routes and the way the main bike routes became main auto roads.
A July 1899 summary describes the Section Line Path:
The Section Line road has been treated to paths four feet wide on each side, as far as Gresham. Beginning at Seven Corners, at the intersection of East Twenty-first and Division streets, these paths are to be used under the rule “keep to the right,” and wheelmen going out toward Gresham must take the path on the south side of the road. Coming back into town, take the north side. This rule will be enforced wherever two paths exist on the same county road, as the safety of pedestrians as well as the wheeling public will be promoted thereby.
The paths were graded & crowned, packed dirt, and then graveled. The gravel covering made them drain better than most of the dirt roads. Consequently, mud was less of a problem on them. They were almost as good as Macadam roads.
Not two years after Governor Geer signed the bill, the Oregon Supreme Court invalidated the bicycle tax in 1901. The Bicycle Tax Collector, JW Johnson had seized JA Ellis’ bicycle for non-payment, and Ellis sued the Sheriff, William Frazier & Multnomah County. The Court’s main objection was that bicycles were taxed on a flat fee, and the Oregon Constitution requires that property be taxed proportionally. This would have required that each bicycle be assessed individually. Instead, the Legislature quickly enacted a second law that used the language of licensing rather than taxation in order to satisfy the court’s requirements.
It’s not clear that all counties built cycle paths. In 1901 after the court struck down the first tax, the Marion County Sheriff refunded the taxes, about $1500 worth, which suggests that nothing was ever built around Salem. Multnomah County did not see it necessary to refund the tax, by the way, and kept working on the paths.
Between 1899 and 1902 a gigantic bicycle Trust, the American Bicycle Company, came together and crashed. At inception it united 36 different manufacturers, and gathered more each month. The market for new bicycles declined precipitously, however. Few riders needed anymore to keep up with the latest model. As the Trust came apart, membership in the League of American Wheelmen also declined quickly, and leaders in society and politics turned from bicycles to automobiles.
It’s interesting to note that the bicycle manufacturers played a key role in the development of rolling out new models every year. The bicycle industry was a model for the auto industry! We like to think sometimes of bicycling as an anti-consumerist act, but back then it was in the forefront of consumer capitalism and advertising.
In the 1900s many of the bicyclists, being early adopters, and looking to the next instance of leading-edge technology, became auto drivers. Bicycling became more prosaic than fashionable, and bicycling also declined in status. You can see even here in 1899, the way a long Sunday feature on the Oregon Road Club highlights luxury & status. [Working on this slide.] From this point it wasn’t long to the view that you bike only when you can’t afford to drive.
So now it was former bicyclists who were the main influence on the good roads movement. It took more than a decade after the League of American Wheelmen’s 1892 proposed Federal Highway Commission for Congress to establish the Bureau of Public Roads in 1905. Another decade had to pass before 1916 the Federal Highway Act.
Here in Oregon, in 1913 the Legislature repealed that second law, the bicycle license law. Concurrently the Legislature started the State Highway Commission and its own set of property taxes. These property taxes proved inadequate for road building. The year of the Federal Highway Act, 1916, also marks the year the Gorge portion of the Columbia River Highway opened. Three more years passed, and in 1919 the Oregon Legislature hit on the first Oregon gas tax. This finally provided the first stable and adequate fund for roadways. The tax on gasoline was the right solution at that time.
Our golden ages share some important things. We have politicians who bike, bicyclists who self-organize, and activist bike dealers & merchants. These are clearly essential ingredients.
Some things are different. Bicyclists back then appear more eager to self-police and show “good behavior,” and I think this is an important element of PR that bicyclists aren’t at present always ready to embrace. I would like to research more closely the history of the ways scorching was perceived, because I think every time there’s an enforcement action at Ladd’s Addition, perceptions & not reality are what matter. The perceptions around scorching are similar. Bicyclists were also willing to give up things in order to achieve a greater good, they had a sense for trade-offs. I have complicated feelings about a bicycle tax or bicycle licensing. It may be impractical, but there might be – shall we say – “externalized benefits” that don’t show up in a bottom line accounting. Arguments for “paying for fair use” are manifestly false. But again, perceptions count. And perhaps most important of all, bicyclists created something that buggy and auto drivers themselves craved. The KGW feature on Wednesday night that showed a auto driver enjoying the bicycling – things like this that create an active sense of desire for what bicyclists currently enjoy – is an example. I think we bicyclists really need to focus on creating desire & craving among auto drivers.
There’s more work to be done, and I hope to take my research more closely into the 1900s. Perhaps I’ll have another report for you.
Thank you all for joining me!
[If on the PSU CTS site you scroll down to "ARCHIVE: Fall 2007 Transportation Seminar Series," on the November 30 row, my slide deck and audio/vidio of the talk are available.]
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