From DIY to Public Funding: Financing Portland’s First Bicycle Paths, 1896 – 1899
I’d like to thank Timo Forsberg and the Portland Office of Transportation for the invitation and opportunity to speak today.
In the summer of 1899 a bicyclist wrote a letter to the editor summarizing the case for cycle paths and the bicycle tax:
First, it is necessary outside of town to have a place where the wheelman 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.
Even in the late 1890s sharing the road wasn’t always easy. Carts, buggies, and livestock could crowd the roads. Deep, gloppy and manure-fertilized mud in the winter, and dust in the summer, made many roads difficult and unpleasant to use. Reports on road conditions and information on grades, road surface, and waysides were especially welcome to bicyclists.
To this end the Multnomah county bicyclists published the Bicyclists Road Map, Portland District in the spring of 1896. It graded major thoroughfares as “good,” “fair,” or “poor.” The following season, in 1897, the League of American Wheelmen, Oregon Division, published a book of 60 city-to-city routes in Oregon, The Road Book of Oregon. Clearly bicyclists needed information for “how to get there.”
Almost hidden in the 1896 map are two references to a “proposed cinder path” to the White House Tavern and track. As best as I can tell, this was the first bicycle path in Portland. The White House was a popular resort located on the Willamette River, just below Dunthorpe and directly across from Milwaukie. We know the road to it as Macadam, but it was also known as Riverplace Drive and The White House Road.
About one mile out of six total was built of the White House bicycle path. I want to talk about this path, the reasons it was not finished, about a few other paths built the following two years, and finally about the paths built with the funds provided by the 1899 Bicycle Tax.
In general, we see a shift from paths devoted to serving recreational sites to paths serving residential sites. The most successful paths were those that were part of the transportation infrastructure connecting home and work, suburb and central city. We also see increasingly sophisticated kinds of financing, culminating of course in the state-administered Bicycle Tax.
Most roads in Portland were dirt at this time. An 1894 Paving Map shows very few roads that were macadam, stone, or asphalt (brick red, green, and brown, respectively). The highest quality surface in widespread use was generally gravel (pinkish red). The inner east side required a substantial amount of bridge (blue) because the swampy lowlands hadn’t yet been drained and filled. Outside the central city areas, the best was plank road (yellow with red hatches), but more common was graded dirt (yellow). Elsewhere it was just dirt.
The roads were bumpy – they didn’t call some bicycles “boneshakers” for nothing! – and muddy. If you didn’t want to get stuck or dirty, planning a route to minimize poor road conditions was helpful.
The bikes most people rode were no longer “high wheelers” or “penny farthings.” In the 1880s bike manufacturers had introduced the “safety bicycle,” with two equal-sized wheels and the diamond frame geometry we know today, and by the 1890s this model had taken command of the market. These bikes were fixies, bicycles with a single fixed gear that did not coast, however, and also lacked external brakes. They could be dangerous. Broken chains on hill descents are fairly common in the reports of crashes, and death or serious trauma appears in crash reports frequently (though it’s not clear what was the overall crash rate).
Even with these hazards, biking grew more popular every year. It’s difficult to estimate the number of riders each summer, but the newspaper accounts anecdotally suggest dramatic season-over-season increases. Tax records permit me to know the number of bicycles owned in 1899 pretty closely. Out of a total Multnomah county population of a little over 103,000 about 10,000 owned bicycles. This percentage, of just under 10%, is consistent in Marion and Yamhill counties. I expected greater variation, but have not found it. Backing into numbers for previous years, we get a curve something like this. 2000 in 1896, 4000 in 1897, 6000 in 1898, and 10,000 in 1899.
By comparison, automobiles were much rarer. The first auto came to Portland in the fall of 1899. There are two published counts for 1905 and 1906. The first suggests that there were 40 in Portland and 218 statewide; the other suggests 40 members of the Portland Auto Club and 242 autos in the entire city. In any case, we can estimate that around 1905, .2% of Portlanders used the auto, and 10% used bicycles. So for that year bicycle riding would be 50 times more popular that auto driving.
Of course the main roadway users were still buggies, carts, horses, oxen, and other livestock.
In the late 1890s there were also multiple parks and amusement sites for bicycling. Irvington Track was between NE Brazee and Klickitat, 7th and 14th. It was primarily a horse-racing site, but occasionally bicycle races would be held there. Portland Field, associated with the Portland Amateur Athletic Club, was between NE 12th & Davis. Cycle Park was in Sullivan’s Gulch between NE 18th, 23rd, and south of Halsey. On the west side was Multnomah Field (the site of PGE Park), associated with the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club (today’s MAC), and the White House track.
1896 – The White House and its Path
In the late ‘80s and the gay ‘90s the White House reached the height of its popularity. The young – and the not so young – bloods of Portland, male and female, flocked out of town for the time of their lives. The fun did not begin until about 10 p.m., when, especially on moonlight summer nights, the White House road was a parade ground for all that was smart and modish – and fast.
Visitors could enjoy roulette, other gambling, horse racing, dining – and all the ancillary activities of seeing and being seen. Its formal name was the Riverside hotel, but everyone called it “The White House,” after its coat of paint.
The White House was also a popular recreational destination for bicyclists, and it seemed natural to want to make an improved bicycle path out to it. The very first bicycle path in the country had been built on Coney Island in 1895, and doing something similar for the White House seemed like an obvious thing to do.
In the 1896 Bicycle Road Map, Portland District, there are two references to the “proposed cinder path.” At the time of printing, it is clear that nothing had happened yet. They tried to fund it by taking subscriptions.
A year later, they were still taking subscriptions for it, and little of the path had been built.
1897 – Woodlawn, Piedmont, and the Routes North to Vancouver
The next year, the main cycle path building activity shifted focus dramatically. Instead of trying to build to a recreation or amusement site, path advocates directed attention to paths that ran through new suburban development, and helped to connect bedroom communities to the central city core.
Piedmont and Woodlawn were platted a decade earlier, in 1888. The Portland and Vancouver Railway served them with a streetcar up Union (MLK) that ran between the Stark Street ferry across the Willamette and the Vancouver ferry across the Columbia. The neighborhoods were solidly professional, with lots selling at substantial prices.
On this map you can see the “improved” section of Union, graveled to Prescott. The streetcar line follows it, and then jogs diagonally through Woodlawn. To the left is Piedmont, and you can see how the Vancouver Road curves slightly to the west. Williams is also improved part-way, a plank road to Prescott. A few other streets are graded.
There were two main bicycle ways north. The first was via Union, and followed the streetcar to the Columbia Slough road, where it left the tracks and joined the Slough road to the trestle of the Vancouver road across the slough and to the ferry. The other was up the planked part of Williams, through Piedmont on Williams, by the Piedmont Water Tower at Williams and Portland Boulevard (Rosa Parks), and then onto the old Vancouver Road all the way to the ferry.
During the spring and summer of 1897 workers built bicycle paths, separate from the road, on each of these routes. Organizers depended on work parties consisting of men from each neighborhood. At the base of the Vancouver road trestle, some ladies from Woodlawn hung some canvas tarp, and created “Cherry Grove,” a snack shack and resort that served refreshment to cyclists on the weekend.
Organizers financed the paths with small-scale, neighborhood kinds of fund-raising. They collected personal subscriptions; held bake sales and socials, including selling strawberries and ice cream at “Cherry Grove” for 10 cents a serving; sold tickets to benefit concerts; and gave away a new bicycle to the person who purchased a ticket and guessed the number of miles a wheel constantly turning with a new electric motor (from PGE!) would pass in 300 hours.
At the same time, it became clear the bicyclists would be most effective acting in concert. To this end in the spring of 1897 several influential Portlanders, sponsored by Judge Henry H. Northup, and meeting in his chambers, began meeting with a view to creating what became incorporated as the United Wheelmen’s Association. Bicyclists felt they needed a group broader than the League of American Wheelmen, whose primary focus was racing, and who was distracted by the controversy over Sunday racing, which led to the so-called California Association of Cycling Clubs and League of American Wheelmen Secession. The United Wheelmen’s Association chartered themselves in May of 1897 and had representatives from all the major cycling groups as well as several other kinds of clubs: The League of American Wheelmen, the Zig-Zag Cycle Club, the Oregon Road Club, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club, and the Mazamas. Among the charter members were many more movers-and-shakers in Portland society. City Engineer William B. Chase was in charge of all road building, road repairs, and signed and approved plats for new developments. State Senator, US Senator and future Mayor of Portland, Joseph Simon was a charter member. County commissioner Ralph W. Hoyt, after whom Hoyt Arboretum is named, was also a charter member.
One of the most interesting charter members was Bemer S. Pague, “Weather Prophet” Pague. Pague was born in 1862 in Pennsylvania, and joined the federal Weather Service in 1888. He established the Oregon Weather Service shortly thereafter, and in 1897 published Weather Forecasting and Weather Types on the North Pacific Slope. Through careful rain collection data, he established that Oregon wasn’t as wet as everyone thought it to be, and worked to encourage migration to Oregon, which needed greater population. As a weatherman in charge of meteorological instruments, Pague was a clever mechanic, and like the Wright Bros., it’s not surprising he was attracted to bicycling technology – which we must remember was at this time leading edge! By 1899 Pague had become the President of the UWA. He was also an attorney, and a newpaper report says:
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.
Back of the Piedmont water-tank the repairing of this temporary path was done under the supervision of Mr. Pague, and the most timid wheelmen can now ride through this very pretty path with perfect security. The association is organized to help wheelmen and further cycling interests, and for that alone. Already something has been accomplished, and with the aid of all those who ride, cycle paths in every direction will soon be in order.
Here’s a photo taken about 1899 of the water tower. It was located at the intersection of Williams and Portland Boulevard. The path in the foreground is the cycle path, I believe. This might be the first photo of a Portland cycle path!
In addition to residents, the developers themselves had an interest in the cycle paths. George H. Durham was a charter member of the UWA, was one of the original investors in Woodlawn, and also an investor in the Portland and Vancouver Railway. Durham street is named after him. (Ralph L. Durham -Similarly, Frank Dekum (of Dekum street and the Dekum building) was an investor in Woodlawn and the Portland and Vancouver Railway. Though I have not yet been able to tie him directly to the UWA, it’s clear that just as today developers wanted robust connections from their developments to the rest of the city. Whether it’s the tram, the streetcar, or max, innovative transportation works in concert with development. The success of the two Vancouver routes suggests that the greater number of stakeholders, from residents of the neighborhood, like B. S. Pague, or developers of the neighborhood like G. H. Durham, helped to ensure that more people would work on the paths, more people would invest in the paths, and more people would use the paths.
Over the remainder of 1897, the UWA immediately began working on two main questions, and several smaller ones. They began to work on smaller path projects, most notably one on east 28th and one in Sellwood. More generally, they tried to get City Council to pass an ordinance to license or tax all bicycles in the city and using the fees to build more bicycle paths. At least three times in 1897 City Council refused to pass the law. The UWA was more effective in ensuring that during the rainy months, bicyclists would be able to ride on the sidewalks downtown. City Council considered making riding on the sidewalks illegal, but bicyclists were successful in retaining the privilege from November through May.
By the end of the summer, published accounts suggest that 800 people paid for the Vancouver routes, but 6000 use it. The disproportion between folks who paid and those who did not distressed those who had stepped up to support the work. Moreover, there are gaps in the system, and not every path is continuous. Volunteer efforts weren’t always fully coordinated, and fund-raising sometimes spotty. It was clear that Government authority and coordination was desirable.
1898 – The Expansive Vision of a Mt. Hood Trail and Turning to the State
Nevertheless, even in the face of problems with the DIY system, some path advocates were thinking big, really big. Colonel L.L. Hawkins pressed for a cycle path continuous to Mt. Hood. It was to be a grand route for recreation.
What wheelmen can accomplish when all unite on an object is well illustrated in the success Colonel L. L. Hawkins is meeting with in the prosecution of his plan to build a path to Mount Hood. What two years ago would have seemed an impossibility is now in a fair way of accomplishment. Prominent bicyclists all over the state have expressed their willingness to help in this enterprise, and there is no doubt that in a very few weeks will see it well under way.
The article goes on to detail donations, prizes, and races that will be part of the fund-raising.
There’s also a great map with the article. It shows routes out of town along Base Line, Section Line, and Powell Valley roads, out to Gresham, and then ways up to Mount Hood via Sandy, Welch, and Government Camp.
The scheme was too ambitious and the path was never completed.
More soberly, voices asked for a path to Oregon City via Sellwood. The United Wheelmen’s Association has about 600 members in the fall of 1898. They posted members at Mt. Tabor reservoir and the Piedmont water tower to corral subscriptions from bicyclists not yet members. Just how “persuasive” they had to be is not entirely clear!
Meanwhile, the Oregon Road Club decided that they wanted to be a state-wide organization rather than a Portland-centric one. In December they adopted a legislative agenda and sent copies of proposed bills to the House and Senate leadership, the Governor, and Governor-elect. Their agenda was not specifically for bikes, but the road improvements and road funding would certainly benefit bicyclists.
The United Wheelmen’s Association also had an agenda. B.S. Pague was in charge of it, and it ultimately was the one passed. Its centerpiece was a bicycle tax.
It was key that the incoming Governor was himself a bicyclist. On June 29, 1898 the Oregonian announced “Geer has a Wheel” and talked about his intent to ride to and from the Capitol on his bike. In 1911 Geer himself wrote about riding to Champoeg in 1900 to locate the site of the historic 1843 meeting to decide whether Oregon should become a Territory and form a provisional government. He lived on a farm about 8 miles out of Salem in the Waldo Hills. Sometimes he also rode his bike to pick up the mail. The farm he purchased in 1877, and just a few years later he was elected to the state legislature. After a decade he was Speaker of the House, and soon the Governor.
1899 and the Bicycle Tax
The bicycle tax was passed on February 18, 1899. It provided for the collection of $1.25 on each bicycle, the display of a numbered tag on each bike, and for the proceeds to go toward the construction of cycle paths.
It had become clear that local, uncoordinated efforts could command neither sufficient capital nor a coordinated workforce, and that the larger powers of the state would be necessary to create meaningful infrastructure. Support was broad. Bike dealer Fred Merrill took out ads disputing rumors that he opposed the tax. Some merchants offered to pay the tax for purchasers of new bicycles. They understood that more infrastructure would generate more bicyclists and more demand for bicycles.
By the end of 1899 about 10,000 tags had been sold in Multnomah county. The monies funded work on five main paths. Additional work on the Vancouver road path, paths on Willamette and Portland Boulevards to St. Johns, the Base Line path to Gresham, the Section Line path to Gresham, and the northern leg of the Oregon City path along SE 11th & Milwaukie road to Sellwood.
In July, a reporter described 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.
Even with state and county resources – or perhaps even because of the greater funds involved – developers remained important, just as they had been in Woodlawn and Piedmont. A large number of payments from the 1899 law went to Aaron H. Maegly. Maegly was married in Jackson county in 1885, and by 1888 had started selling plots in his “Maegly Highlands” subdivision. It was bounded on the south by Prescott, on the north by Alberta, on the east by Union, and the west by Vancouver road. It’s possible that he worked on or promoted the Woodlawn and Piedmont paths as well, but thus far I haven’t found any records of this. But there are records for his work in 1899. Maegly later build a grand Italianate house on 226 SW Kingston, which today is on the National Register of Historic Places. He also built the Maegly-Tichner building, at 610 SW Broadway. It is clear that developers remained interested in providing good transportation infrastructure connecting their developments to the central city.
While drawing conclusions over the four year interval from 1896 to 1899 may invoke the usual caveats about “small sample size,” nonetheless some patterns emerge, and I am eager to test these as I continue my research. Proposed cycle paths whose destinations were primarily recreational, like the White House path and the Mount Hood path, were not completed. Paths that linked residential communities to the city core were generally completed. The pragmatic business of getting people to and from work attracted more investment in time and money than the prospects of recreation. Moreover, developers had vested interests in promoting their subdivisions, and saw cycle paths and the transportation infrastructure as significant benefits to new residents. The capital and labor requirements of the path building were ultimately to big for do-it-yourself enterprise, and required larger entities to fund, administer, and coordinate. Finally, DIY funding and work parties led to a grossly unequal distribution of the burden, and questions about “fairness,” led bicyclists to desire an impartial authority to oversee collection of user fees. The Bicycle Tax of 1899 answered at least some of these concerns.
Bicyclist Road Map, Portland District – Main image and details, Bicycle Transportation Alliance
Portland Paving Map, 1894 – Main image and details, Portland Bureau of Planning, Historic Resources
Graph of “Relative Usage of Transportation Modes in Portland” – Reprinted in E. Kimbark MacColl, The Shaping of a City: Business and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1885 – 1915.
White House Photo – Courtesy of Lake Oswego Public Library
Piedmont Water Tower Photo – Reprinted in Portland Bureau of Planning, Woodlawn Neighborhood Plan, 1993
County Road Postcard – Personal Collection of Evelyn McDaniel Gibb, reprinted in Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909.
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