A little over a year ago, Representative Patrick McHenry (R-NC) called the bicycle a “19th century solution” for “21st century problems.” He thought of it as antiquated and essentially a toy. He might not have known that a little over a century ago, before the auto’s ascendance, the bicycle was leading edge technology, more like an iPhone than a Schwinn Sting-Ray. Many leaders in government enjoyed bicycling for transportation and for recreation. Residents of Salem and Marion county enjoyed a lively bicycle culture, and the Oregon Legislature even passed a law to create a state-wide network of bicycle paths. Today no one remembers the law or the paths.
The Bike Craze in Salem
Bikes were hugely popular in the 1890s and it might surprise you who biked and where they biked. These early bicyclists were remarkable. Many were or became pillars in the community. Traces of them are all around downtown.
Ben Taylor was likely the first owner of a bicycle in Salem. He liked speed. Reflecting on his life in 1934, he observed that in 1880 he was working at Grey’s Iron Works, where he helped make the first bicycle in Salem. His “penny farthing” was iron and heavy, and had a 48 inch front wheel. He rode “over the dusty, rutty roads out to the Waldo Hills.” In 1887 he became one of the first letter carriers in Salem and delivered mail on bike. (Here’s another photo.) He also brought to Salem the first modern bike with equal-sized wheels, the first motorcycle, and in 1909 and 1910 built the first airplanes in Salem.
Children also biked – and sometimes saw what they shouldn’t see! Daniel J. Fry, Jr., lived on Gaiety Hill at 606 High street in one of Salem’s oldest houses, built in 1859. Towards the end of his life he talked about watching prostitutes on Ferry street from his bicycle. He added that prostitution “was a legal profession at that time”!
Of course, it wasn’t just kids or prostitutes who biked. Many early bicyclists were or became leaders and government officials. Often they owned bicycle shops.
The artist and photo-secessionist Myra Albert Wiggins was a member of an important family cluster of bicyclists. Her brother Joseph Albert, and husband Fred Wiggins, were members of the Salem Cycle Association. Her mother was a Holman, a member of the family whose downtown building had hosted the Oregon Legislature before the first capitol was built. Her father was an important Salem banker. Her husband Fred owned an early department store, and sold bicycles in addition to heavy farm equipment. Myra and Fred met because of bicycling!
Winfield Taylor Ridgon was also a member of the Salem Cycle Association. Before he was in the mortuary business, he had been a State Legislator for Jefferson. He founded his mortuary in 1891 and was on the Salem City Council in 1894.
One of the guests at the Albert-Wiggins wedding was Otto Wilson. In 1920 Otto J. Wilson, Sr., was Mayor of Salem. Long before he was selling Buicks, and even before he brought the first auto to Salem, Wilson was selling bicycles. His shop was at 447 Court Street NE, where the Christian Science reading room is today. A decade later he built the building that Santiam Bicycle currently occupies, at 388 Commercial Street NE for his auto business.
Just around the corner from the site of Wilson’s old shop is the Arthur H. Moore building, at 241-245 High street, right across from the transit mall. The history is tricky and tangled, but it appears that Frank J. Moore started a bike shop around 1900 and about a decade later moved to the spot that Wilson had vacated when he started selling cars (the current site of Santiam Bicycle today). About 1912, Moore sold his business to Arthur H. Moore, son of the Oregon Supreme Court Justice, Frank A. Moore (but no relation to Frank J. Moore). In 1923 Moore build the building on High and moved his business around the corner. Moore became a City Councilman in the 1940s. Ranch Records just moved into the Moore building.
A recent Willamette grad in 1902, and a prominent bicycle racer, Watt Shipp joined Paul Hauser in another bike shop. Hauser was City Treasurer from 1936-1954. Shipp & Hauser sold bicycles and by a series of incremental ownership changes, the business eventually became Andersons Sporting Goods.
In addition to founding the bike shop that carries his name, Harry W. Scott sat on the Salem School Board and then the State Board of Education. It’s almost certain that more people in Salem have bought their bikes from Scott’s than from any other bike shop. Founded in 1914 at 147 Commercial Street SE, Scott’s Cycle is the oldest continuously operating bike shop in Salem.
Down the block at 120 Commercial Street NE is Alessandro’s Ristorante and Galleria. Long before Roger Yost purchased the building and updated it so nicely, the building housed Buren & Hamilton House Furnishers, where Max Buren sold bicycles. The Bike Peddler is just down the Street today.
Salem bicyclists regularly rode to Portland, and Portland cyclists to Salem. In May 1897, the Oregonian noted that “Sunday was a perfect day for the ambitious rider, and about 50 pulled out for Aurora and Salem at all hours of the morning.”
Bicycling even touched the Capitol building. To the west of the Capitol, in Willson Park, larger then than it is today, bicyclists built a track, and raced frequently in the 1890s, especially on the 4th of July.
Salem’s most distinguished bicyclist must surely be Governor Thurston T. Geer. His family had come to Oregon in the 1840s, and the Geercrest farm on Sunnyview is still operated today by family members. In 1877 he purchased a farm on State street in the hills above Maccleay. In 1898 when, as Governor-elect, he purchased his first bicycle, the event was headline news: “Geer Has a Wheel.” He learned to ride in two sessions, and proclaimed he “intends, for six months in a year, to make the trips to and from the state capitol awheel.” Today the only visible trace of his own farm is a large outbuilding on the south side of the road at about the 10000 block of State street. Geer used his bike for longer trips, too. In May 1900, Geer biked from Salem to Champoeg for the new Oregon Historical Society to locate the site of the 1843 meeting where the very first pioneers decided to form a territorial government.
Good Roads & Bad Roads
Geer had made the trip to Champoeg in the spring with good weather. Writing about it he said:
It was a perfect day, with a firm north breeze, not a cloud in the sky; the roads were in good condition, the crops were growing splendidly, birds were singing everywhere, seemingly to be in harmony with Nature’s glad mood – it was, in short, just that sort of day which is known in all its wealth of joy, beauty, and inspiration only in the Willamette valley in the spring and summer months.
But he was all too familiar with awful roads.
Drivers and bicyclists today are conditioned to pavement, and it’s easy to forget that for much of the first half of the twentieth century many roads weren’t paved. In the earliest days of bicycling, as long as the “penny farthing” was the main style of bicycle, bicycling was a sport for young men, more like today’s extreme sports than road touring or bicycle commuting.
Recalling an early bicycle ride to Mt. Hood with Otto J. Wilson, Sr., Max Buren used the popular slogan – the roads “were almost impassable – some of them were scarcely jackassable.” In winter and spring, roads were deep in thick, gooey mud, and had “degenerated into a series of chuckholes, broken corduroy and trails,” often fertilized with livestock droppings.
Geer’s inaugural address of 1899 addressed this condition:
Few questions demand more serious consideration at your hands than the enactment of some system that will give our people better roads….Our present road laws… amount to a mere travesty on the object for which they were intended.
Sadly, Geer was not able to unify the rural-urban split to enact a reliable funding mechanism for roads. This had to wait until 1919.
In the meantime, in 1899 Oregonians tried an experiment. They passed legislation the Woodburn Independent happily noted was for “paths along county roads for the accommodation of cyclists and pedestrians.” Bicyclists hoped to enjoy the best roadways in the state.
The Cycle Path Legislation & Planning
In February 1899, Geer signed the “cycle path” legislation. Between 1899 and 1900 Marion County selected ten different routes for improved bicycle paths and imposed a $1.25 tax on each bicycle, with a license tag affixed to the bike as proof of payment. The bicycle paths would be better than most roads, and because they would be so attractive, the law needed provisions to prohibit carts, buggies, and wagons from driving on the paths.
Nevertheless there was controversy, much in the outer county. In March the Woodburn Independent feared that “we now have such cities as Salem already scheming to hog all the money…it is not to be expected that the rest of Marion county will remain in placid humor while such antics are being played.” Citizens of Silverton submitted a petition asking that any construction start from Silverton rather than from Salem. They wanted taxes collected in Silverton to benefit Silverton riders first.
The tax amount was not trivial. New bikes generally cost between $30 and $50, and used bikes between $5 and $10. A men’s suit could be had for $10 or $15, and a year’s worth of tuition at Willamette University was $45 in 1899. $1.25 was around a half-day’s wages for an average laborer.
Bicycle clubs often selected the routes. The United Association of Cycle Clubs of Marion County, with representatives from Salem, Chemawa, Marion, Enger (an old name for Pratum), Silverton, and Jefferson, as well as the Salem Cycle Association helped with planning.
The County gave great care to the effort. County Surveyor, Byron B. Herrick, Jr., executed surveys for the paths with the same care he gave to roads and property lines. The final selection of routes shows the importance of these outer farm communities. The paths would run between:
Salem and Aurora
Salem and Turner
Jefferson and Turner
Salem and Silverton
North Salem and the Wheatland Ferry along Matheny Road
I.O.O.F (Pioneer) Cemetery and the Liberty Store along Commercial & Liberty
the Fair Grounds and the Howell Prairie Post Office
Pratum and Silverton Road
Brooks and Silverton
The Butte Creek Bridge at Monitor and Woodburn.
To make connections within city limits, in May of 1899 the Salem Cycle Association designated Winter street as part of the main north-south bicycle route in Salem. It was to connect two of the cycle paths, one to Aurora, the other to Jefferson. Winter Street remains an important route today, highlighted on the 2006 Salem-Keizer Bicycle Map.
Building the Paths – Family Connections
I believe the first path built was the Salem to Mehama route. It followed the course of Old Mehama Road. Historian Roy L. Stout called Mehama’s hotel a “popular resort for vacationers” from Salem, and in the mid-1890s travel ads for Mehama ran under ads for Newport in the Statesman and Capital Journal.
Towards the end of June in 1899, Road Supervisor John W. Irvine had completed work on the Stayton-Mehama portion of the Mehama path. The Mehama route appears to have benefited from family connections. Irvine was the son-in-law of County Judge Grover P. Terrell. Terrell’s wife, Emma Smith, was the daughter of Mehama Smith, who with her husband, James X. Smith, had founded Mehama, originally known as Smiths’ Ferry, in 1876. They operated the ferry across the Santiam river as well as the Smith hotel. Terrell operated the store in Mehama. The hotel and store are visible in this early photograph. One can’t help but wonder if speeding vacation traffic to the hotel and store guided the construction!
Throughout the summer of 1899 work continued on the other paths. (In the future I hope to have a more detailed essay on path-by-path progress.)
After Optimism, Suspicion
There were no statewide road standards, and some criticized the quality of the paths. In the fall of 1899, the Woodburn Independent claimed, “the county court has taken the Marion county wheelmen’s tax money and given the latter mighty poor excuse for bicycle paths.” Unlike in Multnomah county, for example, the paths in Marion county were often not graded and graveled, and the dirt paths were subject to the same mud as the roads.
In Salem feelings ran similarly. The Statesman noted in early 1900, “last year Marion county wheelmen paid the tax quite readily, but the manner of cycle path construction was quite unsatisfactory, which resulted in a refusal this year on the part of the great majority of the wheelmen to pay the tax.” Many bicyclists resented the tax. Marion County bicyclists registered only a third of the bicycles that they registered in 1899, despite a significant increase in cycling. The New York Times had reported in 1898 that League of American Wheelmen president Isaac B. Potter “considered it just as sensible as to tax boots and shoes for wearing the sidewalks, and he called it a tax on the only kind of vehicle that does no injury whatever to the roads.” A Multnomah county bicyclist felt similarly and filed suit. The courts found the law unconstitutional.
While the suit was pending, in May 1900 the County Commissioners ordered Sheriff Frank W. Durbin to stop collecting funds. The Woodburn paper also made insinuations about Durbin, remarking on skimming, graft, buying votes, and “boodle purposes.”
I haven’t been able yet to determine whether Durbin was crooked. His obituaries don’t say much about his time as Sheriff, and give several different dates, all of which are wrong. The election of 1900 was highly contested, with his opponents accusing him of misusing tax monies in several different ways. Durbin won a plurality by only 76 votes (2686 to 2610) according to returns printed in the papers. On the surface it looks like it was a time best not asked too closely about. He lived in the Court-Chemeketa Historic District, and his house still stands today. (This too I hope will be a forthcoming essay.)
In 1901 the Oregon legislature passed a new law to remedy the old, but while other counties continued to work on the cycle paths, Marion County refunded money, and appears to have stopped building paths. Again, the contrast with Multnomah county is interesting: Around Portland they continued to build, but around Salem the county lost interest.
Bicycling is for Kids
Statewide it had been a grand experiment, though more of a noble failure perhaps in Marion county than elsewhere.
Nationally automobile sales didn’t equal bicycle sales until 1913, and the growth of the auto was slower than people often think. It took about 20 years for auto ownership rates to equal the bicycle ownership rate in 1900.
Photos in the early 19-teens show a jumble of vehicles in the streets, and the Salem Brewery Association could advertise with an anagram on vehicular choice:
Some people ride the bicycle,
And some in autos course.
Life is full of mixed desire.
Elect then what you most desire.
My choice remains the horse.
But when in source of pure delight,
Effervescent clear and bright,
Everyone can read the cheer
Right in these printed verses here.
The numbers confirm this picture of different options. For Oregon, in 1911 there were 6,428 autos registered, growing to 66,826 in 1918. By comparison, in 1900 the total population of Oregon was 413,536, and about 40,000 bicycles. In 1920, Oregon’s population was 783,389.
In 1919 the Legislature passed the nation’s first gasoline tax. This provided the first stable funding source for roads. At the same time the story of the bicycle was being rewritten as a story for kids, a way to prepare them for the driver’s license, or a story of second-class transportation for those who could not afford the first-class pleasures of the auto.
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Based on a work at fortunaerota.wordpress.com.