Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Vincent Fraley


Since the nineteenth century, bicycles have enamored the American public as tools of transportation, sport, exercise, and joy. The Philadelphia area has been intimately connected with the development of the two-wheeled, human-powered machine from its early appearance in North America to the adoption of bike-share programs and the blazing of interstate trail networks in the twenty-first century.

The first two-wheeler in Pennsylvania was crafted by a blacksmith in Germantown from the parts of a threshing machine in 1819, at the request of artist and antiquarian Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). Technically a French-invented “velocipede,” the machine lacked a chain-drive transmission and brakes among other accoutrements. Peale, then nearly eighty years old, encouraged his sons and daughters to ride the 55-pound iron juggernaut and noted how they were able to travel—downhill, at least—“with a swiftness that dazzles the sight.” Not everyone was as enthusiastic. The same year that Peale acquired his velocipede, Philadelphia issued the first citation for riding on the city’s sidewalks, a spoke-stopping $3 fine. Even the museum proprietor soon lost interest in the heavy, ungainly two-wheeler.

[caption id="attachment_27853" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of two women in nineteenth century costumes riding "ordinary" bicycles. “Ordinary” bicycles featured a very large front wheel that was used to both propel and steer the vehicle. They were supplanted by the “safety” bicycle, which more closely resembled the modern design, in the 1890s. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

This changed, however, with Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Among the varied exhibits was the English-designed “ordinary,” a machine with dissimilar wheel diameters that perched the rider several feet off ground. Spectators gathered to see this mechanical oddity in action, deftly demonstrated by Philadelphian John Keen. This was the high-wheel’s first public unveiling in the United States. As “ordinaries” became more widely available by the end of the decade, well-to-do riders gathered to socialize and formed local clubs, including the Philadelphia Bicycle Club (founded in 1879), the city’s first. The club promoted “the proper use of the bicycle and similar machines [as] a benefit to good health” and fellowship among cycling enthusiasts. Members shared advice on navigating gravel, dirt, or cobblestone roads that were also thronged with horses, carriages, and pedestrians. Members donned dandyish livery consisting of navy-blue flannel shirts trimmed in linen, brown corduroy breeches, and navy-blue knee stockings— – which served to invite even more ridicule by the press and public. Undaunted, similar associations formed in neighborhoods and towns across the region, from Ardmore’s Cycle and Field Club to the Wissahickon Wheelmen.

Safety Issues

[caption id="attachment_27856" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white illustration of the Ardmore Field and Cycle Club, a large victorian-style house with a prominent front porch and windmill. The Philadelphia Bicycle Club, the first of its kind in the city, was founded in 1879. Ten years later, this clubhouse was built in nearby Ardmore for use by its members. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While the “ordinary” provided a much more controlled and enjoyable ride than its velocipede forebears, the machine remained extraordinarily unsafe due to the high center of gravity required of its riders. “Taking a header” by vaulting headfirst over the handlebars was a common accident befalling non-helmeted high-wheel operators. 

It was not until the early years of the 1890s that, following innovations such as chain-drive transmissions, pneumatic tires, and reduced height, the Philadelphia area shifted into its first bike boom. Like the “ordinary,” these “safety” bicycles were publicly unveiled in the United States for the first time in Philadelphia, in 1891. With a marked decrease in the chances of cracking one’s cranium, a much shallower learning curve for operation, and a smaller price tag, these “safeties” provided a variety of riders— professionals, laborers, men, women— with a democratic means of travel, recreation, and sport.

Although many of the earliest cycling clubs were founded by and for men, the “wheel” of the 1890s became an engine of emancipation for women. “The new means of propulsion has found especial favor with the advanced and progressive femininity of the present age,” wrote Philadelphia historian Julius Friedrich Sachse (1842-1919) in 1896. “No class of persons has taken more readily to the wheel than the new or strong-minded woman.”

[caption id="attachment_27857" align="alignright" width="233"]a color illustration of a woman in a brown dress and straw hat riding a bicycle. She carries a book or magazine in one hand. Text reads "Lippincott's July" Bicycling became especially popular with women, who found a new sense of independence in the sport. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the 1890s, custom confined many women to corsets, long gowns, and other voluminous garments, modes of dress wholly unsuitable for riding. For “New Woman” cyclists, this was far more than a sartorial or safety issue: this was a matter of sovereignty. If women could not determine something as personal as their own clothes, how could they demand public rights, such as getting the vote? Clad in divided skirts, knickerbockers, and bloomers, these “belles of the boulevard” stirred a national controversy. “Thoughtful people … believe that the bicycle will accomplish more for women’s sensible dress than all the reform movements that have ever been waged,” observed an 1895 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine.

New manufacturing methods, many of which foreshadowed the assembly-line production techniques of the twentieth century, brought the price of bicycles within reach of millions of Americans. Demand sparked the rise (and fall) of several dozen bicycle manufacturers in the greater Philadelphia area alone, including Philadelphia’s Sweeting Cycle Company, Reading’s Packer Cycle Co., and the Haverford Cycle Company. Even the department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838-1922) joined the craze, with his 1897 Falcon model a particular hit. Like any new industry boom, a handful of upstarts flourished while many floundered. Founded in 1892, Philadelphia’s Common Sense Bicycle Manufacturing Company proved to be anything but, as the company folded the following year.

Mapping Routes

For a sense of the popularity of riding, consider that, beginning in 1896, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of bicycle routes, complete with a hand-drawn map, a narrative describing road conditions and landmarks of cultural or historical significance riders would encounter, and a coupon offering discounts on hotels and restaurants along the way. Many routes were confined to Philadelphia— such as “Philadelphia, Darby and Chester, A Pleasant 15-Mile Spin”—while others— “Harrisburg to Lewistown, En Route to Pittsburg”— crisscrossed the central and western regions of the state.

From the 1890s through the 1920s, a golden age of bicycle racing captivated millions of Americans, while men, women, and children used their two-wheelers for leisurely jaunts and exercise. Local printers and cartographers, cashing in on the craze, produced guides advising cyclists on the best way to navigate the region’s roughed and rumbled streets. In tandem with electric streetcars, the bicycle also upended business practices from mail delivery to police work. By 1894, only Chicago and New York had more bicycle-bound uniformed patrolmen than Philadelphia. So popular was the machine that, the following year, more than fifty thousand buggy and carriage horses were no longer needed in the City of Brotherly— and Bicycle— Love.

[caption id="attachment_27852" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of a young man and woman riding bicycles in Fairmount Park The “safety” bicycle was first unveiled in the United States in 1891. After World War II, bicycles became most associated with youths who could not yet drive an automobile. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

While the “safety” bicycle lived up to its name in many ways, the region’s dilapidated road network posed great challenges to cyclists, whether they were racing or commuting. To smooth out the city’s rutted roads, the Associated Cycling Clubs of Philadelphia (ACCP) published two pamphlets, “Improvement of City Streets” and “Highway Improvement,” in support of bicycle-friendly infrastructure projects, including macadamized surfaces. Petitions in favor of constructing bicycle paths in Fairmount were put to park commissioners as early as 1897. That same year, ACCP president William Tucker (1845-1930) petitioned Philadelphia’s Department of Public Safety to consider a “more careful and systematic use of water upon the highways” to reduce roads’ wheel-choking mud.

During the 1920s, public interest in cycling waned as automobiles— rendered affordable through many of the same manufacturing methods previously applied to bicycle production— emerged as the vehicle of choice for excitement, speed, and convenience. Gasoline rationing during the Second World War sparked a brief renaissance in bicycle-riding, but nothing approximating the near-hysteria of earlier decades. In the post-war period, the bicycle became primarily associated with children’s recreation, popularly conceived of as a vehicular prelude to owning an automobile.

During the environmental activism of the 1970s— marked by an increased concern over pollution produced by gas-guzzling four-wheelers— cyclists formed the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition (PBC). In an effort to make the city more bicycle-friendly, the PBC campaigned for funding of bicycle infrastructure, sponsored city-wide rides, and produced publications such as 1974’s Commuters' Bike Map for Philadelphia. The organization scored its first major victory in 1973, working with the Delaware River Port Authority to open the Benjamin Franklin bridge walkways to pedestrians and bicyclists, overturning a prohibition that had been in effect since 1950.

The Push for Bike Lanes

By the 1990s, municipalities began to designate bike lanes on city streets. In 1993, the PBC and Mayor Ed Rendell (b. 1944) planned for a 300-mile network of bike lanes and bicycle-friendly streets. Although the plan was never formally adopted, Philadelphia’s first bike lanes were installed two years later on a half-mile stretch of Delaware Avenue. Also in the 1990s, one of the PBC’s successful programs became a separate non-profit organization, Neighborhood Bike Works, and the citywide Philly Bike Ride began in 2009 and continued annually. Also in 2009, as the use of bicycles for commuting continued to grow in popularity, the PBC— renamed the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia in 2002— worked to install buffered bike lanes on the major east-west arteries of Spruce and Pine Streets. Bicycle paths along Fairmount Avenue and along the Schuylkill Banks followed in 2013 and 2014. Central New Jersey unveiled buffered bike lanes in Cherry Hill in 2013, while Delaware–which the League of American Bicyclists named the third most bicycle-friendly state in the country in 2015–began construction of bike lanes along West and Washington Streets stretching from north Wilmington to the Riverfront in 2017.

[caption id="attachment_27855" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of a man and a woman riding blue rental bicycles in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s Indego bike share program launched in the spring of 2015 with sixty docking stations scattered throughout the city. By the end of that year, the program’s six hundred bicycles had been rented nearly half a million times. (Photograph by M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the region around Philadelphia, a consortium of organizations and municipalities created a trail network along the Schuylkill River from former carriage pathways, canal towpaths, and railroad corridors. Alternately called the Philadelphia to Valley Forge Bikeway and the Valley Forge Bikeway, the trail’s first stretch opened in 1979, spanning from Whitemarsh to downtown Philadelphia, following the right-of-way rail trails of the former Schuylkill Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Further extensions of the trail during the 1980s included a 4.3-mile section in Montgomery County and the completed connection between Philadelphia to Valley Forge National Historic Park. Beginning in 2012, the renamed Schuylkill River Trail became integrated into the Circuit Trail project, part of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s plan to create a single network of 750 miles of trails across nine counties in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. By 2016, more than 60 miles of the Schuylkill River Trail had been completed, with a planned goal of 130 miles connecting Philadelphia to Pottsville, linking the region’s urban, suburban and rural communities.

In 2009, the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail was completed, linking Wilmington, Alapocas Run, and Bellevue state parks between the Delaware and Brandywine Rivers. The trail network, part of the larger East Coast Greenway project, spanned more than forty miles between Wilmington and the Maryland border. Upon completion, the East Coast Greenway was slated to run from Maine to Florida.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, several cities in the Philadelphia region adopted bike-share programs to promote fuel-conscious travelling. Philadelphia’s Indego, launched in 2015, generated a larger ridership in its first year than similar programs in Boston, Washington D.C., and Denver. By 2016, Camden County and Collingswood instituted bike-share programs. In a 2016 survey conducted by Bicycling, the world's leading cycling magazine, Philadelphia ranked as the fifteenth-most bike-friendly city in the United States, the culmination of a trend stretching back to the early enthusiasm of Charles Willson Peale and his children for the velocipede in the nineteenth century. The city’s Naked Bike Ride, first staged in 2010, again displayed the machine’s power of liberation. One of the largest such outings in the country, the event promoted positive body image and bicycle advocacy with participants in considerably less rigid attire than their elaborately festooned counterparts in the region’s first cycling clubs.

Vincent Fraley is communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and writes the Philadelphia Inquirer’s weekly history column, Memory Stream.

Cycling (Sport)

The Philadelphia area’s connections to the sport of cycling have spanned nearly 200 years, reflecting its rise, decline, and resurgence in the United States. The region’s history of road, track, and all-terrain races began before the invention of the modern “bicycle” and continued into the twenty-first century with new variations of the sport and the annual Philadelphia International Cycling Classic.

Some of the earliest competitions in North America featuring two-wheeled, human-powered machines occurred in Philadelphia, where the French-invented “velocipede” became available to a limited extent in the early nineteenth century. Among the machine’s earliest American adopters was the artist and museum proprietor Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), whose sons and daughters informally raced “down hill like the very devil” on a 55-pound velocipede built by a Germantown blacksmith from a threshing machine. By the 1820s, however, the popularity of the velocipede faded in Philadelphia and in other American cities due to the machine’s expense and weight, lack of suitable roads, and harassment of riders by pedestrians and the public.

[caption id="attachment_25717" align="alignright" width="300"]Cyclists Gathering at Memorial Hall in 1885. Cyclists gather for an 1885 ride at Fairmount Park's Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia helped to set the stage for a new era of bicycle racing during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, where the displays included a British-designed high-wheel, a bicycle with an extraordinarily large front wheel and a plate-sized rear wheel. With frames often made of iron supported by wooden or heavy rubber tires, the rider perched precariously several feet off the ground. A visitor to the fair, Albert Pope of Boston (1843-1909), was transfixed by the machine’s potential. A former Union Army colonel and manufacturer of air pistols and cigarette-rolling machines, Pope soon thereafter retooled his business and by the 1890s became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of bicycles.

A Sport Emerges

Cycling as a sport emerged in the era between the invention of American football (1869) and basketball (1891). Philadelphia’s first organized road races took place in the early 1880s, several years after the first formal bicycle competition in the United States (commonly believed to have taken place in 1878 in Boston). Philadelphia’s cyclists furiously pedaled the machines popularly called “ordinaries” in early road races sponsored by cycling clubs. These voluntary associations were formed by avid wheelmen--and in some cases by women--in cities and towns across the country. The Philadelphia Bicycle Club, the city’s oldest, appeared in 1879, followed shortly by Ardmore’s Cycle and Field Club and the Frankford Club. By 1891, these organizations had become so numerous in the Philadelphia area that a Handbook of Cycling Clubs became a practical publishing venture. 

Racing in the early years demanded constant vigilance to avoid wagon wheel ruts, erratic ungulates, and edgy pedestrians crowding the primarily dirt and gravel roads. When not organizing and promoting races, many cycling clubs published advice on how to deal with these issues. “It is not always wise to dismount at once. To dismount suddenly is more likely to frighten a horse than continuing to ride slowly by, speaking to the horse as you do,” advised an 1888 Philadelphia Bicycle Club bulletin. “Foot passengers on the road should not be needlessly shouted at, but should always be given a good wide berth.” 

To smooth out the issue of jagged roads, the League of American Wheelmen–cycling’s organizational booster–became an early advocate for new construction. The first state law legislating aid for road construction passed in New Jersey in 1891. Ostensibly intended to benefit carriages and horse-drawn streetcars, the improved road surfaces also became a boon to cyclists who sped to the Garden State for the annual twenty-five-mile run from Irvington to Millburn and other road races. Beginning in 1894, the New York Times Tri-State Relay linked New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in a 150-mile race that began at the newspaper’s office in Manhattan and wended south through Trenton and Philadelphia before finishing in Riverton, New Jersey.

In addition to road racing, cyclists competed on tracks with smoother and safer surfaces. By the middle of the 1890s, an estimated one hundred dirt, cement, and wooden tracks dotted the country, including several in the Philadelphia area. Called velodromes, these tracks varied in distance, shape, degree of banking, and quality. Many wooden velodromes were temporary, constructed days before a race and razed thereafter from Logan Circle and other public spaces. Amateur and professional cyclists competed individually or as a team in sprint and endurance events.

Speed and Safety

[caption id="attachment_25718" align="alignright" width="300"]A Cyclist Nurses his Elbow after Crashing and Breaking his Bicycle’s Stem. Though the "safety" bicycle lived up to its moniker in many respects, the United States largely-unpaved road network in the late 19th century presented formidable challenges to those hoping to rely on the machine for commuting or intercity travel. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

During the final decade of the nineteenth century, improvements in bicycle technology together with manufacturers’ marketing campaigns spurred a bicycle mania and with it, expansion of the sport. Racing advanced from the “ordinary” to the “safety” bicycle. With their chain-drive transmission, pneumatic tires, and reduced height, safety bicycles allowed for greater speeds. By positioning the rider lower to the ground between two equal-sized wheels, the new machines reduced the chances of “taking a header” by vaulting over the handlebars during accidents, a common risk for “ordinary” cyclists.

At the zenith of the bicycle boom in the 1890s, cyclists competed for purses five times greater than the highest baseball player’s salary, and local and national newspapers detailed the styles and stratagems of professional “cracks” and “scorchers.” Interest in cycling spanned the globe, and in 1893, Camden-born Augustus Arthur Zimmerman (1869-1936) became the first American global cycling champion by winning the International Cycling Association’s inaugural world championship, held in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Columbian Exposition. Manufacturers of bicycles seized upon this broad public interest, developing marketing campaigns featuring product endorsements by prominent riders, a first in American athletics. Bicycle firms also pioneered in America the business practice of planned obsolescence on an industrial scale, whereby consumer goods are rendered obsolete shortly after being produced. For riders in the Philadelphia area, several dozen bicycle shops–including three located in the 800 block of Arch Street alone–hawked the latest frames, shoes, and other sundries.

Interest in cycling cut across racial lines, but for the most part, professional cycling mirrored prevailing racial tensions rather than surmounting them. Several state chapters of the League of American Wheelmen barred African Americans from joining, and white riders conspired to prevent Indiana-born Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878-1932), an African American and future world champion, from winning races. These incidents included a race at Philadelphia’s Woodside Track in 1897.

[caption id="attachment_25721" align="alignright" width="300"]External View of the Philadelphia Cycle and Field Club. The Philadelphia Cycle and Field Club, located in Ardmore, was a country house built in 1889, and it was strictly for Philadelphia Bicycle Club members. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Female cyclists also enthusiastically adopted the sport as an engine of emancipation as well as competition. However, white male cyclists dominated professional racing and banned women from professional cycling in 1902 following the death of a female rider during a circus cycling performance. Philadelphian Margaret Longstreth Corlies founded the Sedgeley Club, an organization for women interested in cycling, canoeing, and skating, in the 1880s. By 1903, the year Sedgeley’s Boathouse Row clubhouse was completed, Corlies described Sedgeley as one of the world's oldest athletic clubs for female cyclists.

Tests of Endurance

Through the 1890s and continuing into the 1920s, grueling and crash-ridden six-day races on tracks captivated cyclists and spectators. Limited to six days by laws that barred competitions on Sundays, the races had one simple rule: whoever covered the greatest distance in the allotted time won. The advantage went to the cyclists who could remain on the bikes the longest and sleep the least, shacking up in trackside cots and preparing food with portable stoves. Some cyclists used smelling salts and cocaine to remain awake and alert, leading to some of the earliest accusations of performance-enhancing chicanery. Crowds accumulated as the race wore on, producing a crescendo of cheer as the much-diminished pack of competitors completed their final laps 142 hours after the starter’s pistol rang out. Six-day races so tested cyclists’ physical and psychological stamina that New Jersey and other states attempted to intervene on humanitarian grounds to ban any cyclist from racing more than twelve hours per day (in New Jersey, the law did not pass).  

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the popularity of professional cycling declined significantly. Interest in track and road racing waned during the Great Depression, and baseball emerged as the “national pastime.” The opportunity for achieving hitherto unheard-of speeds–which the bicycle gave athletes in the 1890s–shifted to the automobile. In the Philadelphia area, as in the rest of the country, cycling became a specialized sport enjoyed by a narrower audience, and the bicycle became primarily associated with recreation and transportation.

[caption id="attachment_25751" align="alignright" width="300"]Cyclists Riding During the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. Before crossing the finish line on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the pro cyclists competing in the Philadelphia International Cycling Classic  complete a grueling course that includes 10 laps up the infamous Manayunk Wall. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Public interest in cycling resurged following stunning American victories in the 1984 Olympics and the winning of the 1986 Tour de France by California native Greg LeMond (b. 1961), the first non-European to don the coveted yellow jersey. Philadelphia became the site for the CoreStates USPRO Championship, which began in 1985 and developed into one of the most prestigious single-day races in the Western Hemisphere. Conceived as a national professional road race, at 153 miles it was the longest single-day race in the United States. Continuing annually and winding through several neighborhoods, including Roxborough, East Falls, and Lemon Hill, the race made famous the “Manayunk Wall,” where thousands of spectators lined Lyceum Avenue to watch cyclists ascend the 285-foot climb with a 17 percent grade at its steepest segment. Within a decade, the popularity of the race inspired other professional road races in several states. By 1992, the event was a part of the Triple Crown series that included the CoreStates USPRO, the Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh, and the Kmart Classic in West Virginia. In 2013, the rebranded Philadelphia International Cycling Classic was shortened to 110.7 miles. Amateur and professional female cyclists from around the world also traveled to Philadelphia from 1994 to 2012 for the Liberty Classic, held simultaneously with the men’s race. The event became part of the Union Cycliste Internationale’s Women’s World Tour in 2015 and continued to draw the sport’s premier professional female cyclists.

Philadelphia also became a center for cyclocross in 2013, when the city hosted the Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships in Fairmount Park. Originally developed as a way for road racers to train during the fall and winter, cyclocross incorporates paved and off-road surfaces and obstacles that require cyclists to dismount and carry their bicycles. With the presence of heckling spectators, varied terrain, and other impediments, cyclocross resembled the conditions of the earliest bicycle racing. Series of races have been sponsored across the region by PACX (Pennsylvania Cyclocross) and MAC (Mid-Atlantic Cycling).

Interest in velodromes also resurfaced in 2015, when the advocacy group Project 250 proposed a $100 million Olympic-sized, 6,000-seat velodrome for South Philadelphia’s FDR Park as part of the organization’s plan for new sustainable, mixed-use facilities. Philadelphia’s Commission on Parks and Recreation rejected the proposal, saying that it did not meet the standards of the city’s Open Land Protection Ordinance. In 2016, more than two dozen velodromes actively hosted races in the United States, including the Lehigh Valley’s Preferred Cycling Center in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, and the Garden State Velodrome in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

Nearly two hundred years after Charles Willson Peale’s children raced on one of the few velocipedes in North America, the Philadelphia area’s captivation with cycling continued. Through the International Cycling Classic and Singlespeed Cyclocross World Championships, Philadelphia and the surrounding environs remained a hub of the sport’s amateur and professional athletes in the twenty-first century.

Vincent Fraley is communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and writes the Philadelphia Inquirer’s weekly history column, Memory Stream.

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