[Talk given to the inaugural session of the Oregon Scenic Bikeways Committee, at Travel Oregon HQ, on January 21]
The Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway has only been around since 2005 and the concept of a bikeway might seem pretty new.
But in fact, Oregon has had people working on scenic bikeways since at least 1896, more than a century ago.
In Oregon’s sesquicentennial year, we should think about Oregon’s first Golden Age of cycling.
To understand bicycling between about 1890 and 1910, you have to understand something about road conditions. Pavement was exceedingly rare. Gravel wasn’t even that common. Mud prevailed, especially in winter. The mud was thick, gloppy, and fertilized by livestock droppings. It was stinky, and sometimes 12 or even 18 inches deep. When the Oregon Highway Commission was established in 1913, its first motto was “Get Oregon out of the Mud!”
Long before 1913, however, bicyclists led the efforts to improve road surfaces. In 1891 the League of American Wheelmen published The Gospel of Good Roads. They sold over a million copies, which was at the time an impressive number. In 1895 bicyclists led the effort to build the nation’s first “cycle path,” a dedicated bicycle & pedestrian road on Coney Island. ARTBA, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, was formed in 1902 by a former president of the League of American Wheelmen.
This first iteration of the “good roads” movement was a mixed success, and local wheelmen turned from roads to dedicated “cycle paths.” Oregon’s first one might have been along Macadam Avenue. In 1896 it was also known as Riverside Drive or the White House Road. This White House didn’t have an oval office, but it did have an oval track! It was located south of Portland, just across from Milwaukie, and below the hillside neighborhood of Dunthorpe. Bicyclists sometimes raced on the track, but more often horses raced there. The 1896 bicycle map of the Portland district contains several references to the cycle path out to the White House.
It’s not clear whether the path was completed, and the following year, bicyclists realized they needed to band together to accomplish more. In May 1897, leading citizens of Portland, representing the League of American Wheelmen, the Mazamas, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club, the Oregon Road Club, and the Zig-Zag Club created the United Wheelmen’s Association. It started to lobby for city and state efforts.
That same year the League of American Wheelmen published the Road Book of Oregon. It contained 60 routes throughout the state, arranged in tabular form. It had mileage, road conditions, directions, landmarks and bike-friendly businesses. In the back was a State map with routes marked in red.
Some bicyclists were especially interested in a route to Mt. Hood. Col. L. L. Hawkins promoted this route in 1897 and 1898. Even today there are dormant plans to extend the Springwater corridor out to Mt. Hood! We remember Hawkins as a leader in Portland parks and the chauffer for the 1903 Olmsted report.
Governor Geer was almost certainly the most important figure in Oregon cycling. His purchase of a wheel was headline news in 1898. During the session he commuted 8 miles each way from his farm to the state Capitol! In May 1900, he rode from Salem to Champoeg to locate the site of the 1843 Territorial meeting for the Oregon Historical Society. Today a white obelisk marks the spot.
On February 18, 1899 he also signed the first Cycle Path legislation that funded and built more of the cycle paths. Paths were envisioned in Yamhill county, all through wine country; in Clatsop county from Astoria to Seaside; in Marion county through French Prarie and out to the rural farming communities like Aurora, Silverton, Mehama, and Jefferson. As you might imagine, Multnomah county had the largest network, connecting Vancouver to Oregon City, Gresham to downtown Portland.
Though we think of the auto as killing the bike, bicycling remained popular, and the rise of the auto was slower than you’d think. The first auto came to Portland in 1899, to Salem in 1903, and to the small rural community of Pratum in 1912. Auto ownership didn’t equal bicycle ownership until 1916 or 1919. In 1909 Ray Francisco and Vic McDaniel rode bikes from Santa Rosa, California to Seattle for the Alaska-Yukon exposition and fair. In 1910, the Salem Brewery 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.
Still, the auto’s popularity was rising. It was convenient, fast, and thrilling. In 1913 the Cycle Path legislation was repealed and the State Highway Commission established. In 1916 the first portions of the Columbia River Highway were opened. And in 1919 Oregon passed the nation’s first gasoline tax, ensuring a stable base for road building and repair.
Finally, the slow decline began. What had been leading edge ground transportation technology became known as a kids’ toy, and a way to prepare them for the automobile. As a toy, it was second-class transportation, used by only those adults who couldn’t afford first-class transport. Bicycling’s popularity surged again a couple of times, during the Depression and World War II, and a third time in the late 60s and 70s.
Now we’re in the fourth bike boom. Hopefully this time it will stick!
Oregon Scenic Bikeways and the First Golden Age of Cycling by fortunaerota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at fortunaerota.wordpress.com.